Local Government and Elections A Closer Look: Redistricting and the science of drawing legislative maps

A Closer Look: Redistricting and the science of drawing legislative maps

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What is redistricting? Why is it important?

Redistricting is the way in which we adjust the districts that determine who represents us in the state legislature. These legislative districts divide the state – and the people who live there – into geographical territories. As the state’s population grew it did not grow equally, and some towns and counties grew much larger than others, so redistricting has become a necessary function of government.

What are the rules of redistricting?

Federal rules:

Up until the 1960’s, it was not uncommon for the states to abuse, or even ignore, redistricting laws. In some cases, redistricting was a tool used to implement disparities in political representation. In a series of cases starting in the mid-1960s, the Supreme Court decided that this sort of population disparity violated the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court changed the rules of the game; it required roughly equal population for each legislative district. This meant that district boundaries would have to be periodically readjusted, to account for new population information. So now, after the Census is conducted at the start of a new decade, district boundaries have to be redrawn. The redistricting process is born out of the census every ten years. But how is it done?

Various rules and constraints limit where district lines may or may not be drawn. There are two main federal rules that must be followed when drawing legislative districts after the Census.

  1. First is the Equal Population rule. The U.S. Constitution requires that each district must have about the same population. That means that each federal congressional district within a state must have about the same number of people, each state legislative district within a state must have about the same number of people, and each local district within its jurisdiction must have about the same number of people.
  2. The second federal rule concerns race and ethnicity in an attempt to prevent drawing districts in a manner that dilutes racial and ethnic minorities’ voice at the polls. One tactic is called “cracking”, or splintering minority populations into small pieces across several districts, so that a big group ends up with a very little chance to impact any single election. Another tactic is called “packing”, or pushing as many minority voters as possible into a few super-concentrated districts, and draining the population’s voting power from anywhere else.
State rules:

Every state has different rules and procedures that are considered when drawing legislative districts. In Indiana, only the first rule is considered when drawing our districts.

  1. Contiguity: This rule states that the legislative districts must be contiguous. In other words, the entire district must be sharing a common border and adjoining.
  2. Political boundaries: This rule is a requirement to follow political boundaries, like county, city, town, or ward lines, when drawing districts.
  3. Compactness: This rule means drawing a district in which people generally live near each other is usually more compact than one in which they do not. Most observers look to measures of a district’s geometric shape. This is so that the residents most likely have some sort of cultural cohesion in common.
  4. Communities of interest: A “community of interest” is just a group of people with a common interest (usually, a common interest that legislation might benefit). Along the same lines as compactness, preserving “communities of interest” is the next most common criterion reflected in state law.
  5. Political outcomes/Competitiveness: A number of states have a rule in place that ensures that districts are not being redrawn to favor a particular incumbent candidate or political party.

What is gerrymandering?

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry.

In the colonial era, many districts were defined by the borders of towns or counties, or groups of towns and counties. The legislature was formed by assigning a certain number of representatives to each of these districts based on population. The infamous Massachusetts gerrymander of 1812 was really just a particular configuration of Massachusetts towns and counties.

In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Hence, the term “Gerrymander” was coined.

In layman’s terms, gerrymandering is drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party.

gerrymandering

It can be confusing and difficult to prove, especially with the rules previously mentioned, but it is the most common term utilized when arguing for more independent redistricting processes.

What is “independent” redistricting?

In short, independent redistricting is when somebody other than the legislature draws the legislative districts. Some states have established independent redistricting commissions to ensure that elections remain competitive and to ensure that voters are choosing their politicians rather than politicians choosing their voters.

In Indiana, the state constitution requires that lawmakers must approve the legislative districts during the legislative session following the census. Therefore, if Indiana were to propose an independent redistricting commission, there would need to be a number of changes to state law to allow for such a process.

The Special Interim Study Committee on Redistricting:

In 2015, lawmakers approved a bill that: “established the Special Interim Study Committee on Redistricting to evaluate the benefits of and the issues that would need to be addressed if a change in the method for establishing districts for the election of members of the General Assembly and members of Congress from Indiana were made, including establishment of a redistricting commission.”

Since the establishment of the committee a year and a half ago, the committee has met only twice. While some expert and public testimony has been heard in the two meetings of the committee, much more will have to be done in order for there to be substantive changes made to the redistricting process.

Does Indiana need to consider new ways of redistricting?

Let’s take a quick look at the changes made to the Senate district maps over the course of the last three redistricting processes:

output_MhCWAi

When looking closely at the Indiana Senate district maps over the years, it becomes readily apparent that lawmakers could make a number of improvements to the redistricting process to make it more fair.

For example, while the state abides by both federal rules mentioned above, there are no state laws that require lawmakers to abide by the state rules that many other states have implemented. In other words, Indiana does not have laws in place that require legislative districts to be compact, respect political boundaries and communities of interest, or to ensure competitive elections. Too often districts cut entire townships, or even counties, in half splitting up representation. Districts are not compact and can sprawl over multiple counties, further separating communities of interest.

While the redistricting process is complicated and these rules are difficult to implement, an independent redistricting committee is a good first step in removing politics from the process.

Click here to track the work of the Special Interim Study Committee>>