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January 01, 2012

Demystifying Redistricting Through Community Engagement

by Donita Judge

In states throughout the country, citizens are demanding more accountability in redistricting and citizen redistricting commissions are replacing state legislatures in drawing congressional and state districts. Local community members are also demanding a more open and transparent redistricting process and are drawing and submitting maps to their redistricting bodies for consideration.

Community engagement in the redistricting process is rapidly becoming the trend in communities throughout the country. This movement has been growing since the 1990s when community organizers and community residents in Mississippi engaged in the redistricting process saw a significant increase in the numbers of African Americans elected to state, county, and city offices. This success led to more redistricting training throughout the South in communities of color and increased minority representation. Enhanced technology and accessible data provide even greater opportunities for meaningful participation among community members in the current redistricting cycle.

The decennial census and congressional redistricting are interconnected and required by the U.S. Constitution. The data collected during the decennial census are used in redistricting. Redistricting affects every political office from the House of Representatives to state legislatures, county commissions, city councils, and school boards. Because the census requires the counting of all persons residing in the United States, districts will contain citizens and noncitizens, voters and nonvoters. When drawing districts, most jurisdictions use the total population rather than the smaller citizen population to prevent giving preference to one class of persons over another class, which may be unconstitutional—it also guarantees equal voting weight among voters. The use of voting-age population data is an important consideration to prevent diluting the minority vote while ensuring that redrawn districts do not minimize the voting strength of minority voters.

The terms “redistricting” and “reapportionment” are often used interchangeably in redistricting, but they are not one and the same. Reapportionment is the process used to determine how many of the 435 congressional seats should be apportioned to each state, depending on the state’s population. Once seats are apportioned, traditional redistricting principles are used to guide the process:

“One person one vote” is one of the most basic redistricting principles. This guarantees that each vote has equal power and does not violate equal protection under the law. In practice, this means that each district drawn must be nearly equal with the same number of voters.

• The Voting Rights Act of 1965, sections 2 and 5 provide critical protections for minority groups during the redistricting process. Section 2 prevents diluting the minority vote during redistricting and applies to all states. Section 5 provides minority voters with an important protection to prevent covered jurisdictions from adopting election systems that have a discriminatory effect or make minority voters worse off. Covered jurisdictions are required to submit any election systems changes to the Department of Justice or to the District Court of the District of Columbia for preclearance before implementing the change to guarantee that the change does not have a discriminatory purpose and/or is not retrogressive.

Contiguity requires that boundaries be connected unless the districts are separated by water.

Protecting existing boundaries and geographical features prevents splitting counties, voting precincts, and other geographical boundaries.

Compactness can be measured in different ways and has garnered a good deal of research and debate among scholars, especially when measuring districts where the minority population is widely dispersed or districts where boundaries are distorted.

Respecting communities of interest allows a group of people with a common or shared interest to be grouped together in a district.

Protecting incumbents is not required under federal law when drawing districts. Some states such as Florida expressly prohibit the favoring or disfavoring of political parties and/or incumbents when redistricting, and protecting incumbents may not always be in the best interest of minority voters.

In most instances, it is still too early to determine whether community engagement in this redistricting cycle will yield the substantial benefits achieved in the 1990s by the Mississippi community. The ultimate measure of success is whether communities will realize more opportunities to elect representatives of their choice. At a minimum, redistricting, a process of redrawing boundaries throughout the country once shrouded in mystery and completed behind closed doors, is becoming demystified through increased community participation.

Donita Judge is a staff attorney and  director of the Advancement Project’s Redistricting for an Inclusive Democracy Project. She spent the 2011 redistricting cycle training local communities on legal redistricting principles and provided assistance on redrawing boundaries and submitting plans to redistricting bodies.


Donita Judge