When Redistricting Is Complete, What’s Next? Election Administrators Get Busy
Every decade, states spend oodles of time on redistricting—revising congressional and legislative maps based on new census data to ensure that each district contains the same number of people. When redistricters (mostly legislators) are done, they hand their new maps to election administrators, declare success and possibly take a much-needed break.
That’s when election officials kick into overdrive as they prepare for elections based on those new maps. The first post-redistricting elections are the primaries held in the year ending in “2.” This decade, the first primaries are scheduled in Texas, on March 1.
The election administrators’ goal during this post-redistricting phase is to accurately wed people to geography, or, more precisely, voters to districts (congressional, legislative, fire districts, school districts, hospital districts, etc.) so each voter receives the right ballot with all the races and ballot questions they are eligible to vote on.
Each state’s processes are—no surprise—different. NCSL has a new webpage, After Redistricting is Done: Election Processes and Implementation, that outlines the general workflow that begins once redistricting is completed. State law governs most steps in the process.
Legislators are always looking for ways to improve election accuracy, and that might mean looking at local redistricting, reprecincting and all the other steps that must take place after redistricting and before candidate filing can take place.
Does this level of accuracy really matter? It mattered in the 2017 legislative elections in Virginia. One tight state delegate race came down to a tie, with the winner chosen by picking a name out of a bowl. The result determined not just who would be sworn in, but also which party would control the House of Delegates. It later turned out that some voters in that district had been misassigned, and no one will never know how the race would have turned out if only the right voters had voted in this race. See this Washington Post article for more.
Another example: In 2011, in Utah, a candidate for state representative won his election, only to learn that a longstanding mix-up between county maps and state district maps meant that he had inadvertently run in the wrong district and had to resign. Since then, Utah has become a leader among states in using geographic information system (GIS) technology for election administration as well as redistricting.
What Can Legislators do to Improve Accuracy?
As always, a good place to start is by asking your state or local election officials how post-redistricting/pre-election processes work in your state. (We know this is the weedy side of elections.)
You might learn about the old school way: “Our old paper maps are beautifully hand-colored with colored pencils,” says Cathy Darling Allen, county registrar in Shasta County, Calif. “I bought the last set of colored pencils for this purpose sometime after the 2011 redistricting cycle.”
Since then, Shasta County has moved to GIS. Even so, Allen says updating all documents, such as street segment files (the portion of a street between two consecutive cross streets that can be assigned to a precinct), “is absolutely laborious, but also necessary, even in jurisdictions like mine that use GIS. There’s a certain amount of double checking in the elections culture that we insist upon.”
“Accuracy is hard to achieve, but GIS can get you closer,” says Richard Leadbeater of Esri, a GIS and mapping software provider. “The goal is to take the federal, state, county and local district boundaries and accurately locate voters within them—but over time these boundaries change, populations grow and shrink, and voters move.” He points to Washington as another state, along with Utah, that has provided its state-level expertise to all local jurisdictions in a recent revamp of elections management.
It’s not a small task to do what Utah and Washington have done, but it is possible to make incremental steps toward “geo-enabling” elections. Election officials may be able to make use of GIS resources from other state departments. One place to look: Next Generation 911 (aka NextGen 911 or NG911), which is being adopted by states and localities to better provide emergency services. NextGen 911 requires each residence to be geocoded, something that could help when assigning voters to correct precincts and districts.
"GIS just makes a whole lot of sense for election administration—it is more efficient, visual, transparent and accurate," says Jamie Chesser, project manager for the National States Geographic Information Council's Geo-Enabled Elections project.
To be more specific, using GIS can help ensure accurate elections by:
Auditing districts: Overlaying many kinds of districts in a GIS system can reveal anomalies. These can include strips of land left out of one or more layers; boundaries that don’t line up precisely from census block maps to district maps; tracts or buildings that are split between two districts; or any number of other issues.
Auditing voter files: If residences can be viewed as points on a map, then voter files can be overlayed with district maps to ensure the accuracy of precinct and district assignments.
Confirming ballot styles: By using the same overlay technique, local election officials can develop a color-coded map based on ballot styles or types, which also makes any mistakes apparent.
Locating polling places: If voters are not sure where their polling place is, they can get the exact location from a GIS-enabled map available on an election official’s website. This is like searching for “coffee shops near me” on a phone. If the jurisdiction uses vote centers, which give voters a choice between polling locations, a polling place locator could also provide information on wait times at each.
Tracking ballots: All states provide some level of absentee, or mail, voting. The U.S. Postal Service uses GIS to update shipment status, which can, where authorized, help to track ballots to and from voters.
Supporting Get Out the Vote efforts: Campaigns and candidates can use GIS-enabled maps to improve their get-out-the-vote efforts. By placing voters as points on a map, campaign resources can be more efficiently deployed.
Visualizing data: Data, such as wait times at polling places, can be visualized geographically. This helps with efficient management of elections resources and with public communications.
Preparing for emergencies: If a fire, hurricane or other emergency develops, reassigning poll workers, voters and equipment will be easier if the problem can be understood in a geographic context. Hawaii used GIS to help voters find new polling locations after a volcano erupted.
Facilitating interagency cooperation: Some say each state’s voter registration database is the closest thing the United States has to a list of citizens. Voter registration lists are largely available to the public, and if they have geocoding, they are far more useful for data users of all sorts. In North Carolina, the state board of elections geocodes voters throughout the state.
Beyond GIS, What Else Can Legislators Do?
- Require all local district maps be provided to a central repository; Arkansas does this.
- Maintain a continuously updated map of all precincts, like Kentucky.
