Fighting Gerrymandering in the States

The process by which district lines are drawn dramatically impacts the fairness of our political process. In 35 states, the state legislature controls how district lines are drawn in a process known as redistricting, which occurs once every decade following the census. A decade ago, GOP strategists laid out a plan called REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) to take back power through state legislatures after the 2010 Census and use that power to “gerrymander” district lines to favor Republicans. At the same time, Democrats in states like Maryland and Illinois were gerrymandering district lines to favor Democrats. Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating electoral district boundaries in favor of a political party or incumbent.

Historically, gerrymandering has been used both as a racist weapon to undermine the political power of minority communities and a political weapon to ensure partisan advantage. And often, gerrymandering does both: parties use racial data in a cynical way and have drawn maps at the expense of minority voters in both racial and partisan contexts. Although the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 have provided communities of color with some protections against racial gerrymandering, states continue to use district lines to suppress the political power of minority voters. Just last year, 11 state legislative districts in Virginia were struck down by the courts as a racial gerrymander. While both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, most of the gerrymandered districts in the country have been drafted by Republicans.

By drawing districts in their favor, the GOP has been able to consistently win and hold power at both the national and state level. A few examples: in Ohio in 2012, Republicans gained a 60-39 supermajority in the state house despite Democrats receiving more votes than GOP candidates. Since district lines last for a decade, this pattern continues to be true today. In the 2018 election, Ohio Republicans held on to their supermajorities in the state legislature despite earning a bare majority of votes. This also carries national consequences. In 2012, the GOP retained the majority in the House of Representatives despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes nationwide.

Gerrymandering fundamentally undermines a fair and representative democracy. That’s why House Democrats in Congress have introduced H.R. 1, which would require all states to implement policies that would protect voting rights for communities of color, increase transparency and public participation in our elections, and implement independent redistricting commissions. Without control of the Senate and White House to ensure the passage of H.R. 1 before the next census, we must continue our fight for fair redistricting in the states as well.

To fight against gerrymandering in your state, you should use this document to:

  1. Learn how redistricting works

  2. Learn what the redistricting laws are in your state

  3. Learn about the policies that make redistricting more fair

  4. Work with democracy advocates to push for reform in your state

How does redistricting work?

Every decade, states undertake the process of redrawing their district lines for federal and state representatives. The process varies by state, but there are certain requirements and factors that are considered when lines are drawn.

When are district lines drawn?

During every year that ends in a zero, the Census Bureau conducts the decennial census to count the country’s population. After the census, reapportionment occurs to decide how many Congressional seats each state receives, based on the most recent census count and compliance with one-person, one-vote. At the end of that year, the Census Bureau sends the data it has collected to states, which then usually conduct their redistricting process during the following year to draw district lines and determine which voters will vote in which district. The next Census will be conducted in 2020, and the next round of redistricting is coming in 2021.

Who draws the lines?

The decision maker (or makers) responsible for drawing district lines varies from state to state.

  • State legislatures: Legislatures draw congressional district lines in 31 states, and state legislature lines in 30. These maps often follow the same legislative process as any other bill in the legislature, meaning they must pass the legislature and, in most states, can be vetoed or signed by the governor.

  • Independent commissions: In 4 states (AZ, CA, CO, MI), independent commissions, comprised of people who are not lawmakers or public officials, draw the lines.

  • Political commissions: In some states, maps are drawn by a political appointee commission whose members are selected by lawmakers or party leadership. In Arkansas, maps are drawn by a commission made up of legislators themselves.

  • Backup commissions: Some states have a backup commission that draws the lines if the legislature is deadlocked.

  • Advisory commissions: In some states, an advisory commission drafts the maps, which are then voted on by the state legislature.

How are lines drawn?

Federal law mandates certain requirements for district lines.

  • Equal population: Voting districts must contain equal populations, as mandated in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, as people move around, states must update our district maps to ensure equal representation. Note that equal representation does not mean fair representation.

  • Single-member congressional districts: Each congressional district will be represented by a single member.

