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Fighting Gerrymandering in the States

The process by which congressional 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. 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: political 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, voting protections in the Fifteenth 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. And now that multiple provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been gutted by the Supreme Court, it is much more difficult for affected voters to challenge suppressive voting bills or unfair maps. 

Gerrymandering happens at both the state and national level, and allows political parties to consistently win and hold power. 

Gerrymandering fundamentally undermines a fair and representative democracy. That’s why on the federal level we support S.1/H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which would ban partisan gerrymandering, 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 responsible for drawing fair maps. That being said there’s more than one way to fight for redistricting reform -- 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 about the policies that make redistricting more fair
  3. Work with advocates to push for democracy 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 congressional 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 most recent census was conducted in 2020, and the next round of redistricting will start later this year. .

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 district lines in 30 states. 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 redistricting commissions: In other states, 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 their 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.” (However, given the June 2021 Supreme Court decision in Brnovich v. DNC that significantly undermined Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, it is currently unclear how successful future challenges to gerrymandered maps will be.) 

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, policy, or economic interests or whose shared concerns would be affected by legislation. A community of interest should not be defined by political affiliation. A community of interest can include, for example, neighbors who have been advocating to increase public transit routes, residents who organized to prevent Amazon from moving into their city, or families with a shared interest to increase language access in public schools. Communities of interest can often share racial or ethnic backgrounds, but that cannot always be the sole identifier of that community.
  • 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

However, 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.

A brief history of the word “gerrymander” 

The word “gerrymander” originates from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed a redistricting map in 1812 in an attempt to ensure his party’s control of the state senate. A newspaper artist drew the head of a salamander onto the most egregious district and the practice of unfairly drawing district lines was dubbed “gerrymandering.”

How can we make redistricting more fair?

The redistricting process is already underway. 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. Educate state legislators on the importance of  fair redistricting: In the majority of states, state legislators control redistricting. That means that the party that controls the legislature controls redistricting. Talk to your state legislators on the importance of redistricting reform and fair maps. 
  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 map-drawers 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 future census count efforts: In 2020, the Trump administration decreased funding for the census, which led 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 in the future. For example, California included $100 million in its 2018 budget for census outreach.

How can you affect the redistricting process in your state?

1. Figure Out the Laws in your State.

Each state has their own individual process and timeline for determining redistricting. Find out who controls redistricting in your state using these resources from our partners:

2. Find a Public Hearing.

In most states, a public hearing is the best way for residents to have their voices heard in the redistricting process. Public hearings allow stakeholders to explain why certain communities should be kept intact, where boundaries should be drawn, and other pertinent information for map-drawing. Information for hearings should be posted on your state government’s website, but you may have to do a little digging depending on how accessible institutions want the information to be. 

3. Organize your Community.

In 24 states, the redistricting process expressly prioritizes keeping communities of interest in a single district. If that applies, you can testify at public hearings about why your community should be kept intact during the redistricting process. Communities of interest can argue their case using personal testimonies, written descriptions, boundary maps, and more. Even if your state doesn’t prioritize communities of interest, it’s still important to organize people to testify at hearings about keeping your community together. For more detailed information on affecting the redistricting process, check out these partner resources.

4. 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: