What is redistricting and why does it matter?

“In an era of high geographic polarization and historically low ticket-splitting, meaning that people know well in advance of an election who they are going to vote for, redistricting and how the lines are drawn matters a great deal. It’s almost existential for election outcomes,” says redistricting expert David Wasserman, Senior Editor, U.S. House of Representatives for The Cook Political Report.

Most of our federal legislators, all of our state legislators, and many of our local legislators in towns and counties are elected from districts that divide states and the people who live there into geographical territories. Every ten years, the Constitutionally-mandated census counts every person living in the United States. After the census is conducted, districts have to be redrawn to apportion voters into equally populous districts. 

Redistricting is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries. Through the redistricting process, we change the districts that determine who represents us. The ideal of a district in a representative democracy is to communicate very local interests to wider governing bodies.

In most districts, voters are ultimately represented by the candidate who wins the most votes in the district. The way that voters are grouped into districts therefore has an enormous influence on who represents them and which policies they fight for. 

When there is an opportunity to redraw district lines, such as after the decennial census and reapportionment, voters can be grouped together in different ways. Sometimes, re-drawing districts with different groups of voters can determine who wins the next election. 

Districts can be drawn with different goals in mind. drawing board and drew a set of alternative congressional maps for the entire country. For example FiveThirtyEight has created The Atlas of Redistricting with Congressional district maps with different goals that lead to different outcomes. One is designed to encourage competitive elections, for example, and another to maximize the number of majority-minority districts.

Districts can also be re-drawn to affect the composition of a Congressional legislative delegation or a state legislature as a whole.

Reapportionment As A Result of the 2020 Census

States losing one seat (# of seats 2023-2032)

States gaining one seat (# of seats 2023-2032)

States gaining two seats (# of seats 2023-2032)

California (52)

Colorado (8)

Texas (38)

Illinois (17)

Florida (28)

Michigan (13)

Montana (2)

New York (26)

Oregon (6)

Ohio (15)

North Carolina (14)

Pennsylvania (17)

Pennsylvania (17)

apportionment-2020-map01.png

What is the process for redistricting?

The U.S. Constitution gives state lawmakers the authority to draw electoral districts. If state legislatures are controlled by one party and they’re in charge of drawing new maps, they often draw districts that overwhelmingly favor their party, which locks in their victories for the next 10 years, until the next census.

Redistricting varies greatly depending on the process used by a particular state. Twenty-nine states rely on the state legislatures to draw new districts. In California, districts are drawn by commissions of citizens who are registered as unaffiliated with any party and are not officeholders or registered lobbyists. Ohio and Pennsylvania have a “split” system, with a redistricting commission for state legislative districts but still allowing the state legislatures to draw the districts for Congress. 

Iowa is an example of a bipartisan redistricting commission that is evenly balanced between appointees of each party. This commission may not use partisan voting data in drawing the districts, nor may they split counties on the Congressional map.

In 2020, Virginia voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission.

Find out what is happening in each state with FiveThirtyEight's Redistricting Tracker.

Learn more about every state's redistricting system from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

What is gerrymandering?

“I define redistricting as the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States today.” -Republican mapmaker Thomas Hofeller said in 1991. In the following decades, he drew gerrymandered maps that gave Republicans electoral advantages across the country.

Gerrymandering is the most evil thing that happened to our political system. We have to get rid of the fixed system.” - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican, Former Governor of California, February 12, 2019 

“Reducing gerrymandering will make voting fairer for all.” -George Allen, Republican, Former Governor of Virginia, February 1, 2019

“We've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.” - Barack Obama, Democrat, 44th President of the United States, January 13, 2016

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in such a way that one party gains an unfair advantage over the opposing party. Politicians can more easily gerrymander districts in their favor because there is an increase in access to voting data, which makes it easier to predict how individuals will vote. Republicans gained more power in state legislatures after the 2010 elections and census. Both Democratic and Republican controlled states have been accused of gerrymandering, but since 2010, most changes have benefited Republicans, Republican-controlled legislatures have redrawn election maps to fill certain districts with more Republican voters. Opponents of gerrymandering argue that it diminishes minority voters and undermines democratic elections. 

In a June 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court decided in Rucho et al. c. Common Cause et al. that federal courts cannot determine whether election maps are too partisan. In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that the power to address partisan gerrymandering lies with Congress and not with the courts. Unless lawmakers who oppose the practice make meaningful gains at the state level, gerrymandering will likely continue, since Congress has made no effort to impose restrictions on redistricting. With this ruling, both Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to face a legal challenge in the highest courts if they draw gerrymandered districts.

One of the most important implications of gerrymandering is that it can contribute to reducing the competitiveness of elections. According to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that monitors election reform, of the 435 congressional districts across the U.S. in 2010, 70 were rated as having a competitive partisan balance. By 2011, the number of competitive districts was down to 53, and by 2018 there were only 24 true competitive districts. (Research has also shown that other factors, including self-segregation based on political ideology, could also be contributing to the decline in competitive districts.)

To draw attention to how gerrymandering contributes to political dysfunction, one creative mind made a font typeface out of the some of the most absurdly shaped congressional districts. Ugly Gerry font’s letters are identifiable as a letter in the alphabet to the point where you could probably write a letter to your congressperson and have them be able to understand it (see screenshot below produced by us).

 gerrymander.png

What can be done to end gerrymandering?

Independent Redistricting Commissions: A handful of states use independent, non-partisan commissions to draw their congressional districts. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court found that Arizona’s voters had the constitutional authority to achieve redistricting through an independent commission rather than by state legislature.

Transparency and Public Participation: Scholars from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute collaborated on promoting transparency in redistricting and called the drawing of electoral districts “among the most easily manipulated and least transparent systems in the democratic governance. Increasing transparency can empower the public to shape the representation for their communities, promote public commentary and discussion about redistricting, inform legislators and redistricting authorities which district configurations their constituents and the public support, and educate the public about the electoral process.”

Learn about your state process for redistricting and public comment periods and submit your comments!

In Virginia, virtually watch upcoming Redistricting Commission meetings and weigh in on maps.

Crowd-sourced Redistricting Maps:Former Brookings experts Micah Altman and Michael McDonald have studied the use of crowd-sourced mapping to “improve political representation and detect a gerrymander” and “discovered that members of the public are capable of creating legal redistricting plans that outperform those maps created by legislatures in a number of ways.”

Communities of Interest and Public Mapping: Use tools like Representable and District R to create your own Communities of Interest and submit them with public comments to elected officials and redistricting commissions for consideration when drawing districts.

More Resources

Virginia Civic Engagement Table

Brookings Institution, A Primer on Gerrymandering and Political Polarization

Boatright, R., Giner, N., & Gomes, J. (2013). Teaching Redistricting: Letting the People Draw the Lines for the People's House. PS: Political Science & Politics, 46(2), 387-394. doi:10.1017/S1049096513000103

Michael A. Smith, A Redistricting Primer, Midwest Political Science Association

Michael Li, The Redistricting Landscape 2021-22, Brennan Center for Justice

The Gerrymandering Project, FiveThirtyEight.com

Back to Top