Ensure precincts do not overlap legislative or congressional districts; Colorado is an example.
- Require that local jurisdictions make precinct changes “as soon as possible” after redistricting is completed, and then not again until 10 years later—leaving room for exceptions. Iowa does this. (Local election officials may beg to differ, saying growth and change throughout the decade require frequent adaptations of precinct maps.)
Or, set a cutoff date in statute, after which local jurisdictions are prohibited from making new precinct changes prior to redistricting. New Mexico takes this approach.
Set a date prior to Election Day when new precinct maps must be finalized. In California, precincts can’t be changed within 125 days of the election, and in Illinois, the cutoff is 60 days prior to an election.
Use state-level GIS to visualize the state’s voter registration list on local jurisdictions’ precinct maps; anomalies can be sent to the local election office for review and correction if needed. This is done in North Carolina.
- States can work with the U.S. Census Bureau to improve the accuracy of its data through the Block Boundary Suggestion Project, the Local Update of Census Addresses Operation and the Boundary and Annexation Survey.
- For other ideas—some on the redistricting side of the equation—see ’Tis the Season to Redistrict from State Legislatures News.
“The fewer the errors in election administration, the greater public confidence in the integrity of elections,” according to Local Election Officials’ Guide to Redistricting, from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Those errors can be reduced with attention to the details that start long before Election Day—and right after redistricting.
Election Bill Rubric
With 39 states currently in session and seven more convening in the coming weeks, one thing is on the minds of legislators and staff alike: bills, bills, bills.
But drafting, evaluating and making sense of legislation isn’t always a straightforward affair. This can be especially true in complex policy areas, like elections. NCSL’s elections team recently put pen to paper, drafting a simple rubric to help legislators create and assess effective election legislation.
Every election bill is different, but most affect, in some way, the five areas outlined below. The rubric’s deliberation points give legislators and staff tangible starting points for analysis and discussion:
- Election Administrators
- Costs and Funding
News Worth Noting
2022 Election Legislation
Want to know what’s happening in this year’s crop of election legislation? Check out NCSL’s state election legislation database, which compiles election bills from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories. Users can sort by state, topic, year and more. New bills from the current session will be added weekly.
Be a Source of Trusted Election Information
The National Association of Secretaries of State relaunched its Trusted Info campaign for the 2022 midterm elections. #TrustedInfo2022 is “a public education effort to promote election officials as the trusted sources of election information.” Legislators and legislative staff can support this endeavor by amplifying #TrustedInfo2022 messaging. Find sample social media posts, press releases and further guidance in the Supporter Toolkit.
National Poll Worker Recruitment Day
Jan. 25 was National Poll Worker Recruitment Day, and efforts across the nation encouraged people to become poll workers for the 2022 primaries and general election. In 2020 and 2021, many local election offices faced poll worker shortages due to the pandemic, so increasing awareness of the need for and value of poll workers is more important than ever. Those interested in serving as poll workers can find information about each state’s requirements and sign-up processes here.
Nevadans Can Decline Mail Ballot
Last year, Nevada passed legislation to become one of eight states that conduct elections primarily by mail. Now, voters who prefer to vote in person on Election Day or during the early in-person voting period can decline to receive a mail ballot through an online system launched by Nevada election officials.
New Report on Achievable Federal Election Reform
Many people think our nation needs no federal action on elections at all. For the others, a new report from several organizations across the political spectrum (the Bipartisan Policy Center, American Enterprise Institute, Issue One, R Street Institute and Unite America) makes several recommendations for federal election reform, such as regular voter list maintenance, providing early in-person voting options, conducting postelection audits and consistent federal funding to support elections in the states.
Fighting Cyberthreats and Election Mis- and Disinformation
In a recent congressional hearing, election cybersecurity experts addressed the nation’s need to prepare for cyberthreats and combat election mis- and disinformation. While there’s no single, easy solution, witnesses stressed the need for federal guidance on secure election software, the use of .gov domains for election officials’ websites, collaboration among election technology stakeholders and more.
Should 16-Year-Olds Vote in Local Elections?
At age 18, American citizens gain the right to vote, but some states—such as New Mexico—have considered lowering the voting age for local elections. Mayland gives cities the choice, and most recently Mount Rainier, Md., became the fifth city in Maryland to pass a charter amendment lowering the municipality’s voting age to 16 for local elections. Although no state has lowered the voting age for state elections, 18 states and Washington, D.C., allow voters who will be 18 at the time of the general election to vote in that year’s primary, and 24 states permit citizens to pre-register to vote before they turn 18.
NCSL-er Serving on Uniform Laws Commission
NCSL’s Ben Williams has been selected as an observer representing NCSL on a Uniform Laws Commission study committee on the possible need for, and feasibility of, a model act on election law. The committee will meet several times over the next year and will make recommendations to ULC’s board on whether to proceed with drafting a model code. Williams will participate in all committee meetings and provide NCSL’s perspective to the attorneys who constitute the committee’s working group.
Suffrage—For the Birds?
In the late 19th century, English suffragette Dame Lucy Houston allegedly purchased 615 parrots and tried to teach them to cry out, “Votes for women!” Although Houston’s attempt to enlist birds in the suffrage cause apparently failed, you can read more about her colorful life here and here.
From the NCSL Elections Team
With many legislatures now in full swing, legislators and legislative staff have their hands full drafting and assessing election bills. You know your state best, but if you want the national perspective—NCSL is here for you. We track election legislation and maintain extensive policy resources.
—Mandy Zoch, Wendy Underhill and Saige Draeger