States’ redistricting processes have always been varied and complex. So it’s no surprise the complexity would increase during a pandemic that threw a wrench into U.S. census data-gathering, which helps determine districts. But Wendy Underhill, director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program, says it could have been worse.
In the lead-up to redistricting, Underhill says, “I was one of the many people who said the delays would mean delays in the elections. I was wrong.”
States have managed to keep on track for scheduled elections, but that has meant scrambling to get redistricting done in time, she says.
At an NCSL online press briefing Underhill offered a comparison between where states were in their redistricting process by mid-October 2011 and where they are now. Ten years ago, 21 states had completed their new maps. This year, only four states have done so.
Underhill notes that modern redistricting was established after a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s created the one-person, one-vote rule. The court said that district lines should be drawn so that the “weight and worth of the citizens’ votes as nearly as is practicable must be the same. ” Up until the 1960s, districts were often wildly disparate in population. In some states, there were districts with 10 times the number of voters in other districts, Underhill says.
Census Data Delayed
In this redistricting round—timed to follow the new census every 10 years—states got the final census numbers in August, more than four months behind schedule. But Underhill says redistricters were already creating draft maps and seeking input from their communities.
While the coronavirus limited public gatherings, she says technology made up for it in many ways, citing a range of options states offered for the public to suggest their own maps and provide their opinions.
She says veterans of redistricting in decades past have told her how they’d type in a map option on a computer, take a disk across town and not get a report to look at until the next day. Now, redistricting officials and the public in many states can draft new map versions as fast as they can type in the information.
Of particular interest this decade is how states can identify “communities of interest,” a term that refers to areas where people have common economic, cultural or other interests. So when the public weighs in on how they view their own community of interest, redistricters gain insights that could make the resulting maps more defensible should they be challenged in court, Underhill says.
And the courts are an integral part of the process, more so than ever.
“You get the census, then you get redistricting, then you get litigation,” Underhill says. And while there hasn’t been a flood of lawsuits yet, she predicts they will come. Courts can be the final arbiter of the maps, she notes.
In some states, there are lawsuits asking the courts to just go ahead and draw lines and not wait for the traditional process this year, she says. In Minnesota, where one party controls the Senate and the other controls the House, a lawsuit has been filed saying, in effect, “don’t even bother (with the Legislature), courts please draw these maps so we can get going on elections.”
Even where the courts may be involved, Underhill says it shouldn’t cause election delays. Courts know it’s crucial to move the cases quickly; if complexity holds up a ruling, the court could direct that an election be run under the existing districts rather than delay an election.
Once the maps are official, a lot more work must happen. Candidates have to figure out which district they can run in; election officials have to make sure the precincts within the new districts still represent the population evenly; and they have to prepare ballots to send to military and overseas voters 45 days before the election. It’s a scramble, even after redistricting is completed.
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.