In most states, the primary responsibility for redrawing political districts every 10 years rests with the legislature (the others give the task to a commission). Redistricting is filled with conflicting legal mandates, and newly adopted maps are often litigated. Because redistricting requires so many specialized skills—data analytics and GIS proficiency, legal acumen, negotiation prowess—you’ll need a plan to navigate the process successfully. These 10 tips will make redistricting run as smoothly as possible.
1. Build your dataset. The population numbers used for redistricting come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s P.L. 94-171 Data File. But a headcount is only one piece of the puzzle. Many states also use information from the bureau’s American Community Survey, as well as non-bureau data about demographics and voting patterns. Check your state’s laws first, however, as some prohibit the use of certain data.
2. Choose your software. Texas uses its own in-house software, but most states buy or lease a program from one of a handful of vendors, some of which offer training. In many states, however, all training is on the job.
3. Allocate responsibility. With staffers from many departments involved in redistricting, states can divvy up the various tasks well in advance. Letting members of the redistricting “team” get to know one another by meeting in the months prior to receiving the census data can help with communication during the process itself.
4. Determine the budget. Every aspect of redistricting is expensive—from the software and computers to the training and staff time (both nonpartisan and partisan, depending on your state). Estimating costs in advance can prevent unwelcome surprises.
5. Observe federal law. Federal law requires districts to consist of roughly equal populations (the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote”). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allows race to be considered while drawing the maps but neither exclusively nor predominantly over other factors. The goal is to ensure that all citizens have the same rights, privileges and protections as required by the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Compliance with federal laws must be satisfied before state criteria may be considered.
6. Know your state’s criteria. Laws vary considerably by state but all require that newly drawn districts have some combination of the following attributes: compactness, contiguity and respect for “communities of interest.” Some states avoid pairing incumbents and try to preserve previous district boundaries. A few states also have adopted so-called emerging criteria, which prohibit favoring or disfavoring certain candidates, incumbents or parties; bar the use of partisan data; or require districts be drawn to increase competition between the parties. Some states rank their criteria in order of priority; others take a more holistic approach, weighing the importance of each to the larger process.
7. Seek public input. Redistricting is front and center in American political life like never before. To accommodate the public’s interest in participating in the process, some states have adopted laws requiring that public hearings be held to allow people to submit their own maps. Even if your state has no such law, it may have a history of allowing such involvement. Talk with veterans of the process to learn how things have been done in the past.
8. Keep good records. If your maps go to court, all kinds of information will be subpoenaed. Having a system in place to save records as they come in is essential to complying with court orders and mounting a strong defense.
9. Understand legislative privilege. Knowing how state and federal courts have interpreted privilege can help you understand which types of communications must be disclosed. When lawyers are involved, attorney-client privilege may also apply. Ask your counsel for information about the scope of these privileges in your state.
10. Know the fallback mechanism. In most states, courts will redraw maps if the legislature or commission is unable to do so. Some states charge a particular entity, such as the state supreme court or a backup redistricting commission, with drawing maps if the legislature cannot.
It’s impossible to plan for every redistricting eventuality. But having redundancies and systems in place well in advance will help you handle the inevitable challenges like a pro. And, in a couple years when this is all over, make sure you share every little idea or thought you had for improving the process. The rookies in 2030 will be grateful you did.
Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
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