After each decennial census, states get to the work of redistricting. With some changes in technology and laws regarding how districts are drawn (like the Voting Rights Act, various Supreme Court cases and the 1967 Single-Member District Mandate), Americans have drawn congressional districts in a very similar fashion since the 18th century. But the way Americans draw maps isn’t the only way to redistrict. In today’s piece, we’ll go over different methods of redistricting and the impact they can have on fair maps.
Why do we redistrict at all?
Some may question why we redistrict at all, that is, why do we have to draw uniquely shaped districts across the country? Why not just lay a grid over a state and let each sector be a district? The short answer is that populations are not evenly spread across land and states are not perfect shapes for grids. The United States has both dense population centers where millions of people are packed into a metro area, as well as rural areas where small towns of a few thousand can take up the same space.
Take, for example, Fort Worth and Dallas, two cities next to each other in north Texas. Both cities are roughly 340 square miles. But Fort Worth has a population of just about 900,000 residents, and Dallas has over 1.3 million residents living on the same amount of land. If both cities had just one representative, a vote in Fort Worth would count more than a vote in Dallas. Alternatively, take Chesapeake, Virginia — it has the same 340 square miles, but with 245,000 people. New York City has less land at about 302 square miles but has over 8 million residents inside its boundaries. This unequal distribution in population — not just across the country but within states themselves — means that districts need to be drawn to take into consideration the unique communities that make up populations. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims that districts within a state must be equal in population as much as possible. Districts equal in size aren’t possible, but there are different ways to draw maps.
There’s an app for that.
Given advances in technology, it’s reasonable to ask how computers may now play a role in redistricting and whether technology has a positive or negative impact on fair maps. Gerrymandering has existed in American politics long before the advent of supercomputers and sophisticated mapping programs, but tech has made it much easier to synthesize the incredible amounts of data collected by the census. Since the 1990s, geographic information systems (GIS) have enabled demographic and geographic information to be viewed on a computer, transforming the way that redistricting could be done. The result is that map-drawers can know more about communities than ever before and have the exact tools necessary to produce a specific partisan outcome. Technology has transformed redistricting from using scissors to cut up counties to using scalpels to slice along neighborhood blocks.
Knowing more information about neighborhoods can help keep communities of interest together or allow districts to divide the community up — but it all depends on who is using the tech and wielding the power. Republicans have used tech during the last few redistricting cycles to create extreme partisan gerrymanders, like in North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. After the last redistricting cycle in Wisconsin where Republicans had total control over the process, the GOP earned 60% of state Assembly seats while only earning 48% of the vote statewide. Intense partisan gerrymanders like this are made possible not only because of technology but because of rulings from the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court as well. After Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court gave Republican legislatures the green light to partisan gerrymander as much as they’d like. The only thing that can currently stop them is a state law prohibiting partisan gerrymandering or violating other state or federal laws in the process.
The use of technology in redistricting isn’t always used to create gerrymanders, however. GIS software was created to make the mapping process easier. Many professors and academics are using the tech to create programs that identify gerrymanders and show how far the maps deviate from unbiased maps. Computer programs are given a set of guidelines to consider, like keeping districts compact and connected, historical voting patterns, the total population of a district, grouping communities of interest together and satisfying requirements of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the U.S. Constitution. From there, a series of maps are submitted to the program. A computer can analyze the maps and say how well a map meets its targeted goals and estimate what the partisan outcome of a map may be. The designers of these programs advocate their use in the map-drawing process and in order to determine if a map is truly fair.
But what about computers completing the entire redistricting process? The technology to do this exists, but it’s limited in use in the United States due to — you guessed it — politics. For these map-drawing programs to work, the computers must have rules about what the characteristics of a district should be. Since lawmakers already disagree on what should be prioritized in redistricting when they do it themselves, the likelihood of them coming to a consensus to allow a machine to make a map is low. However, in Mexico, much of its redistricting process is led by an algorithm that produces maps that are then edited by a committee. The computer gives a map a “fairness score,” and edits to the map are only accepted if they increase the fairness score. It’s possible that in the future, we’ll see more maps drawn first by computers and then tweaked slightly by hand.
Take out the partisan players.
One way to combat partisan gerrymandering is to have independent redistricting boards take over the map-drawing process. Individual states like California and New Jersey have commissions made up of non-politicians, but the commissioners often have political affiliations or are appointed by a party. But, by not having lawmakers draw their districts, there’s less likelihood of partisan interference. The U.S. Constitution leaves map drawing to the states, making a nationwide mandate for independent redistricting commissions unlikely, but our neighbor to the north, Canada, does redistrict in this way.
In Canada, redistricting, or what it calls reapportionment, was led by lawmakers and was highly partisan until the 1960s. In 1964, Canada passed a federal law that redistricting must be completed by a three-member panel made up of a judge and two other members. The key difference is that these boards are not made up of political appointees or affiliates — commissioners are “mostly judges, political scientists, or retired civil servants.” The commissions follow a similar set of rules to the U.S.: districts should be compact and take communities of interest and historical voting patterns into account. A difference of note is that while districts should aim to be of equal size in population, they can vary as much as 25% above or below the average district size. In 1991, the Canada Supreme Court explicitly rejected what they called the “American model” of “one person, one vote,” and instead placed a higher priority on effective representation rather than equal representation. Due to this, some claim that Canada’s districts are malapportioned, especially for more diverse populations in urban areas as compared to more rural areas and contribute to “glaring inequity” in representation.
So, what’s the result of this system? Canada sees very little partisan gerrymandering and districts are more compact and cohesive than their American counterparts. Granted, Canada works with 10 provinces and a population of about 38 million people, while the United States has 50 states and almost 330 million residents. But this truly independent redistricting system may also contribute to how well Canadians feel their government operates; only 47% of Canadians feel that their government needs major reforms, compared to over 85% of Americans.
Another option: proportional representation.
Last week, we went over proportional representation (PR) and how gerrymandering could be combated with the use of multi-member districts. However, PR is not a faultless process either. Opponents of PR often claim that the system can weaken the member-constituent relationship. As districts grow larger and representatives have more constituents, it can make voters feel less connected to their representatives. Other common critiques of PR are that it can lead to more unstable coalition governments, allow smaller and more extreme parties to become lawmakers and more. While these claims are not completely unfounded, they can often be mitigated with standards and rules about how representatives are elected.
Rules matter more than process.
No matter what method is used for redistricting, the rules and laws that govern the process have the most impact on the outcome. Different processes can be used to combat partisan gerrymandering, but it’s better to ban partisan gerrymandering and establish federal laws to ensure fair maps. That’s why federal legislation like the Freedom To Vote Act is vital. Most states still use, and will likely continue to use, state legislatures and partisan actors to draw maps. As long as lawmakers have a say in the maps — whether by drawing the districts they represent or appointing the people who draw them — partisan fealty will always have an impact on redistricting. By establishing federal standards, states that choose to draw maps for the benefit of a political party can be taken to court, held accountable and new fair maps can be implemented that accurately represent voters.