The ABCs of Redistricting (or How to Gerrymander Your Favorite Jurisdiction)

Every ten years, state legislatures across the United States use newly released Census data to redraw the lines that separate one Congressional district from another. Sounds easy at first blush. Simply take the population of your state, divide it by the number of seats your state has been allotted, and viola! Now you can divide your state into that many neat little districts.

“Not so fast,” say the Spirited Reasoners out there. “There are quite a few flies in the ointment.” Or sand in the gears. Feel free to choose your favorite metaphor.

Let’s start with the basics.

  • According to figures released this past week, the official population of the United States, for purposes of redistricting Congress, now stands at 331,449,281, the big number we’ll put in the denominator of our fraction. Since the House of Representatives is comprised of 435 seats (our fraction’s numerator) we should expect each House member to represent approximately 762,000 constituents.
  • We’ll discover, however, that the 762,000 average district size will vary widely, despite U. S. Supreme Court decisions requiring “one person, one vote” apportionment. Why so much variation? Because our neat little fraction must be interrupted each time we encounter a state border. For example, the state of Wyoming has a population less than 600,000, yet our Constitution requires each state to be allocated at least House member. Thus, once we award one of our 435 seats to Wyoming, our neat little fraction is all messed up. Where will Wyoming’s seat come from? It will come at the expense of larger states, whose House members must now serve constituent districts larger than 762,000 people each, in order to make up the difference caused by the gift to Wyoming.
  • But it’s not just Wyoming that creates a problem. The existence of every state border results in a problem due to mathematical rounding. For example, let’s suppose Wyoming happened to enjoy a population of approximately 1,000,000 people instead of only 600,000. In that case, we wouldn’t expect the good folks living in the other 49 states to award them a second House seat quite yet, even though they might argue that their population now exceeded the 762,000 average by quite a bit. In fact, they’d need to demonstrate a population closer to 1,500,000 (2 times 762,000) in order to merit that second seat.
  • What this means is that even if our Census figures had concluded that not a single state had gained or lost a Congressional district, each state would still find itself somewhat overrepresented or underrepresented, sometimes substantially so, due to that rounding problem.
  • Now, let’s throw in the fact that within each state, population numbers have shifted here and there for a host of reasons. For example, over the course of my lifetime the city of Columbus overtook Cleveland as the largest city in Ohio. Meanwhile, a tiny crossroads named Cary in the state of North Carolina went from a population of less than 5,000 when I was a boy to over 150,000 in the current census. Surely, the lines within the state would need to be redrawn to reflect these internal shifts in a state’s population.
  • Meanwhile, a string of federal court cases now requires that each district within a state be drawn as equally in population as practicable, within a range of 10% or less. (See, for example, the Supreme Court cases of Karcher v. Daggett and Cox v. Larios.)
  • Unfortunately, as we know from history, partisan forces within each state legislature will do everything in their power to push the envelope. We can expect to see a slew of gerrymandered districts drawn (ostensibly) to meet federal requirements while also magically guaranteeing results favorable to the majority party in each state. The following two tactics will be used extensively: (1) draw lines that will toss all the enemy voters into as few districts as possible while increasing the probability of victory in the greatest possible number of remaining districts; and (2) try to ensure that incumbents in your party keep their current seats and/or place them in seats in which they can easily be reelected.

We’ll see how all this plays out. Spirited Reasoners know that lawsuits involving gerrymandering schemes are bound to be filed across our great nation as a result.  

Won’t it be fun?