What You Need to Know About Redistricting


Re·dis·trict (present participle)

1. To divide or organize (an area) into new political districts: See Gerrymander

I’m rather surprised by the frequency of news reports covering the topic of redistricting. It’s 2017 and at its earliest, the redistricting process doesn’t start until 2021. That’s nearly 4-years away. A quick search of news articles confirmed this: the word “redistricting” appeared well over 51,000 times in print and internet media articles — excluding websites — in the last month alone.

More interesting, the word “gerrymander” appeared over 63,000 times in the same 30-days. Redistricting in and of itself is not a nefarious process, but its history is filled with examples of people – read: political parties – using the process to game the system for their advantage. A quick read of Wikipedia provides a little perspective in that four-times as much text is dedicated to the word that describes the gaming of redistricting — gerrymandering — than are dedicated to defining the process of redistricting itself.

4th Grade Civics Hasn’t Gotten Any More Interesting

In truth, redistricting is a rather a straight-forward, boring and laborious process filled with mind-numbing procedural rules that differ based on each state’s constitutional requirements. These requirements stretch back to the early 1800’s. The only real change to the process happened in the mid-1960’s with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which applied only to states with a history of racial-based barriers to voting.

The Voting Rights Act – to be more accurate, the case law defining the Voting Rights Act – justifies that racial considerations can outweigh other traditional redistricting principles, which include compactness, contiguity and respect for political subdivisions.

Meaning: you need to “gerrymander” districts to support — to enfranchise — minority communities so they can elect candidates of their choice. I don’t think many would argue against this. This process of “protecting communities of interest” has very measurable accomplishments of allowing non-majority candidates the ability to serve in political office. But mention the word “redistricting” in conversation at work, or any social gatherings and the “gerrymandering” will soon follow. It’s almost like the word has a direct line to the fear sector of our innermost brain, like a fear of snakes, or frogs…

The Hero’s Journey

I must admit though, the elements that make up the process of redistricting fit our basic want for theater – read: drama – for it includes all the classic story elements that would make Joseph Campbell proud. Redistricting includes:

  • Love: Everyone loves to pour over a map.
  • History: Our Founding Fathers settled on a method to keep our politics representative and in the hands of the states thus, created the apportionment process.
  • Civics: Where do I live and who is my representative?
  • Politics: Who’s doing what to whom?
  • Intrigue: They did what to them?
  • Journey: How does one take rather dull demographic data and make so much drama?

Dysfunction Junction

I blame much of the current negative attention that redistricting receives on our federal level. Oftentimes, constituents do not see federal representatives reflecting their values, even when they are of the same political party. The argument is that they just don’t appear to be interested in moving the country forward, only in protecting “the party that got them elected.”

And it is this last phrase that I feel is driving the anxiety that manifests itself into the scorn towards the redistricting process.  “We can’t seem to fix the election process so, but perhaps we can fix how we are represented.” A lot of the attention focuses on the computer systems that facilitate redistricting. But that is like blaming the typewriter for writing hate manifestos.  Sure, it makes it easier and faster to produce these manifestos, but eliminating or restricting typewriters won’t end the process.

People Do Things For Their Reasons; Not Yours

There are many proposed solutions being discussed. The most prevalent is that of the Redistricting Commission — meaning, taking the decision process away from political agents, the state legislatures and creating an appointed commission. Others want the process to be given over to mathematicians who would calculate the perfect district (polygon) that meets agreed upon “math standards.”

Rather clinical and sterile, it doesn’t really address the need to protect those “communities of interest” that require our support. The response to this option that I hear most often is, “you can’t take politics out of politics.”

The current system, the one that’s been running since the early 1800’s, has never involved folks like you and me. It’s performed by a group of consultants, lawyers and politicians. Whether we go with a volunteer committee or math majors, we still haven’t addressed the real root source of all this angst. The root of this angst, or mistrust about redistricting, has to do with a lack of trust. Like laws and sausage, we never really see it get made.

Join me next week where I’d like to talk further about open redistricting and rebuilding trust back into the process.


Richard Leadbeater is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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