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What’s the Deal With Redistricting?

Every 10 years, voting districts around the country are redrawn, often to give one political party an advantage. Here’s why that matters to you.

Ohio is so often a key battleground in presidential elections that many politicians have dubbed it “the swingiest of swing states.” That’s because the state’s population is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and candidates from both parties have a history of winning statewide contests—often in close races.

But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the balance of power in Ohio’s state legislature or in the state’s congressional delegation. For the past decade, Ohio has sent 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats to Washington to serve in the House of Representatives. In the Ohio legislature, Republicans hold about two-thirds of the seats in the House and about three-quarters in the Senate.

How is that possible? In a word, redistricting, which is the process of redrawing election district maps. There’s a long history in the U.S. of politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—drawing maps that aren’t fair in order to give themselves an advantage.

Ohio is often a key battleground in presidential elections. That’s why many politicians have dubbed it “the swingiest of swing states.” What’s behind that? Ohio’s population is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Candidates from both parties have a history of winning statewide contests. And the races are often close.

But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the balance of power in Ohio’s state legislature or in the state’s congressional delegation. For the past decade, Ohio has sent 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats to Washington to serve in the House of Representatives. In the Ohio legislature, Republicans hold about two-thirds of the seats in the House and about three-quarters in the Senate.

How is that possible? In a word, redistricting, which is the process of redrawing election district maps. There’s a long history in the U.S. of politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—drawing maps that aren’t fair. They do so to give themselves an advantage.

Lawmakers of both parties have tried giving themselves an unfair advantage.

In 2011, Republican lawmakers in Ohio controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office, so when they sat down to draw new voting district maps, they created as many districts as possible with a majority of Republican-leaning voters that enabled Republicans to win reliably.

Now, Ohio lawmakers are about to draw new maps for the next decade. And the stakes are high because Ohio is one of seven states losing a seat in Congress (see map, below).

“In the election that we had in 2020, we determined who has power [in Congress] for the next two years,” says Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “But in redrawing the maps this fall, that will determine who holds political power for the rest of the decade. And it’s important to ensure that the maps are fair.”

In 2011, Republican lawmakers in Ohio controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office. When they sat down to draw new voting district maps, they created as many districts as possible with a majority of Republican-leaning voters. This has enabled Republicans to win reliably.

Now, Ohio lawmakers are about to draw new maps for the next decade. And the stakes are high because Ohio is one of seven states losing a seat in Congress (see map, below).

“In the election that we had in 2020, we determined who has power [in Congress] for the next two years,” says Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “But in redrawing the maps this fall, that will determine who holds political power for the rest of the decade. And it’s important to ensure that the maps are fair.”

Making Each Vote Count Equally

After every census, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are reapportioned based on the results. States that gain population get additional members in the House, while those with declining populations lose seats. The same principle applies to state legislatures, whose seats are also reapportioned—and voting districts redrawn—based on population shifts within the states.

The concept behind redistricting is that courts have said each district must have approximately the same number of people in it so that each person’s vote in a given state counts the same.

After every census, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives get re-allocated based on the results. States that gain population get additional members in the House. Those with declining populations lose seats. The same principle applies to state legislatures. Their seats are also redistributed based on population shifts within the states. Then voting districts get redrawn based on these changes.

The concept behind redistricting is that courts have said each district must have around the same number of people in it so that each person’s vote in a given state counts the same.

Redistricting will determine who holds power for the next decade.

It may sound dull, but the consequences are huge. In most states, the people responsible for redrawing the maps are the very politicians who will benefit from those decisions.

The practice of lawmakers drawing the lines to give themselves a leg up—known as gerrymandering—goes back to the early 19th century. The difference now is that incredibly powerful computer technology makes it much easier to draw many different maps and choose the most advantageous one. And the massive quantity of digital data about voters enables mapmakers to know with pinpoint precision which households are likely to support which party.

