The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Phoenix—Redistricting is the million-piece jigsaw puzzle of American politics.

How the pieces are assembled—and who assembles them—can affect control of Congress and state legislatures (and, therefore the laws that get passed by those bodies), racial representation, one person/one vote and a big hulking lot of how democracy gets practiced. Oh, and redistricting is always in one courtroom or another.

Few federal laws govern redistricting, so the process falls to the states, which is a little like every state cooking up its own rules for pro football: In California, field goals count as four points; in Mississippi, you get five downs to gain 10 yards; in Massachusetts, it’s pretty much what Bill Belichick decides it should be.

Kelly Ward Burton; credit MSNBCChris Jankowski; photo credit: Washington TimesTwo of the nation’s most prominent and political redistricting figures traded views during the "State of Redistricting" session at the NCSL Capitol Forum: Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and Chris Jankowski, a national political consultant who ran the REDMAP Project at the Republican State Leadership Committee. They agreed that they liked and respected each other; but that’s about it.

For starters, there’s gerrymandering.

“When you look at the maps in this country there is a real problem with gerrymandering. They were drawn with partisan political interests in mind,” said Burton.

Yet to Jankowski, redistricting is a political issue. “Since the founding of the republic, this gerrymandering issue has been around,” and that Democrats have proven just as adept at it when they have control of a redistricting legislature.

Which leads to redistricting commissions, established in several states to remove the process from legislatures.

Burton supports them.

“We believe deeply in commissions. (Maps drawn by commissions)  are more fair and tend to represent the will of the voters more accurately,” she said. “You have to get the process right to determine who’s on the commission. It’s really important that these people are fair. People do believe that gerrymandering is one of the structural problems in democracy. That’s why you see these commissions pass when they go to the voters.

“Politicians still have a stranglehold on the process.”

Jankowski opposes most of the commissions.

“I believe you can abuse the partisan advantage and I believe there should be guard rails … but I just believe that once you take the affirmative step to take the power out of elected officials and give it to a commission, you’d better get it right. There’s a greater wrong if a commission wants to make competitiveness its top priority.

“The whole fair map concept is tricky. It’s a demonstrable fact that Democrats live closer to each other in cities and suburban areas and Republicans are more spread out. I’m not suggesting it’s why we have such an advantage in redistricting, but it is a factor. If you want to do a more competitive map, you have to crack that, bring some of those lines out into the rural area. I don’t see why the government has to create a commission to say, ‘This is what’s fair.’ “

The Democrats’ strategy in this year’s election is to concentrate on five competitive states where Republicans have trifecta control over the legislature and the governor’s office, and, thus, redistricting: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. Of the 179 congressional districts in which Republicans have redistricting control, she said, 106 are in those five states.

“Those are our top five electoral targets,” she said.

Both agreed that, in the wake of this year’s election, professional and amateur redistricting maps will flourish. (You can try your hand here.)

Jankowski said the GOP’s REDMAP Project, “has been blamed for everything that’s wrong in the country: it destroys democracy, causes polarization. Then Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi happened. Whatever is happening with redistricting, said Jankowski, the people are having the final say and that’s why I sleep well at night.”

And be sure to check out NCSL’s redistricting coverage.

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

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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.