Redistricting Explained

Did you take the 2020 US Census? If you did, not only did you help decide how money should be spent in our communities, but you also helped inform how power in your state should be distributed through an important process called redistricting. Every 10 years the US Census counts each state’s population. That information is then used to redraw electoral maps – redistricting! This process impacts voting for at least ten years – and can limit the power of Black voters. Here’s what you need to know.

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the process by which electoral districts are drawn and redrawn. Electoral districts are the smaller areas within a town, city, county, or state who vote on the same candidates and issues. The people within an electoral district make up an elected representative’s constituency. Voters within an electoral district are responsible for electing one congressional representative on the federal level, but this varies at the local and state level. Additionally, federal, state, and local electoral districts do not always share the same maps. This means that you may live in a place where the people who elected your federal representative are not the same as the group of people who elected your state representative.

Following the US Census, which is conducted every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the changing populations within a state. Each state has a process to update their electoral districts, which may be determined by a state’s political parties or a designated independent committee.

What is the history of redistricting?

Although we need to redraw districts to reflect how populations grow and shift, redistricting has been used to take power from Black voters. In some instances, redistricting has led to gerrymandering – a process where electoral district boundaries are manipulated to give a political party an unfair advantage.

In some of the extreme cases, gerrymandering has resulted in districts being redrawn in ways that make no geographic sense, and are done so to skew the number of counties where Black voices are able to decide who wins. In states like North Carolina – which is home to three of the ten most impacted districts – gerrymandering has become a tool for political parties to unfairly influence which candidate is more likely to win. (source)

While gerrymandering has been around for centuries, the 2019 Supreme Court case, Rucho v. Common Cause, opened the door for even worse behavior around redistricting. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that, even if it was clear that electoral district lines were drawn to favor a political party, the Supreme Court did not have authority to rule on it – leaving the decision in the hands of Congress and the states. (source)

In 2021, Congress attempted to pass a bill that would protect communities from the harm of gerrymandering with the For The People Act. Although the For The People Act passed the House of Representatives, it did not pass the Senate, leaving the door open for partisan-influenced gerrymandering during redistricting processes. (source)

What has been the impact of redistricting?

Historically, electoral districts needed to be majority Black for a candidate favored by Black voters to be elected – in some districts, this would mean that an electoral district needed to be 65 percent Black before the favored candidate to win. (source) This was because, in the past, voting fell across racial lines – even more than it does now. As time has gone on, and as some non-Black voters have begun to support the same candidates favored by Black voters, this high percentage has been less necessary.

However, with the impact of racial gerrymandering, Black votes have been watered down over the decades. In states where redistricting has led to racial gerrymandering, maps are drawn so that instead of Black voters having significant influence in multiple districts, all of the Black voters are corralled – or packed – into one district. The effect of this is that instead of us being able to elect 2 or more representatives that will support policies that benefit Black communities, we are only able to elect one. (source) An example of this is how Republicans in North Carolina redrew the electoral district around Charlotte to limit the chance of progressive candidates winning in surrounding counties. (source)

What can be done to offset harmful impacts of redistricting?

There are numerous ways to help address the harm that unfair redistricting may have. One way is to count incarcerated people based on their last address before incarceration – not where they are currently incarcerated. In areas where a prison population makes up a significant percentage of the overall population, those imprisoned, who may not be able to vote, are being used to increase the power of those living near the prison. (source)

Another way to curb the harm of racial gerrymandering is to put the control of redistricting in the hands of independent commissions. Currently, only a handful of states use independent redistricting commissions, but there is evidence that using these commissions are more willing to listen to communities than partisan commissions. (source)

Additionally, voting in representatives that support fair and equitable redistricting is something that each of us can do. Sign up to volunteer with the Black to the Future Action Fund and help elect progressives in your state.

Where can I learn more about redistricting?

Check out some of these additional resources: