Civics for Change: Redistricting 101

Redistricting is a term many of us have heard, but what exactly does it mean? In this latest installment of Civics for Change, we’ll cover the basics of the redistricting process, its relationship to gerrymandering, and how it all affects the way we’ll vote for the next 10 years. 

What is redistricting?

In its simplest explanation, redistricting is the process by which we redraw or redefine legislative district lines on both the federal and state levels. While this process includes redrawing congressional district lines as well as state-level ones, most state legislatures are primarily in charge of the whole process. Redistricting happens every 10 years after the U.S. Census Bureau collects new population data, which informs how states redraw boundaries to reflect any population shifts within the district being represented. Since the U.S. Census Bureau delivered redistricting data to the states this month, we can expect the process of redistricting to begin soon, if it hasn’t already.

You may have heard the terms apportionment or apportionment data being used earlier this year when the Bureau delivered the data to the President. How is this different from redistricting? Apportionment also happens after every Census count, but it is the process of dividing up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states, based on population data collected in the Census. So it’s similar, but not quite the same thing. One process (redistricting) uses Census data to revise the legislative boundaries of congressional and state districts, while the other uses Census data to divide up representational seats in the House of Representatives. 

What is gerrymandering?

In an ideal world, redistricting would result in representational districts that have been fairly updated to reflect any population shifts which may have occurred since the last Census. Unfortunately, districts are often redrawn with a bias, the effects of which end up disenfranchising entire communities of voters. When districts are redrawn unfairly, it is known as gerrymandering. This can sometimes cause confusion, if we’re not clear on the distinction between redistricting and gerrymandering. So to start, who is Gerry and why is the practice called that?

Illustration published in the Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812. Image credit:

In 1812, the Boston Gazette coined the term gerrymandering, accompanied by a political cartoon of the updated (and extremely partisan) State Senate districts map that newly elected Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry and his Democratic-Republican party created to favor Gerry in future elections. The resulting map resembled a salamander, and thus the portmanteau gerrymandering entered the American political lexicon.

Since then, both parties have practiced gerrymandering in the U.S. in some fashion as a way to gain an advantage in future elections — and the resulting maps have looked just as strange as Gerry’s Senate district map in 1812. Take a look at some examples from the more recent past, which have inspired other monkiers like “the praying mantis.”

The Consequences of Gerrymandering

As the latest redistricting process gets underway, it’s crucial to understand that gerrymandering can have devastating consequences on Black communities. Gerrymandering dilutes the collective power of communities on purpose, which can have rippling effects for decades to come. 

Other communities of voters, like students, the elderly, and voters with disabilities, have also historically experienced intentional barriers to the ballot box through the practice of gerrymandering. As Ryan Spain wrote for AGF in his 2019 article “The Consequences of Gerrymandering on the Student Vote,” “[gerrymandering] can be exercised in a number of different ways, one of which results in dense areas of voters being broken into multiple districts in order to dilute their collective vote. This form of gerrymandering is most commonly carried out in cities and college campuses and directly impacts the work of AGF to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. For example, in New Jersey, Montclair State University lies within three different congressional districts. In Louisiana, Louisiana State University is broken into two different congressional districts.”

Looking Ahead to the Next Decade

Now, we are seeing updates from the 2020 Census indicating an increasingly diverse population, which means we must remain vigilant and educated about who is in control of redistricting in our local communities and on the state level. 

If we as voting rights advocates want to ensure fair and truly representational elections until 2032, it’s crucial that we understand the redistricting process now, how it can manipulated through gerrymandering, and the incentives which may be driving political parties in power to redraw district lines in their favor over the collective voice of the people they represent. 

To stay up-to-date on the latest Census and redistricting data, we recommend following these trusted sources:

About the Author

Paige Trubatch is the Operations Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She received her B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, with a focus on nonfiction. Prior to joining AGF, she worked at The Garden Club of America and with AmeriCorps.