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Redistricting: Understanding the Basics

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Redistricting is the process of drawing new political districts–from the U.S. Congress to state legislatures, county commissioner boundaries, city council wards/precincts, and school board districts.

After the completion of each census every 10 years, various jurisdictions are responsible to draft and enact new electoral district maps for the nation’s 435 congressional districts and 7,383 state legislative seats across 99 chambers, along with the countless municipal borders across the country.

Redistricting is a complicated process with countless considerations, but its main goal is to reestablish fair political boundaries with approximately even population size based on data from the newest census.

Beyond federal regulations on equal population size, district lines must not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. Additionally, state requirements often mandate that districts drawn must be contiguous and compact, considerate of established political boundaries, as well as keep various communities of interest intact.

The timeline of this cycle's redistricting process started in April 2020 with the start of the census, and initial results were released by the end of the year. Comprehensive totals were available to the state in April 2021, which have the necessary data to redraw district maps. New boundaries are codified into law by early 2022, so that they are ready for the state primary elections in August 2022.

For all redrawn districts, political incumbents must go through the re-election process with its new electoral borders. For example, all 13 city council members in Minneapolis will be up for reelection in 2023 to account for the new boundaries.

Gerrymandering–a popular political buzzword–refers to the manipulation of district boundaries to benefit a specific political party or constituency. Its history goes back to the early 19th century; in 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a state senate district that gave disproportionate representation to his party over the other. Thus “gerrymander” was coined by The Boston Gazette to describe the disputed district from Gerry that resembled a salamander.

Here are some examples of the worst gerrymandered districts around the country. It’s important to be aware of the issue, especially since this redistricting cycle will be the first since the Supreme Court made its 2019 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause, which effectively means gerrymandering for party advantage cannot be challenged in federal court.

While the redistricting process can easily be written off as too complicated and filled with nonsense political jargon, we’ve shown here it’s easy to understand the basics. Now more than ever, we must be active participants in our democracy, and staying knowledgeable of the fundamentals is one way to keep involved.

For more resources:

Photo credit: MN House of Representatives 2020 Election Results from MN IT Services Geospatial Information Office

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