What is redistricting?
Redistricting is the process of redrawing political maps. We generally elect our state and federal representatives from defined districts, and where and how those lines are drawn has a profound impact on our governance.
It all starts with the Census. Every ten years, the United States conducts a systematic count of the nation’s population. Each state is required to use the updated figures to redraw the district maps for its state legislature, and, if applicable, for its federal congressional districts. (Some states have only one congressional district.)
So why is redistricting tied to the Census? While the U.S. government generally gives states wide latitude to decide how lines are redrawn, federal law and the courts have laid down some basic ground rules. First, districts must include (roughly) the same number of people. Second, the maps cannot be drawn to dilute the voting power of racial and language minorities. States need to know how many people they have, and where those people are, to meet those standards. States often add other criteria for their districts, including compactness, contiguity, and respect for existing communities of people.
Why does redistricting matter?
The United States uses a representative system of government, meaning we, the people, empower select officials to make and modify our laws. We choose these people to represent us and our positions and values. If our representatives fail to represent us, our system is supposed to allow us to hold them accountable in regular elections.
The districts in which we elect those representatives matter. Sophisticated mapping technology and robust demographic data has made it possible to draw political maps that can effectively dilute or magnify the voting power of certain groups. This process of intentionally carving district lines for political advantage is known as gerrymandering.
Here’s how it works: if you know how a group likely to vote, you can draw a map that packs members of that group into a single district that they are sure to win, reducing their power in the surrounding districts, or you can split the group’s members into a number of districts where they’ll never be numerous enough to compete. These related practices are known as packing and cracking.
And if the maps are distorted enough, the election results are all but assured, and the people or party already in power will remain in power. The accountability that underpins our system of representative elections is effectively destroyed.
How does NY State currently conduct redistricting? What are the shortcomings of that system?
As you can see, the power to redraw these lines is immensely valuable. Because there’s little federal guidance on the matter, states are largely empowered to conduct redistricting as they see fit.
In 31 states, that authority is vested in the state legislature, giving politicians the power to draw their own districts, and, in effect, the power to pick their voters.
New York used to be one of these states. In the most recent redistricting process, following the 2010 Census, the legislative task force charged with drawing the lines came under heavy scrutiny for creating maps that benefited Republicans in the state Senate and Democrats in the state Assembly. In the push for reform that followed, the legislature passed an amendment to the state’s constitution that would create a commission to conduct redistricting going forward. New Yorkers approved that change at the ballot in 2014.
A number of states have created redistricting commissions to draw their legislative and/or congressional lines. By empowering independent bodies to conduct redistricting, the thinking goes, states can prevent self-interested lawmakers from entrenching themselves in power and, in so doing, remove the proverbial fox from the henhouse.
Independent commissions, at their most effective, are made up of regular people who are fully removed from the influence of sitting lawmakers. In California, for example, the State Auditor administers a process in which individuals apply to serve on the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Legislative leaders have the opportunity to “strike” a handful of members from the pool of applicants deemed qualified, and the first 8 commissioners are chosen randomly from the remaining group in a way that balances partisan affiliation on the panel. These commissioners then select the remaining 6 commissioners. The resulting commission is designed to reflect the diversity of the state. Several other states draw their lines in a similar way, including Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan.
But New York is not one of them. Despite all the good-faith claims about reform that came alongside the constitutional amendment, the state legislature ultimately retains power over redistricting in our state.
That’s because the commission, which is comprised of 8 members appointed by the majority and minority legislative leadership, and 2 third-party or independent members chosen by the first 8, is ultimately an advisory body. If the legislature twice rejects the commission’s maps, lawmakers can amend the lines themselves, and we’re back where we started.
What is the solution?
It may not seem like a big deal that the commission’s maps aren’t binding. The legislature still has to reject the plans twice to be able to retake the reins. Isn’t that progress?
It is, in a sense. But remember how important redistricting is—the lines that are put in place remain in effect for the next decade, and the incentive for lawmakers to give themselves a baked-in electoral advantage is incredibly strong.
The answer lies in creating a truly independent citizen redistricting commission. In order to ensure fair elections—ones in which voters pick their politicians, not the other way around—New York must immediately empower a redistricting commission with the authority to draw binding maps in a transparent process.
“Who Draws the Maps? Legislative and Congressional Redistricting,” Brennan Center for Justice.
“New York’s New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census,” Gotham Gazette.
“New York Redistricting Commission Amendment, Proposal 1 (2014),” Ballotpedia.
Background on Commission, California Citizens Redistricting Commission