How Does Redistricting Work?
The Census and Apportionment
Every ten years, the US Census Bureau counts the population of people living in the United States and uses the updated population counts to determine which state populations have increased or decreased.
These new population counts are used to decide the number of representatives that each state in the country receives. By federal law, the size of the House of Representatives is set at 435 seats, but the number of elected representatives and their district areas change over time. This process is known as apportionment.
Example: Based on the data released in the 2020 census, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon’s populations grew, so they each gained a district and, therefore, one Congressional representative. Texas gained two districts and two representatives.
It’s crucial that the Census Bureau has sufficient time to carefully collect and review their data. Otherwise, we risk undercounting the population. The more complete the population count, the more likely districts will reflect our communities.
Following apportionment, more detailed information is released to each state (plus DC and Puerto Rico) in the form of “redistricting files.” This information includes details like race, voting age, and more. Once it is released, states can begin the redistricting process.
Drawing Our Communities
There is no universal process for drawing district maps, so states use different methods. These include:
Redistricting commissions: 17 states currently give some form of redistricting commission responsibility over the map-drawing process. The commission may be made up of voters residing in the state (independent commissions), voters and representatives from both parties (bipartisan commissions), legislators (advisory commissions), or a backup group if the primary commission is unable to create new maps (backup commissions).
State legislators: 33 states currently assign redistricting to their legislators. Unfortunately, with legislators drawing their own boundaries, there is ample room for political bias and gerrymandering.
The Threat of Gerrymandering
Historically, politicians have manipulated the redistricting process to expand or protect their own power—often to the detriment of the minority political party, marginalized populations, and often, Black communities. This manipulation is called gerrymandering.
There are two primary methods of gerrymandering:
Racial Gerrymandering: when mapmakers draw boundaries to either benefit or disenfranchise members of a certain race.
Example: In 2016, the Republican majority redrew the North Carolina legislative districts after the US Supreme Court deemed the 2011 maps unlawful. When redrawing the maps, the largest historically Black college in the country, North Carolina A&T State University, was split into two different districts. As student Love Caesar noted at the time, “This many students have the ability to sway any election. Dividing that in half, putting half this way, half the other in a majority-Republican district, that definitely dilutes the vote.” This is a gerrymander that targets the political power of a racial group for the benefit of the political party in power.
Political Gerrymandering: when maps are drawn to increase or decrease the influence of a particular political party.
Example: In 2016, Maryland elected Democrats to seven of their eight Congressional seats, despite the fact that Democrats earned roughly 60% of the popular vote. While the Supreme Court failed to find that partisan politics played too strong of a role, many people believe this was a clear case of partisan gerrymandering.
In 2019, the Supreme Court decided on a trio of cases, including Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina, that there is no fair way to determine whether gerrymandering has gone too far in any state. As a result, federal courts will be hands-off in the redistricting process even when new district lines are drawn to intentionally decrease people’s voting power based on their political party.
We continue to fight racial and partisan gerrymandering and advocate for a fair and transparent process that produces the most representative maps.
How We Fight for Fair Maps
People Powered Fair Maps™
In 2019, we launched the People Powered Fair Maps™ (PPFM) program to advocate for the creation of equitable, accurate maps in all 50 states and DC and to educate about redistricting and increase public engagement in the 2021 map-drawing process.
PPFM focuses on:
Ensuring equity and transparency in the map-drawing process
Advocating for creating independent redistricting commissions and the integrity of existing commissions
Pushing for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Monitoring and protecting the “free and fair” clause in state constitutions
Increasing education and public engagement in the community districting process
There are efforts at the state and federal levels to create a fair and consistent redistricting process nationwide. Legislation we support includes:
The Freedom to Vote Act: would introduce transparency provisions, such as the requirement that community districting meetings be open to the public.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act: This bill would both modernize the voting process and restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, along with its protections against racially-based voter discrimination. This would provide essential protection against racial gerrymandering and make voting more accessible for Americans.
Join the Fight
There are many ways you can get involved in ensuring equity for all communities in this year’s map-drawing process!
Connect with your local League of Women Voters and learn how you participate.
Follow the People Powered Fair Maps program on OutreachCircle and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on ways to remain engaged.
Donate and support our work to build equitable community district maps and end gerrymandering.