When it comes to redistricting, states can travel in myriad lanes to get to the finish line.
“At NCSL, we like to say there are 50 different ways (to redistrict),” NCSL’s Ben Williams told host John McArdle on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” interview/call-in show last week.
“Who is drawing the lines? What are the rules states need to follow? Are there specific processes such as the amount of time a map has to be pending before it can be voted on by a legislative committee or a redistricting commission? Are there rules around public input? When you take it all into account, you get a wonderful mosaic of policymaking in American democracy,” said Williams, a program principal in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
Redistricting is very litigious … Only eight states out of the 50 have completed some kind of redistricting map. As the numbers go up, so will court cases. —Ben Williams, NCSL
Responding to McArdle’s query about which system, legislative or commission, is fairest, Williams said a neutral barometer is how redistricting maps perform in court, adding that maps drawn by legislatures and maps drawn by commissions are upheld in roughly equal numbers.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a historic wrench into this year’s process.
Granular data from the census is mandated by federal law to be delivered to states by April 1, but the pandemic—as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes in the South and fires in the West—delayed delivery until mid-August.
“That has led many states to have to go to court and ask for extensions of the deadlines or create special sessions to redistrict,” Williams said.
Besides deadlines and consolidated timelines, states have had to deal with increased public awareness and participation in the process.
“That’s something new to states, and they are having to figure out how you take all that public input—whether it be oral testimony at a public hearing or a map submitted over a website set up by a commission or legislature—and archive it and consolidate it and analyze it in a systematic way.”
And don’t forget the lawyers.
“Redistricting is very litigious,” Williams said. “There have already been 25 cases filed, and as of this time, only eight states out of the 50 have completed some kind of redistricting map. As the numbers go up, so will court cases.”
Asked by McArdle if there was any chance some states would not have maps drawn in time for the 2022 midterm elections, Williams pointed to Mississippi and New Jersey, which will conduct elections next month.
“Both states are going to be running their elections based on the old maps drawn in 2011 one more time,” he said. “I would expect all states to redistrict in time for 2022. But this is a fluid situation, and things can change.”
Technology Changing the Game
Technology, particularly computer programs that can spit out millions of maps in a matter of hours, has transformed the physical process.
“Ask people in ’80s and ’90s, and they were using big maps printed out in conference rooms, drawing lines in pencil or crayons and using calculators to add or subtract,” he said. “Today, you have programs that do that in a matter of seconds. The programs typically include some analysis on things like compactness. Does a district have a relatively normal looking shape that’s tight and centered around a particular piece of geography?”
Responding to a caller’s question about using unauthorized immigrants in districts, Williams cited the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case Evenwel v. (Texas Governor Greg) Abbott.
“Texas used total population to redistrict based on one person, one vote and did not take into account a person’s immigration status,” he said. “The Supreme Court ruled that one person, one vote based on total population was an acceptable method of reconciling one person, one vote. The court was silent on whether other methods were also acceptable.
“We don’t know if the answer would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if states wanted to use citizenship, but for now the answer is total population.”
Responding to a Georgia caller who said his district “looks like a balloon with the air squeezed out of the center,” Williams said the shape of a district doesn’t tell people as much as they might think it does.
“Sometimes you have a district that has what you may think look like tendrils or fingers poking out, but those may have been drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “There are many reasons why a district may have a particular shape.”
Mark Wolf is the editor of the NCSL Blog.