Redistricting is the process of redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts to best reflect the changing populations within a jurisdiction. Election districts must be drawn so that the number of people in each district is the same—ensuring that all are equally represented—and so that everyone in each district has a fair chance to elect a candidate of their choice. In order to achieve these two ideals, the authorities in charge of redistricting a jurisdiction must account for both the size of its population, as well as its racial and ethnic diversity. More
At-Large & District-Based Elections
Where voting is racially polarized—that is, where white voters tend to withhold support from candidates preferred by minority voters—minority voters often cannot attain effective representation within the context of at-large elections. Electoral districts are drawn on the principle that, within these large jurisdictions there exist smaller communities of people who live in close proximity, and who share common social and political interests.
In some jurisdictions, particularly those with significant race and, or language minority communities, single-member voting districts facilitate a greater connection between an elected official and his or her constituency than would an at-large system.
The ACLU is actively litigating a number of redistricting cases. Some of our major redistricting cases include:
On behalf of the NAACP and several African-American Ferguson residents, the ACLU and the ACLU of Missouri filed this case under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, challenging the at-large election system utilized by the Ferguson-Florissant School District. The Ferguson-Florissant School District has a history fraught with discrimination against African-American citizens. The district, which spans several municipalities, was created by a 1975 desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students. Yet, 40 years later, there is just one African-American member on the seven-member board, despite the fact that African Americans constitute 47% of the voting-age population of the School District, and nearly 80% of its students. Use of the at-large scheme, instead of a single-member district arrangement that would allow people to vote for candidates from their own local neighborhood districts, denies African-American voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.
The case before the Supreme Court, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, is about whether the U.S. Constitution permits the citizens of Arizona to decide for themselves how they want to structure congressional elections in Arizona. For years, Arizona state legislators gerrymandered congressional districts to unnaturally skewed to favor one political party. In 2000, the citizens of Arizona passed a voter-backed initiative to end this partisan gerrymandering, and put congressional redistricting into the hands of an independent non-partisan committee. Arizona politicians are now bringing this case to the Supreme Court to argue that only they can decide how congressional lines are to be drawn. The ACLU is filing an amicus brief in support of the citizens of Arizona, and argues that the U.S. Constitution allows and even encourages citizen participation in structuring their own democracy.
Montes v. City of Yakima (Washington)
In this case the ACLU is challenging the City of Yakima, Washington's at-large elections system, which dilutes the voting power of the city's Latino community. The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of two Latino Yakima residents. Although there is a socially and politically cohesive Latino community within Yakima that comprises approximately 40 percent of the city's total population, there has never been a Latino elected to the Yakima City Council. In a community as large and diverse as Yakima, the at-large method of electing City Council members drowns out the voice of the Latino community by making it impossible for them to elect representatives of their choice. Last year, the court hearing this case granted our summary judgment motion, finding that at-large elections in Yakima violate the Voting Rights Act. We are now working with the court to develop a redistricting plan that will provide Latino voters in Yakima an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
Davidson v. City of Cranston
Filed on February 19 on behalf of four residents of Cranston, RI and the ACLU of RI, this suit challenges the 2012 redistricting plan of Cranston, Rhode Island on the grounds that it violates the "one person, one vote" principle of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Cranston is comprised of six wards. Under the current districting plan, six members of Cranston's nine-person City Council are elected by individual wards and three are elected at-large. Similarly, the School Committee has seven members, six of whom are elected by individual wards and one of whom is elected at-large.
The "one person, one vote" principle requires that each of Cranston's six wards has an approximately equal number of constituents. Though the city claims to have evenly distributed the population among its six wards, its distribution is actually grossly unequal. That is because Ward 6 houses Rhode Island's only state prison complex in which approximately 3,433 individuals are incarcerated, the vast majority of whom cannot vote. And the few that are able to vote are considered residents of the communities where they lived before they were incarcerated under state law, not residents of Ward 6.
Under the current districting plan, the 3,433 individuals serving sentences in the state prison comprise 25 percent of Ward 6's voting district. This means that Ward 6 has the lowest number of true constituents in Cranston, a distribution that gives residents of Ward 6 more voting power than residents of the city's five other wards. To put it in perspective: every three actual residents of Ward 6 have as much voting power as any four residents of any of Cranston's other wards.
Plaintiffs in this case seek an injunction preventing the continued use of this malapportioned districting plan, as well as a redrawing of Cranston's voting districts in order to restore equal voting power for all Cranston residents.
Wright v. Sumter County Board of Elections.
In 2011, Sumter County adopted a redistricting plan for the Board of Education that switched from 9 single-member districts to a total of 7 districts, of which 5 are single-member and 2 are elected at-large. Black residents comprise about 48% of the voting age population in Sumter County, but are packed into 2 of the 5 single-member districts. As a result, they can elect representatives of their choice for only 2 of the 7 districts. Sumter County has long history of discrimination in voting and its adoption of 2 at-large seats is a return to the days of discrimination of the 1970s and 1980s. The ACLU is challenging this plan under Section 2 of the VRA. Trial is tentatively scheduled for April 6, 2015.
Redistricting - Q & A (2010 Resource)
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.
Stacking, Cracking and Packing (2010 Video)
Hear the ACLU's Laughlin McDonald talk about how politicians use "gerrymandering" to dilute minority votes.
This is the second edition of our pamphlet which attempts to answer some of the questions most frequently asked about redistricting. The law in the voting area is always evolving and different courts often interpret the same laws differently. If you have a specific question about redistricting or a problem not adequately covered in this pamphlet, you should seek legal advice.
The Looming 2010 Census: A Proposed Judicially Manageable Standard And Other Reform Options For Partisan Gerrymandering (2009 Resource)
Gerrymandering hinders voters from protecting their rights and voicing their interests through their votes, and the coming 2010 census and attendant redistricting underscore the need for a consistently applied standard for claims of partisan gerrymandering. Redistricting plans have withstood legal challenges because courts have been unable to interpret the conflicting Supreme Court rulings on partisan gerrymandering claims. Nothing in the Constitution expressly prohibits gerrymandering, and until Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court had treated claims of unfair districting as nonjusticiable. This article describes the Court's decisions in Baker and in Davis v. Bandemer, in which the Supreme Court finally held partisan gerrymandering claims to be justiciable.