The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Los Angeles—I got schooled last week at NCSL’s Summit—schooled on how redistricting really works, as opposed to the textbook “How a Bill Becomes a Law” version.

IRedistricting database slidet’s a mix of practicalities—budgets, staff, software, timelineswith harder to define policy choices and political considerations.

Among the lessons I learned:

From Ben Collins (Mississippi nonpartisan staff): Redistricting staff come in three flavors: technical, legal and administrative. For all three, the key skill is communication (which includes knowing when not to communicate, to preserve privacy and confidentiality).

The technical staff, which manages data, software and maps, needs to understand the legal landscape, and the legal staff, which helps policymakers understand federal and state principles, needs to understand the technical side too. Administrators are responsible for keeping all the balls in the air and tracking the action—and they need to know a little of everything. Collins added that now is the right time for a legislature to appoint staff and build skills.

From Kim Brace (Election Data Services): Redistricting is data driven. Data sources are many, and to understand them, it helps to imagine them as a cube. With one cube, it’s possible to include spatial, tabular, political and demographic data—all tracking back at least to the last census. (See the image to the left.) Brace said, "If you don't set it up right, your plan could be defeated."

From Jessica Ring Amunson (Jenner & Block LLP):  Amunson did what I thought impossible: She boiled the legal principles that govern redistricting down to a mere 10 minutes. To do so was a bit like "The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged," which goes through 37 plays in 97 minutes. Amunson touched on federal requirements such as one person/one vote and state-specific requirements such as compactness and competitiveness. (For details, check out NCSL’s Redistricting Criteria and Districting Principles for 2010 and Beyond.)

From Kate McKnight (BakerHostetler): When it comes to redistricting, some courts interpret legislative privilege differently than others. Given uncertainty on that front, and the almost-certainty that maps will be challenged, McKnight’s advice was for anyone who has any contact with redistricting to practice good email hygiene. Why? Because your emails may become evidence in court. She suggests keeping your correspondence short, avoiding “reply alls” and not sending frustrated missives in a fit of pique.

Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director for elections and redistricting.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.