  • Voting Rights Act compliance: In order to combat state-sponsored racial intimidation and disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed states’ attempts to deny or dilute minority communities’ right to vote. Section 2 prohibits any practices that interfere with minority voters’ ability “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

Beyond federal mandates, states often take into account several other factors when drawing district lines. These factors serve as a rulebook for mapdrawers, who can then be held accountable in court. The criteria vary in strength and effectiveness, so we have listed them below in order of effectiveness. Here a few examples of common criteria adopted by states:

  • Contiguity: District should be a single, unbroken shape.

  • Racial fairness: Maps should not intend to or have the effect of diluting the power of minority voters or their ability to elect candidates of their choice.

  • Preserve communities of interest: Districts should keep communities together that share similar historical, cultural, or economic interests. A community of interest should not be defined by political affiliation.

  • No advantages to political parties or candidates: Maps must not give partisan advantage to one party over another, or to specific candidates or incumbents.

  • Political/geographic boundaries: Districts should try not to split existing city, town, or county boundaries.

  • Compactness: Ideally, a district is relatively compact instead of sprawling across a state in order to include or exclude specific voters

Politicians often employ several unethical strategies when attempting a partisan gerrymander.

  • Cracking is the process of dividing up voters by party affiliation or race into separate districts in an attempt to reduce their political power.

  • Packing is the process of jamming as many voters of a similar party or race into as few legislative districts as possible. That party will win in the “packed” districts, but nowhere else.

  • Incumbent protection is when line drawers use any of the aforementioned methods to create districts that favor incumbent politicians over challengers.

What are the redistricting laws in your state?

Find out who controls redistricting in your state using these resources from our partners:

How can we make redistricting more fair?

With 2021 just around the corner, it’s important that we do everything in our power to ensure a fair redistricting process because we will be stuck with the next round of maps for a decade. If we allow state legislatures to gerrymander the maps like they did in 2010, it will lock voters into another decade of unfair and unresponsive representation. So what can we do in our own states?

  1. Elect state legislators that support redistricting reform: In the majority of states, state legislators control redistricting. That means that the party that controls the legislature controls redistricting. Democrats control the legislature in only 8 of these states, while Republicans control the legislature in 18 of them. Increasing fairness in 2021 redistricting means helping to elect state representatives that support reform efforts.

  2. Advocate for redistricting reform: Allowing politicians to draw district maps without clear guidelines is a blatant conflict of interest. It allows politicians to choose their voters, instead of letting voters choose their politicians. Imposing clear rules to guide mapdrawers is the best way to ensure a fair redistricting process. However, it is relatively rare for a legislature to pass a law to shift power away from themselves and into the hands of an independent commission, and not much time is left to approve and assemble commissions. In November 2018, two states (MI and CO) voted to implement independent commissions at the ballot via citizen-led ballot initiatives.

  3. Demand public transparency and accountability in the redistricting process: If we can’t take redistricting power away from politicians, we can advocate for measures that will allow the public to have visibility into the redistricting process and hold mapdrawers accountable to public feedback. For example, state legislatures could pass laws that require redistricting committee meetings to have advanced notice and open to the public, hold hearings specifically for public input, provide maps to available for public comment/input, provide public access to census data and allow the public to submit candidate maps, and require maps to be evaluated against impartial criteria.

  4. Request that your state fund census count efforts: Trump and the Republicans in Congress have been underfunding the census, which could lead to a massive undercount—especially of traditionally “hard-to-count” populations (young children, people of color, immigrants, rural residents, and low-income households). States could allocate additional funding in their state budgets to support census outreach to facilitate a more accurate count. For example, California included $100 million in its 2018 budget for census outreach.

How can you advocate for fair redistricting in your state?

  1. Read Indivisible States. Our new Indivisible States Guide outlines how to be an effective advocate in your home state.
  2. Connect with partner organizations. At all levels of advocacy (federal, state, and local), it is critical that you work in collaboration with value-aligned partner organizations to be a respectful part of the movement and maximize your collective power. Here are a few partners that you may be interested in connecting with to advocate for fair redistricting in your state:
  3. Check out our other resources to learn more about how to build local partnerships and how to ensure that those partnerships are inclusive.