Every ten years, a new US Census is conducted in accord with the US Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, with the purpose of reallocating political representation by drawing new district lines. While the US Census may produce the numbers, the states determine the new district lines. The boundaries are redrawn for state districts (state representative and/or state senate) as well as US Congressional districts.
Each state has its own rules for accomplishing redistricting. Redistricting invariably provokes vicious fighting, unsurprisingly given the huge stakes.
Getting to draw the lines for new districts can greatly influence the type of political representation in that district. Politicians often have control of the process and predictably tend to draw lines that favor their party or their incumbents. With a typical ten year time line, redistricting can effectively yield concentrated political power and dominance for the entire decade.
The notion of once-every-ten-years redistricting was proven to be common practice, but not law according to a 2006 US Supreme Court decision in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry. After redistricting was done in 2001, Texas Republicans decided to re-redistrict when they gained majority control of the Texas legislature in 2003. In a bitter battle which had Texas Democrats flee the state for Oklahoma to deprive the legislature of a quorum, the courts determined that a state could redistrict whenever it wanted. The Texas redistricting episode went on for years.
A practice known as gerrymandering reflects the attempt to draw strangely shaped districts that are designed with political motivations. Gerrymandering is certainly a bi-partisan strategy, employed by whichever party is in the majority, and with freedom from any other constraint. There is no law against gerrymandering per se.
The Voting Rights Act may be cited in order to prevent districts from being drawn that seek to exclude or dilute minority representation. However, the Voting Rights Act has also been cited as requiring that districts be gerrymandered to ensure minority representation.
This led to the creation of majority-minority districts, i.e. districts drawn purposefully to have the majority of the district’s population composed of minority voters. The boundary lines for such majority-minority districts would often have serpentine qualities that defied any logic.
The impact of majority-minority districts was at least two-fold. First, it did ensure that minority representatives were elected to office, increasing the percentages significantly over prior practices. Second, it created two new problems that could be used to advantage by the party in power and drawing the lines.
The first problem was “bleaching,” or turning the districts neighboring a majority-minority district excessively white in racial-ethnicity. For instance, by drawing lines to encompass lots of the African American neighborhoods or lots of the Hispanic American neighborhoods and thereby forming a single majority-minority district, the surrounding districts – maybe three to five districts – may be rendered nearly devoid of minority voters.
The second related problem was “stacking and packing.” By stacking voters of one party into one district, the surrounding districts are packed with voters of another party. The party in power may create a district where it will never win over its opponents for the entire decade, but it is willing to concede that one district since it has drawn surrounding districts that favor candidates and incumbents of their own party. In other words, one district would be given up so that three to five other districts could be sewn up.
In the map graphic above, the 3rd Congressional District of Florida is shown. It is a prime example of a gerrymandered, majority-minority district that also contributed to increased minoirty representation in the US House of Representatives. Congresswoman Corinne Brown (D), an African American, has faced little if any opposition in almost 20 years. That’s no surprise since the district spans an amazing range in capturing minoirty voters. It starts in urban Jacksonville and snakes narrowly south before opening into the wilds of Ocala National Forest in Marion County, then proceeding south through Orlando and even further south, a stunning distance and dispersion.
Future posts will consider the amendment to the Florida Constitution known as the Fair Districts Amendment, and Congresswoman Brown’s lawsuit to block the Fair Districts Amendment from being applied.
Expect to see plenty of passionate discussion about redistricting, particularly in key presidential battleground states like Florida, as well as plenty of lawsuits. The decennial dogfight is on!