How Redistricting Affects Voting Rights

Redistricting is a crucial process that helps states determine new legislative and congressional district boundaries after each decennial census. It also reflects population changes and racial diversity.

When conducted lawfully and equitably, redistricting is essential for representing people’s interests fairly. But when it is used to manipulate electoral outcomes or discriminate against certain groups, redistricting becomes unlawful, and we call it gerrymandering.

What is Redistricting?

Redistricting is how new congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn. Counties, cities, school districts, and many other government entities must occasionally redraw these boundaries to account for population changes.

States must redraw their district lines every ten years to match the new census block-by-block population numbers. Usually, the maps are approved by a court to ensure that they satisfy legal requirements and comply with the Voting Rights Act or other state laws.

This process can be a tough one to navigate, especially for minorities. Gerrymandering, manipulating district lines to favor a political party or candidate, can subvert the democratic process and limit voter choice.

Gerrymandering can take several forms, from the gerrymandering of whole districts to dividing existing districts in ways that favor one party over another. Often, the partisan gerrymandering of districts occurs at the state level, where the legislature is responsible for drawing the lines. 

Other types of gerrymandering can occur at the federal level. Generally, Congress must adopt redistricting standards that meet specific criteria, such as compactness or the presence of communities of interest. Moreover, a civil rights group like opposes racial gerrymandering as one of its causes.

In addition to these mandatory standards, states can adopt their redistricting principles. These may be found in a state’s constitution or statutes or adopted by a legislative body, chamber, or committee. A state’s courts can also be called upon to draw a plan when the legislature fails to do so.

How is Redistricting Determined?

In the United States, it is the constitutional and legal obligation of each state to redraw its boundaries after every decennial census to reflect changes in population shifts and racial diversity. But redistricting is a highly politicized, often contested, and easily misunderstood process that can have significant implications for voting rights.

When done correctly, redistricting can ensure fair and equitable representation of voters. But if the process is used to manipulate electoral outcomes or discriminate against specific groups, we call it gerrymandering.

States often rely on independent panels and other measures to ensure the maps they draw are fair. These criteria include geographic continuity, competitiveness, minority representation, and partisan “fairness”- districts that reflect statewide vote trends rather than providing one political party an undeserved edge.

Many states have established new systems to force bipartisan agreement, and a growing number have moved power away from legislators and towards commissions. Lawmakers appoint some of these commissions but have yet to have the final say on the maps they draft.

Some of these commissions are genuinely independent, but some comprise equal numbers of partisan members. Those that are not genuinely independent may have some nonpartisan chairs, but that does not guarantee their independence from the legislature.

How Can Redistrict Affect Voting Rights?

Redistricting can play a critical role in how voters and communities of color can participate in elections. It is a complex process that is often misunderstood but tremendously impacts people’s lives.

Every ten years after the census, states, and counties redraw their congressional and state legislative districts to reflect population changes. It gives voters in a district with a large population more political power than in a sparsely populated district.

Historically, many states have been forced to get approval from the federal government before they can make any changes to their voting laws or draw new maps. That protection, called “preclearance,” has now been weakened, and states have more freedom to draw maps.

In addition, numerous state-level criteria may influence how a state draws its congressional and state legislative districts. For example, some states require that the legislatures in each congressional district have equal representation and that each congressional district be sized to ensure that no single political party controls more than half of the seats.

Another important consideration is whether a redistricting plan meets the test for compliance with the Voting Rights Act. It involves the Gingles test, which asks judges to consider the political polarization of racial populations in the districts that would be drawn. It is an essential tool in preventing racial discrimination in elections, but it has been repeatedly whittled away by conservative justices.

How Does Redistricting Affect Voting Rights?

The redistricting process can have a severe impact on voting rights. It can disadvantage voters based on race or ethnicity, help or hurt a political party, or protect incumbents.

The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination in all election-related practices and procedures, including redrawing district lines. The Justice Department has a Civil Rights Division that enforces these provisions. States can also file lawsuits to challenge a particular redistricting plan.

Some states have adopted new systems for drawing maps to force bipartisan consensus and improve the redistricting process. These include using commissions. 

Partisan gerrymandering, in which a party draws districts to disadvantage voters, is a significant problem. For example, a party might want to gain an advantage over a rival by “cracking” the blue vote. It means packing a Blue-voting district with many minority voters into a smaller, majority-republican district.

It can make it hard for those voters to influence their representative or choose the best candidate. In addition, partisan gerrymandering is sometimes illegal, as it can violate the Voting Rights Act. 


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