NCSL - Redistricting 101

If you want to understand what is really involved in redistricting, there is probably no better place to go than the National Conference of State Legislature's (NCSL) National Redistricting Seminars. They had a seminar on redistricting in the spring in Austin Texas and are just wrapping up a redistricting seminar in Providence, RI.

"The National Conference of State Legislatures is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation's 50 states, its commonwealths and territories." Around 250 legislators, staffers, and other interested parties attended the seminar in Rhode Island. Many were folks who have vast experience in redistricting and others were new to the process.

The first session was "The Redistricting Lexicon and an Introduction to Redistricting Law" presented by Peter Wattson, Senate Counsel in Minnesota and a leading expert in redistricting. Mr. Wattson has given this presentation many times, and several attendees had heard it before. They remained attentive, listening for new information for the coming redistricting. Others, like myself, soaked up as much as we could.

He started off differentiating between reapportionment and redistricting. He explained the need for redistricting and provided important background information. While we do not yet know the results of the U.S. Census, which will determine how many Congressional seats each state gets, it is expected that states in the Northeast are likely to lose Congressional seats as states in the Southwest gain. This reflects changes in where people live and seeks to maintain the important one person, one vote rule.

Mr. Wattson spoke about the history of gerrymandering, or creating districts to the advantage of one party or another. He described methods involved, including packing a district so that as many members of a minority party are placed in a single district, as well as fracturing, where the lines are drawn to break up the power of the minority across districts.

He then spoke about methods of limiting gerrymandering, including limits on what data can be used, who can create the districts, and what the review process should be. He also spoke about the different criteria considered for congressional districts from state legislative districts.

It seemed as if a general consensus of many attendees was that everyone will gerrymander as much as they can get away with. Related to this was the belief that whatever plans are created are bound to end up in the courts.

Perhaps the most important take away for anyone involved in redistricting is to make sure that the criteria used for redistricting is clearly understood and explained ahead of time. These include making the populations of each district as equal as possible, making sure that the plans do not violate the Voting Rights Act, respecting existing political boundaries, respecting geographical boundaries, like rivers or mountains, minimizing the changes from one redistricting plan to the next, and making the districts as compact as possible. In all of that, you can be sure that unless you have a true independent and nonparitisan commission, there will be efforts to make sure that the political power of different groups is also maximized.

Everyone should spend time learning more about redistricting, whether it includes attending an NCSL seminar, reading up on the web, or speaking with state legislators about how redistricting will be done in their state. There is a lot more to redistricting, which I hope to include in coming articles.