Redistricting - Q & A

Redistricting refers to the process of redrawing the lines of districts from which public officials are elected. Redistricting typically takes place after each census and affects all jurisdictions that use districts, whether for members of Congress, state legislatures, county commissions, city councils or school boards. By law, the U.S. Census Bureau must provide population counts to the states within one year of Census Day (April 1 every 10 years). States then engage in a time-consuming redistricting process to redraw election districts before the next election. Typically federal and statewide districts are redrawn first, then local election districts like county commissions and school boards follow.

Redistricting is not something best left to the politicians and the experts. Every voter has a vital stake in redistricting because it determines the composition of districts that elect public officials at every level of government. Given the advances in modern map drawing technology, it is now possible for everyone to participate directly in the redistricting process. But to be an effective player, you need to know the rules of the game which are discussed in our manual, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Redistricting, But Were Afraid To Ask. Below are a few frequently asked questions to get you started on this very important task.

Q: Is redistricting different from reapportionment?
A: Technically, yes, but as a practical matter, no. Reapportionment in its most narrow, technical sense refers to the allocation of representatives to previously established voting areas, as when Congress allocates, or "apportions," seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to the several states following the decennial census. But the terms are generally used interchangeably and refer to the entire process, at whatever level it takes place, of redrawing district lines after the census.

Q: Why bother to redraw district lines?
A: The U.S. Constitution and the federal courts require it. It's also the fair and equitable thing to do. Historically many states did not redistrict to reflect shifts and growth in their populations. In a series of cases in the 1960s, one of which coined the phrase "one person, one vote," the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed "equality" of voting power and that the electoral systems in states which failed to allocate voting power on the basis of population were unconstitutional.

Q: Who draws district lines?
A: In most states the state legislature is responsible for drawing district lines. However, 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington) use special redistricting commissions to draw state legislative districts. Six of these states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, Washington) also use a board or commission to draw congressional plans, while seven states (Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas) use an advisory or remedial commission in the event the legislature is unable to pass new plans. Iowa is different from all others in that district plans are developed by nonpartisan legislative staff with limited criteria for developing plans.

Q: What can we do to ensure fairness in redistricting?
A: We all need to be involved in the process. We should stay informed of plans to redraw federal, state, and local district lines; attend meetings where plans are presented and evaluated; contact organizations willing to evaluate proposed plans and offer alternatives; write letters of support or opposition to elected officials and the Department of Justice; and seek needed legal advice. The goal of redistricting is to provide fair and effective representation for all. We can help achieve that goal by actively participating in the redistricting process.

For more information or assistance in redistricting, contact the ACLU's Voting Rights Project at 1-877-523-2792.

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