It may sound dull, but the effects are huge. In most states, the people responsible for redrawing the maps are the very politicians who will benefit from those decisions.

Lawmakers drawing the lines to give themselves a leg up is known as gerrymandering. The practice goes back to the early 19th century. But now incredibly powerful computer technology has changed things. Computers make it much easier to draw many different maps and choose the most beneficial one. And the massive quantity of digital data about voters enables mapmakers to know with pinpoint precision which households are likely to support which party.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Protesters in Washington, D.C., demand fair election districts in 2019.

‘Not What the Framers Wanted’

The practice often results in absurdly shaped districts (see “Crazy Districts!” below) that lump totally different parts of a state together for political advantage.

“The worst manipulations can make a party with a minority of votes win a large majority of seats so that it stays in power and it gets to set policies that go against the will of the majority of citizens,” explains Jon Eguia, an economics professor who studies redistricting at Michigan State University.

Experts say gerrymandering has greatly reduced the number of competitive elections and led to more partisan candidates being elected on both sides of the political spectrum. When districts are designed to favor a particular party, candidates from that party no longer have an incentive to appeal to moderate voters, so more extreme partisans tend to get elected.

That has ripple effects. Fewer centrists means lawmakers are less inclined to compromise and that’s contributed to the gridlock that now dominates in Washington. What’s more, it’s created a situation in which lawmakers don’t reflect the political makeup of the population.

The practice often results in strangely shaped districts (see “Crazy Districts!” below). These maps lump totally different parts of a state together for political advantage.

“The worst manipulations can make a party with a minority of votes win a large majority of seats so that it stays in power and it gets to set policies that go against the will of the majority of citizens,” explains Jon Eguia, an economics professor who studies redistricting at Michigan State University.

Experts say gerrymandering has greatly reduced the number of competitive elections. They also say that it’s led to more partisan candidates being elected on both sides of the political spectrum. When districts are designed to favor a particular party, candidates from that party no longer have a reason to appeal to moderate voters. In turn, more extreme partisans tend to get elected.

That has ripple effects. Fewer centrists means lawmakers are less inclined to compromise. That’s contributed to the gridlock that now dominates in Washington. What’s more, it’s created a situation in which lawmakers don’t reflect the political makeup of the population.

More states have moved to less partisan redistricting systems.

“It’s easy to draw maps that essentially rig the results one way or the other,” says Li. “What that means is that Congress doesn’t look like America; it’s not representative. And that’s not what the Framers wanted; they thought the House of Representatives should reflect the people.”

This year, the pandemic caused delays in finishing the 2020 Census,
so states got the final numbers on who lives where months later than usual. That means redrawing the maps is also happening later, and there will be less time to challenge maps in court.

“In many states, maps that come out of the legislature are not the final maps because they’re discriminatory in one way or another, and courts strike them down,” Li says.

Despite this year’s challenges, observers do see some reasons to be hopeful. In the past decade, at least six states have changed their rules to make redistricting less partisan and more fair. Common Cause, a nonpartisan voting advocacy group, says there are now 19 states with some kind of formal checks and balances on the redistricting process. And many citizen activists, including young people (see sidebar: “Ending Gerrymandering”) continue to press for reforms.

“It’s easy to draw maps that essentially rig the results one way or the other,” says Li. “What that means is that Congress doesn’t look like America; it’s not representative. And that’s not what the Framers wanted; they thought the House of Representatives should reflect the people.”

This year, the pandemic caused delays in finishing the 2020 Census. As a result, states got the final numbers on who lives where months later than usual. That means redrawing the maps is also happening later. And so there will be less time to challenge maps in court.

“In many states, maps that come out of the legislature are not the final maps because they’re discriminatory in one way or another, and courts strike them down,” Li says.

Despite this year’s challenges, observers do see some reasons to be hopeful. In the past decade, at least six states have changed their rules to make redistricting fairer. Common Cause, a nonpartisan voting advocacy group, says there are now 19 states with some kind of formal checks and balances on the redistricting process. And many citizen activists, including young people (see sidebar: “Ending Gerrymandering”), continue to press for reforms.

