Issue in Brief

the shape of the issue

Redistricting, the process by which states build and refine the borders, sizes and populations of congressional districts, is one of those issues that never dies. And in part, that makes sense—populations change, cities grow and shrink, and people move around. This alone makes sure that one district will never be ‘fair’ forever, but that’s not all: not everyone agrees what makes a district fair to begin with. Is creating districts with simply equal populations fair, or does that lump people in low-population areas together when they might not share interests? What about minority rights?

On top of that, there’s the problem of widespread (how widespread, exactly, is also up for debate) gerrymandering. The grandfather of dirty political tactics, the gerrymander is when an incumbent party unfairly builds or tweaks legislative districts to raise the number of seats it can win in an election. (BBC) Many are convinced gerrymandering is bad—especially when the other party is doing it—but not everyone agrees about what to do about it. Most of the proposed solutions, though, fit into two categories: changing who creates the districts, and changing how they’re made. There’s also some controversy about when district lines should be drawn.

How big is the problem?

Many point to a lack of competitive congressional races as an indicator of gerrymandering, a sign that incumbents are fixing the odds in their own favor. (BG) Others chalk it up to increased partisanship in the country as a whole. (AAS)

percentage of House Reps re-elected

source: Open Secrets

percentage of House seats that are competitive (won by less than 5% of the vote)

source: Pew Research Center

Some say also that a lack of close races just means that incumbents retire when they’re going to lose—or that the results of a previous election aren’t any guarantee of the next one anyway. (HLR - word doc) They point to different statistics to prove there still is competition in our democracy: About 13% of state Houses change party hands each election. (HLR - word doc)

Who should get to make the district?

Districts are made and remade differently from state to state—most states allow their legislatures to redistrict. This strikes some as strange; why allow incumbents to change the way they’re elected? (WP, BG) These people tend to advocate independent redistricting commissions, which several states now have. These, they say, can draw district lines without being influenced by their own reelection hopes or partisan politics. (BH)

Others respond that the political process takes care of the problem. With democrats fighting republicans over how to draw the district lines, they say, no one is able to rig the system in favor of incumbents. (HLR - word doc) They often criticize the ‘independent commission’ approach, questioning who gets to choose the commission’s members, and what makes them any fairer than the legislature. (Brookings) They also complain that a commission isn’t accountable to voters, like a legislature is—its members can’t be voted out of office. (WP) As it stands now, though, most states still draw district lines in the legislature.

  • Six states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington) give total redistricting authority to various kinds of committees. It’s important to note, though, that of these, Montana only has one district, while Hawaii and Idaho have but two. (NCSL)

  • The rest of the states (that’s 43) redistrict in the legislature. Some use committees to suggest boundaries or as a fallback in case the legislative effort fails, but the plans go to the legislature first. (NCSL)

  • A few states (Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts and Ohio) are considering some form of a redistricting commission. (LWV - pdf

Six states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia) are required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because of their histories of discriminatory gerrymandering, to submit their redistricting attempts for the approval of the Department of Justice. This has recently become a big issue, as portions of the act go up for reauthorization. For more info, see our issue brief on the act.

How should we be making the districts?

There are several popular models of district creation. All have their supporters and detractors, their pros and cons. Here they are:

The Standard Model—“One person, one vote”

The current model has equally populated districts that elect one representative each. (though there are special exemptions made for some types of districts) This is commonly called “one person, one vote.” Supporters argue that it is the only rational model that is fair to all ethnic groups and political parties. If it weren’t for ‘one person, one vote,’ they say, legislators would constantly try to put all members of the opposing party in one district in order to win the rest. (NYT) Many point to the times before ‘one person, one vote,’ when district sizes were often adjusted to thwart minority representation. (FindLaw)

