Prof. Justin Levitt's Guide to Drawing the Electoral Lines

Ideas for Reform

There is no ideal universal redistricting system. Redistricting is about optimal representation and the best processes for achieving that representation. People disagree about the end goal, and about how to get there. Even when they share common values, people may well disagree about which values they prioritize, in which order, to what degree — which means that different people will think that different solutions are best. Moreover, redistricting depends heavily on context: the right choice in one context could well be the wrong choice in a different place or with a different cast of characters or at a different scale.

That said, there are redistricting ideas that are worth considering — ideas that may improve the process if implemented in the right way in the right circumstances. None of these ideas are “magic bullets.” But they are worth thinking seriously about, alone or in tandem.

The time to think about these ideas is now, even as redistricting battles are underway.  As the dust clears, there will be a window of opportunity for reform: a window that will begin to close as the next redistricting cycle approaches.

Foster transparency

Too often, there is cause to believe that personal and partisan interests dominate redistricting, at the expense of the public interest. Yet there are promising developments. Many states have seen attempts to engage informed members of the public in the redistricting process. Some are spurred by nonprofit civil society groups, educating their own constituents about the importance of redistricting and about opportunities to influence the drawing of the lines. Some are spurred by competitions, encouraging members of the public to submit their own proposed maps as a counterweight to official proposals. And some are driven by the official redistricting bodies, reaching out through hearings or through software allowing citizens to submit comments or suggestions.

If transparency is built into the redistricting process, it increases the chance that the final maps will serve the public and the chance to avoid unintended consequences. There are multiple means to encourage public input: by creating opportunities for official testimony or inviting email comments, by allowing the submission of full statewide plan proposals or just the rough geographic assessment of a local community. Similarly, input can be solicited before maps are drawn or after draft proposals have been prepared … or both.

Transparency requires more than a flow of information to the official body; it also requires information from those responsible for drawing the lines. The same data available to the official redistricting body can also be made available to the public, with or without software to facilitate the public’s capacity to use the data as they wish. States like California and Iowa go further, asking redistricting entities to prepare public reports explaining the rationale behind their proposed lines.

Focus on communities

State redistricting rules like requiring districts to be compact, or to abide by political boundaries like county or city lines, are aiming at a basic representational concept: making sure that people who live near each other, and who are likely to have similar interests, are represented by the same person. But many measures of compactness push districts toward pristine geometric figures, when many neighborhoods don’t fit neatly within circles or squares. And communities of like-minded families may spill over the lines of box-like counties or pockmarked cities distended by annexation battles.

In many states, those who are drawing the lines are asked to consider not just rough proxies for communities of common interest, but to focus on the communities themselves. Building districts around communities can help ensure that representatives know whom they are elected to represent, and what they should be fighting for.

Correct distortion by prisons

Despite prevalent state law explaining that you don’t lose your residence for a temporary absence, Census data shows people in prison where they are incarcerated, and not at the addresses where they last lived. When redistricting is based on this data, districts are built on the backs of “ghost voters,” packing in people in prison who have no connection at all to the other residents of the district or its welfare. This distortion artificially inflates the representation of citizens in prison districts, skewing the incentives of politicians there — and it artificially deflates the representation of everyone else.

For example, after the 2000 redistricting cycle, 1300 of the 1400 people allotted to Ward 2 of the Anamosa, Iowa, city council were in prison. This left political power completely lopsided: the few others in Ward 2 had far more leverage than any of their neighbors in town. Indeed, in districts so distorted, we’d hardly recognize what passes for democracy. In 2006, just two write-in votes were enough to elect the city councilmember for Ward 2.

Counting people at their last known address before incarceration — where virtually all people return when they are released from prison — accounts for representation of whole communities without undue distortion.  Several states have passed legislation to adjust redistricting for prison populations, including several just in the last few years. Many other local governments have done the same, for years.

Adjust the timing

In 2006, the Supreme Court decided that the federal Constitution places no limit on states’ ability to draw and redraw district lines as often as they wish, despite the potential disruption to representation and incumbents’ incentive to tweak lines for personal benefit. Many states clearly limit re-redistricting of state districts as a matter of state law; only a handful clearly limit re-redistricting of congressional districts. Redrawing the lines only once per decade helps maintain stability, so that representatives are accountable to the citizens they serve.

In addition to redrawing lines once per decade, it may be worth deferring the implementation of new districts: using population projections to draw districts now that go into effect in a few years. Deferring the results would make it more difficult for candidates to custom-design districts focused on advantage in the next election.

Seek independence

Elections are based on the premise that voters choose their officials. But because redistricting sorts voters into one district and out of another, incumbent legislators with control of the process have a natural impulse to draw lines by choosing which voters they like and which voters they don’t. To get at this conflict of interest, six states have opted to give redistricting authority to individuals who aren’t beholden to particular elected officials.

Each of these independent commissions is designed differently, and these six represent just some of the available options. Making a redistricting body independent only addresses the conflict of interest in drawing districts to favor or punish particular candidates. It’s possible to add other rules to mitigate partisan bias, or to encourage some districts that are more compact or more competitive or that follow real communities, but independence alone is not designed to accomplish those objectives.

Independence can improve the responsiveness of the redistricting process, but only if carefully managed. An independent body needs legitimacy, which means safeguards — including the body’s size — so that the body reflects the diversity of the jurisdiction. Diversity helps make sure that different interests are considered as the lines are drawn.

Utilize "superdistricts"

A central recurring tension in the redistricting process involves the desire to hold representatives accountable to cohesive popular majorities without losing minority preferences entirely. When districts elect only one representative, it is difficult (and often impossible) to draw districts keeping like voters together that are also competitive and responsive to minority concerns.

For much of the country’s history, state and local legislatures accommodated these concerns by drawing bigger districts that elected more than one representative. For example, for 100 years, 3 Illinois representatives were chosen from each state district, using an alternative voting system that allowed both majorities and minorities to elect representatives of choice. In these structures, the voting system (like cumulative voting or choice voting) is key to ensure that minorities retain voice within the legislature.

Federal law currently limits congressional districts to one member per district, but states are subject to their own laws alone in deciding whether to utilize these larger multi-member “superdistricts.”