It seems relatively straightforward, right? Every 10 years the population changes and state government officials redraw district lines to make sure populations are equal.
But who draws the lines (and where)?
Remember that each state gets to decide. And that's when thing can get complicated.
Because if you think about it, there are an infinite number of ways a state can redraw its electoral lines, yielding a lot of potentially controversial outcomes.
For instance, what if, all of a sudden, an incumbent democratic congressman finds himself running in a newly redrawn district that now includes lots of Republican voters? Or, what if the lines of a district with a large minority community are redrawn in a way that splits that community in half so they lose their influence to elect their own representative?
A political chess match
In 34 states throughout the country, the legislature has the power to draw new electoral maps every 10 years. That means, if a state's legislature is heavily controlled by one party - let's say the Democrats - than there's a pretty good chance that those Dems will act in their own self-interest and try to redraw districts so as to create Democratic strongholds (strong concentrations of Dem voters) to protect the incumbent candidates in their own party.
The investigative news service ProPublica recently produced a series exposing some of the questionable redistricting methods that a number of state legislatures use to consolidate power for the dominant political party. Reporter Lois Beckett describes it this way:
"Redistricting is pretty complicated and politicians like to take advantage of
that. They think it's too complicated for voters to understand so they can sometimes do it in the back rooms to manipulate things so they can win seats without our really knowing that they're gonna do it."
(Until now, this is how California rolled. But things have changed - more on that here.)
The United States is actually one of the very few democracies in the world that allows members of the legislative branch to directly control the redistricting process. Most industrialized nations with representative democracies - including Canada, England, Germany and Australia - assign the task of redrawing district lines to independent commissions who remain outside the direct influence of the legislative branch.
The stakes are high!
Because the redistricting process only happens once every 10 years, any changes made last for the rest of the decade. So there's a whole lot at stake. The process can pretty dramatically affect the balance of political power in both national, state and local politics. The stakes are particularly high for lawmakers, whose political careers can be made or broken, depending on how their districts are redrawn. And because of this, political parties often spend millions on research and lawyers to help steer the process to their advantage. It also explains why there have been so many court cases in various states challenging new maps.
The Texas example: maps are always drawn in the eye of the beholder
The 2010 Census reported that Texas' population over the last decade had grown by more than four million people, with three-quarters of that growth in the Hispanic and African-American populations. That increase entitled the state legislature to create four new congressional districts and, therefore, obtain four new seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The big question was how to draw those four new districts. Because - remember - the new districts could be carved out in any number of ways. And how different communities were grouped together could determine whether a district had a heavier concentration of Republican or Democratic voters.
Most of the new minority voters that accounted for the brunt of Texas' population increase were Democrats. Yet. when the Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the maps ... well, you can probably guess what happened: they created districts that intentionally split up urban regions that had heavy concentrations of new minority voters (who would likely vote Democratic). Instead, the minority, left-leaning communities were mixed into more traditionally right-leaning districts. So in the end, three out of the four newly created districts were Republican, and only one of them contained a majority of minority voters (even though minorities made up most of the state's population increase). In all, the maps increased the number of safe Republican seats from 21 to 26.
Pretty tricky, right?
Not surprisingly, state Democrats and minority-rights groups cried foul, arguing that the new maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act by splitting apart communities of interest and disenfranchising minority voters. They sued, and new versions of the maps were drawn by a federal district court in San Antonio. The image above shows the two very different interpretations of how one of the districts was drawn.
In the end, the controversy caused multiple delays in the state's presidential primary, and the issue eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court, who ordered the lower court to redraw the maps more in line with the legislature's original version. And Republicans walked away happy.
Redistricting: Drawing the Lines (from PBS NewsHour)