Opponents of the standard model argue that it is easily manipulated. Despite the fair-sounding name, there are lots of ways of making districts that have equal populations but turn out very unfair anyway. (Brookings) “One person, one vote” says nothing about the shape, ethnicity or economic makeup of districts; a party in power could easily make very oddly-shaped districts that put all of their opponents into one or two very oddly-shaped districts so their votes wouldn’t elect many representatives. This would be a clear gerrymander, but would be no problem under “one person, one vote.” After all—the districts have the same number of people, right? Also, in the same way, many claim, this system doesn’t protect minority citizens, and their voices can be ignored. (BG)

The Fair-Shape Model

The random model is rather like a response to the blindness of “one person, one vote” to the shape of districts. Supporters of this method think that the fairest districts not only have equal population, but fair shapes as well. They advocate standards for shaping districts, such as “contiguity, compactness, adherence to existing political and geographical boundaries, and respect for communities of interest.” (Brookings - pdf) They suggest impartial retired judges or committees can draw lines without paying attention to who is in power or the race, religious, and political beliefs of the people who live in the district. Sometimes, these committees are prevented from knowing this information, to ensure that the districts aren’t shaped to favor anyone. (Brookings)

Opponents of random districts argue that they’re not really representative of anyone. The people in a random district might have such different views that a congressperson could never represent a majority opinion. The representative would struggle to listen to a population that has few if any common interests. Also, in randomly formed districts the minority voice will not be heard, and minority interests could go unrepresented in Congress.

The Minority-Majority Model

Supporters argue that districts that group a minority race in a single district as the majority of the voting population are more fair and representative. These districts guarantee that minority interests are protected and represented in Congress.

Opponents complain that these districts artificially give more power to certain groups than others based solely on race—it looks suspiciously like a gerrymander. Plus, these districts may hurt minority representation because the minority group is now limited to a single district instead of being part of multiple districts. Not only that, concentrating minorities in one district could make the races less competitive and therefore less reflective of public opinion—which, after all, is the goal. (Brookings - pdf)

Change the System!

There are some who advocate a redistricting revolution of sorts: there are various ideas, but the major one argues that districts should be much larger, and each should elect not one, but several representatives by a proportional breakdown of the voting. (For instance, the top three vote-getting candidates might all end up in office.) This way the minority groups can have their voice heard without unfairly silencing the majority. (CSM, Fairvote) Plus, politicians will not need to change the districts as often and the politics of district creation can be eliminated. (Brookings - pdf)

Opponents argue that these districts are still open to the same political line-drawing. All that changes is the size of the districts, but minorities will still be silenced in these combined districts. This will not solve the problem, but change the problem. American politics is supposed to revolve around individuals and their ideas, but under the large district system the political parties are far more important than the candidates.

When should the districts be made?

Another issue that many people find important is the timing of redistricting. Traditionally, districts have been drawn every 10 years, whenever a new census is done. The logic of that approach holds that since the census provides data about changes in population—changes that districts are supposed to react to—districts should be made only when new data become available. Many disagree, though, saying that population doesn’t wait ten years to change; why should districts? If new data are available despite the census, they point out, why should states wait to adjust the system? Proponents of the 10-year-redistrict, though, point out that it’s a check on gerrymanders—if people could redistrict whenever they pleased, they’d redistrict whenever their party gained power to make sure it stayed that way. (CBS)

In June 2006, the Supreme Court just weighed in on the question. In the case, 5 out of 9 justices agreed: 10 years isn’t law. (CSM, FL) States can redistrict whenever they please, as long as the new districts meet the one-person, one-vote standard. A "gerrymander," then, as long as it doesn't depart from that standard, isn't unconstitutional.


  • FairVote, although it has a slant, stating that it “seeks elections that promote voter turnout, fair representation, inclusive policy and meaningful choices,” has a fantastic, very balanced guide to the redistricting situation in each state. Though it’s from 2000, it’s still great (redistricting usually only happens once every ten years). Check it out here. (FairVote)

  • An old but still-relevant editorial from the Christian Science Monitor advocates drastic changes in the system puts forward several methods of multiple-representative, proportional election.

  • A CRS Report (pdf) that documents the reelection rates for the House of Representatives from 1790-1994.

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