‘Cautiously Hopeful’

In Ohio, partisanship dominated the redistricting process in 2011, but that’s much less likely this time around. After citizens’ groups organized a ballot initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians, Ohio lawmakers agreed in 2014 to a series of reforms: Now Ohio’s districts will be drawn by a group of both Republican and Democratic politicians, and they’ll have to follow a set of rules that focus on keeping communities intact.

“I’m cautiously hopeful,” says Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, of the new process. “It will now be up to the people of Ohio to demand that the mapmakers follow the spirit of those reforms.”

In Ohio, partisanship dominated the redistricting process in 2011. That’s much less likely this time around. After 2011, citizens’ groups organized a ballot initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. That prompted Ohio lawmakers to agree in 2014 to a series of reforms. Now Ohio’s districts will be drawn by a group of both Republican and Democratic politicians. And they’ll have to follow a set of rules that focus on keeping communities intact.

“I’m cautiously hopeful,” says Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, of the new process. “It will now be up to the people of Ohio to demand that the mapmakers follow the spirit of those reforms.”

Jim McMahon (map); rogistok/Shutterstock.com (background)

2021 Winners & Losers

After every census, congressional seats are reapportioned based on the new population numbers. Then it’s up to each state to draw new voting districts that are used to elect members of Congress and state legislatures. This map shows which states will gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2020 Census and which will lose them, along with new electoral vote counts for each state.  

CALIFORNIA

Since it became a state in 1850, this is the first time California has had slow enough growth to surrender a congressional seat and an electoral vote.

Since it became a state in 1850, this is the first time California has had slow enough growth to surrender a congressional seat and an electoral vote.

NORTHEAST

The two traditional powerhouses in this part of the country—New York and Pennsylvania—have had sluggish population growth, and have given up congressional seats and electoral college votes.

The two traditional powerhouses in this part of the country—New York and Pennsylvania—have had sluggish population growth, and have given up congressional seats and electoral college votes.

TEXAS

With two new congressional seats, the Lone Star State is the big winner in 2021 reapportionment. With 40 electoral college votes, Texas will now have even more influence in presidential elections, just as the state’s population is becoming more diverse and the state edges toward swing state status.

With two new congressional seats, the Lone Star State is the big winner in 2021 reapportionment. With 40 electoral college votes, Texas will now have even more influence in presidential elections, just as the state’s population is becoming more diverse and the state edges toward swing state status.

Crazy Districts!

Both Democrats and Republicans gerrymander districts for political benefit. Here are two examples from the 2011 redistricting.

Jim McMahon

MARYLAND 3rd District

Democrats drew this district that includes rural areas, parts of Baltimore, and the D.C. suburbs to stay reliably Democratic.

Democrats drew this district that includes rural areas, parts of Baltimore, and the D.C. suburbs to stay reliably Democratic.

Jim McMahon

OHIO 9th District

Republicans created this district dubbed “Snake on the Lake” to pack as many Democrats as possible into one district in order to create more safe Republican districts around it. It stretches more than 100 miles from Toledo to Cleveland and is split by Lake Erie.

Republicans created this district dubbed “Snake on the Lake” to pack as many Democrats as possible into one district in order to create more safe Republican districts around it. It stretches more than 100 miles from Toledo to Cleveland and is split by Lake Erie.

59

NUMBER of competitive congressional districts in the U.S. in 2020 out of a total of 435. That means, experts say, that in nearly 87 percent of districts, a Democrat or Republican can expect to win fairly easily.

SOURCE: Cook Political Report

NUMBER of competitive congressional districts in the U.S. in 2020 out of a total of 435. That means, experts say, that in nearly 87 percent of districts, a Democrat or Republican can expect to win fairly easily.

SOURCE: Cook Political Report

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