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Know Your Lines

Know Your Lines

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An educational poster from the Brennan Center's Redistricting Project and the Center for Urban Pedagogy.
An educational poster from the Brennan Center's Redistricting Project and the Center for Urban Pedagogy.

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Categories:Types, Brochures
Published by: The Brennan Center for Justice on Apr 13, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Members of Congress, state legislators, and manycity council and school board members are elected by peoplegrouped into districts. At least once per decadeusually afterthe Censusthose districts are redrawn.Why? People move. Familiesgrow. The lines are adjusted to ensurethat each district has about the samenumber of people and, as a result, thateach person has an equal say in the gov-ernment, as required by the Constitution.But redistricting isn’t simple.Even with equal populations, districtscan be drawn to give some people morevoting power than others.Redistricting can determine who wins an election.It also affects who controls school boards, city councils, statelegislatures, Congress, and other governing bodies.Ultimately, redistricting impacts which laws getpassed and which don’t. In other words, it affects all of us.If you care about political power, representation, or publicpolicy, then you care about redistricting.
Ko YouLedistrictingand why it matters
In 1992, several LosAngeles neighbor-hoods were severelydamaged due to socialunrest, including aone-square-mile areaknown as Koreatown.When Koreatownresidents asked theirelected officials forhelp with recoveryefforts, each represen-tative claimed that thearea was part of an-other official’s district.In fact, the district mapfractured Koreatowninto four City CouncilDistricts and five StateAssembly Districts,which made it easy foreach representative todeflect responsibilityfor the community.KoreatownToday, there are aboutpeople in eachCongressional District.
In the 1960s, thelargest state district inCalifornia had 422
timesmore people thanthe smallest state district.That was before theSupreme Court ruled thatpolitical districts musthave roughly equalpopulations.What does your congressionaldistrict look like?www.nationalatlas.gov/printable/congress.htmlFor everything you ever wantedto know about redistricting & more visit:www.brennancenter.org/redistricting
Who draws the lines?
Each state decides who draws the lines.In most states, the line drawers are poli-ticians along with hired consultants.Incumbents—elected officials alreadyin office—have an incentive to createdistricts that are likely to reelect them,sometimes preventing real communitiesfrom being represented.Often, state legislators draw the map, which can bevetoed by the governor. Some states have special commissionsthat advise legislators on drawing the map, or that serve asbackup mapmakers if the legislature deadlocks. A few stateshave independent commissions so that politicians and publicofficials can’t draw their own districts.Some states try to prevent a single political partyfrom controlling the process. Some don’t, and this can givethe party in power a big advantage. In other states, politiciansfrom both parties simply work together to swap voters anddraw districts that keep their reelection ‘safe.’Voters are grouped into politi-cal districts, with each district electinga different representative. District linescan be drawn in an infinite number of ways, and how they’re drawn can affectwho gets elected.
No otherdemocratic nationallowsself-interestedlegislators to drawthe lines of thedistricts in which theyrun for office.In 2000, 30 of California’s32 Democratic membersof Congress each paid
20,000 to the consul-tant in charge of creatingCalifornia’s redistrictingplan to have him custom-design their districtsto protect their seats.‘Twenty thousand is noth-ing to keep your seat . . . Ifmy colleagues are smart,they’ll pay their
20,000and the consultant willdraw the district they canwin in. Those who refusedto pay? God help them,’explained one legislator.
See why redistricting matters to your community:www.redrawingthelines.orgWhoa! For links to every state’sredistricting web site, go to:www.lib.purdue.edu/govdocs/redistricting.html
A ‘good’ redistricting process helps communities secure meaningful representation.
Many states consider ‘communities of interest’ when drawing theirdistricts. That’s just a term for groups of people who share common social, cultural,racial, economic, geographic, or other concerns. These groups are likely to havesimilar legislative concerns as well, and that means they can benefit from commonrepresentation in the government. This goes much deeper than Republican orDemocrat. A district of farmers, say, and a district of city dwellers will probablyelect representatives that reflect differing histories, priorities, and aspirations.Other redistricting goals—like keeping a district compact or within countyborders—are usually proxies for keeping communities intact. A good redistrictingprocess will be open and transparent, allowing communities to ask questions and giveinput. This participation is important, since communities are the basic units of well-designed districts.
A ‘bad’ redistricting process takes placebehind closed doors, often at the expenseof communities.
Community borders are some-times ignored to create districts thatincrease the odds that specific politi-cians or parties will win or lose, or thatall incumbents will enjoy ‘safe’ districts.This is commonly referred toas ‘gerrymandering,’ and it comes in afew different forms, including these:
Cracking Communitiesso they can’t elect their ownrepresentative.Packing Partisansinto one district so the otherparty wins adjacent districts.Eliminating Incumbentsby drawing two into onedistrict. Only one can win!Eliminating Challengersby drawing them out of thedistrict.In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, thegovernor of Massachusetts,signed a redistricting planthat would ensure his party’sdomination of the Massachu-setts state senate. An artistadded wings, claws, and asalamander head to the out-line of a particularly notabledistrict; the press named thebeast the ‘Gerry-mander.’Find out about groups working onredistricting in your state at:www.americansforredistrictingreform.orgMap your communitywith help from the Public Mapping Project:www.publicmapping.org
Shape alone doesn’ttell you much
People sometimes associate gerrymander-ing with odd-shaped and uncompetitivedistricts. But sometimes there are goodreasons that districts are oddly shaped.Communities (including minority com-munities protected by the Voting RightsAct), geography, and municipal boundar-ies don’t always form neat shapes. Andsometimes there are so many members of one political party in an area that no com-bination of districts could create strongcompetition between parties. (Plus, redis-tricting is only one factor among manythat determine political competition.)In fact, focusing on neat shapesor political competition can create thesame problems as gerrymandering—sometimes intentionally. For example,slicing the country into a neat gridwould inevitably split communities andgroup voters in ways that benefit oneparty or another. There might be greatercompetition in a district with an evenmix of farmers and city dwellers—butthat still might not lead to meaningfulrepresentation for those communities.Let’s look beyond the symp-toms of gerrymandering. Use the nextsection as a guide for reviewing yourstate’s districts and redistricting process.Learn about the concrete steps peoplearound the country are taking to makeredistricting better.Long-term change can’t wait for 2020. There’s awindow of public attention on the redistrictingprocess in 2011 and 2012. If you want to changethe way redistricting works in your state, this is thetime to act! There’s no single process that everystate should use to draw districts, but here are somegood ideas from around the country.
WhatcanI do?
Make it theright size!
A redistricting bodyof between 7 and 15 isusually large enough torepresent a state’s con-stituencies without get-ting unwieldy.
Maintain balance!
A redistricting bodywith a balanced numberof members from eachpolitical party can helpprevent redistrictingplans that heavily favorone party.
Make the datapublic!
Political and demo-graphic data should beavailable to the publicthroughout the redis-tricting process. Thishelps communitiesparticipate, and keepsredistricting bodies ac-countable to the public.
Require publichearings!
Public hearings—before and after themaps are drawn—givethe public a chance toask questions and makesuggestions. Requir-ing the line drawers toexplain their decisionsalso makes it harder forthem to hide the ball.
Demand diversity!
A redistricting bodywith representativesfrom different com-munities and interestsin the state can helpensure that the finaldistrict maps reflect thestate’s diversity. Thatmeans more communi-ties have the chancefor meaningful politicalrepresentation.
A well-designed inde-pendent commission,with representationfrom different partiesand communities,may help ensure thatincumbent legislatorsdon’t serve only theirown interests.
Attend hearings!
Several states requirethe line drawers to holdpublic meetings. If they don’t, you can pres-sure the people in chargeto make sure they do.Get as many people asyou can to come askquestions and give inputat the meetings, bothbefore and after draftmaps are proposed.
Join forces!
There are groups acrossthe country alreadyworking on redistrict-ing. Find out which areworking on it in yourarea. If no one is, startyour own group!
Drawyour own maps!
You can help bydrawing maps of yourcommunity and othersyou think should bekept together. The morespecific the proposals,the better. Present themaps at hearings andsend them to legislatorswith petitions or lettersof support.
Raise the alarm!
If, in the end, the re-districting process stillbreaks up communities,you may be able to takelegal action. These law-suits are complicated,but there are experts andnonprofit groups thatcan help—especially if a minority communityhas been deprived of itspolitical voice.
Become an expert!
First, learn how redis-tricting works in yourstate. You know a lot justby reading this far! Butyou should find out afew more details: Whatcriteria do the line draw-ers need to follow whenshaping districts? Whatare the opportunitiesfor public participation?Use the resources in thisposter to get started!
Educate the media!
The media reports onthe political impact of redistricting, but fewreporters and editorsunderstand the details.You and your allies canbecome the experts themedia will rely on to un-derstand the process.
In Mississippi in 1969, districtsfor the Hinds County Board ofSupervisors were drawn tomake road and bridge mileageequal in each district. Ostensi-bly a way to make the redis-tricting less subjective, theresulting plan splintered theAfrican-American communityin the state capitol, Jackson.A federal court ordered thelines redrawn.The Voting Rights Act(VRA) is designed toeliminate discriminationagainst minority votersin the political process.Two provisions of theVRA are important inredistricting: Section Twoprohibits line drawersfrom diluting minorityvoting power by ‘packing’minority communitiesinto a small number ofdistricts or by ‘cracking’them into a large numberof districts. Section Fiverequires certain statesand localities with ahistory of discriminatoryvoting practices to get‘preclearance’ from theDepartment of Justice ora federal court for anyproposed changes todistrict lines. If officialsviolate these sections,advocates can and shouldtake legal action!JacksonHinds countyUrban coreThis redistricting proposal, created with a simple algo-rithm, could work if neat lines were the ultimate goal. Butcommunities don’t fall within neat lines, and proposalslike this undermine what should be the goal of redistrict-ing—meaningful representation for real communities.
LATER,you can workto create abetterredistrictingprocess
Get involved! Hold the line drawers accountableby paying attention and speaking up. If you do,they will be more likely to address communityinterests and less able to manipulate the processto their own advantage. This is true no matterwhat redistricting process your state uses. Here area few ways to get involved.
NOW,you can workto createbetterdistricts
On April 1 2010: It’s Census day! Hundreds ofmillions of people return forms by mail and morethan 3.8 million Census workers godoor-to-door to count those who don’t returnmail forms.In February of 2011, the Census Bureau startssending data to states.Between 2011 and 2012, states & local govern-ments redistrict. Each state has a different dead-line
(usually the end of the legislative session).Most states finish by 2012 (ME and MT finish in2013). If legislatures or the commissions don’tdraw in time, the courts step in.During 2011 and 2012, states hold their primaryelections. Redistricting has to be completebefore the filing deadline!2011 through 2013 is the window for long-termchange to the process. During this time be sure totake part in organized redistricting efforts;identify sympathetic legislators; participate inpublic hearings.In 2011 to 2014, the litigation to correct redistrict-ing gone wrong begins. Remember: if you seesomething, say something!

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