Why does Wyoming have one representative in Congress but California has 53? It’s all about population — more people equals more seats in Congress. Today, the U.S. has 435 congressional districts, each one with about 747,000 people.
To figure how many districts each state should have, we rely on the census, which is a count of all people living in the United States taken every ten years. This count gives the government all kinds of useful information on who lives in the U.S. and their demographics — including things like age, race, gender, income, and which country they were born in.
Since people move around and populations change, states draw new maps once a decade showing where each Congressional district is and who lives in it. This process is called redistricting.
The whole thing is very simple and no one ever argues about it. Just kidding.
Drawing the Lines
Redistricting is full of controversy. There isn’t some single, best method for redistricting that everyone agrees is fair, and there are a lot of things to consider when drawing the lines.
For example, should all the districts be tidy, square geographic areas? Should people who have something in common, like race or income, be grouped together so they have a lot of power in one district? Or should they be spread apart so they have some power in multiple districts? Maybe we should make the number of Congressional districts reflect the political leanings of voters overall – so if 60% of voters in a state are Democrats, 60% of Congressional seats in that state would go to Democrats. Or maybe we should make every district as competitive as possible so that candidates have to work really hard to win.
You see where we’re going with this. It’s complicated.
In states with very small populations, like Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota, one representative in Congress is enough to cover the whole state. Easy! In other states, districts have some crazy shapes that you could only come up with if you were intentionally trying to create a district with a very specific population (we’re looking at you, Michigan, Texas, and Maine).
It’s easy to criticize those crazy-shaped districts, and sometimes they are blatantly political. Other times, they make more sense than you might think. One thing is for sure: no one has figured out a perfect way to draw Congressional districts.
Who’s In Charge?
In most states, the state legislature draws the maps – and whichever political party controls the state legislature controls the process. Some states start with a small group of state legislators who make recommendations. While those legislators may hold public meetings where ordinary citizens can speak or submit comments, and sometimes they consult university experts, for the most part they do their work behind closed doors.
The next step, usually, is for the governor to approve the map. What happens when the governor says no? The state legislature can try to override the governor if it has enough votes. If not, a state court will step in to redraw the map.
How fair is this system? It depends who you ask. Some people say that no matter how you slice it, there’s no completely fair way to draw the maps and that politicians do a fine enough job.
Others disagree. They worry, for example, that the public rarely gets to see what’s happening behind the scenes. And since politicians are in charge of the process, whichever party has more seats might try to swing things in their favor using a tactic called gerrymandering (we’ll talk about this more later).
A small handful of states have a different process where an independent redistricting commission creates the maps. In this system, a group of people are in charge of the process, rather than the state legislature and the governor. That group usually includes a balanced mix of ordinary citizens, and sometimes retired judges as well. Some people believe this makes the redistricting process less about politics and more about fairness. Other people say that since politicians are often in charge of appointing at least some of the people on these commissions, they end up being a bit political anyway.
I’ll See You in Court
Once the district lines are drawn, the battle is over, right? Not necessarily. Individuals and groups of people challenge district maps all the time, usually arguing that the lines treat them unfairly.
In Maryland, for example, residents of the 6th District sued the state in 2018, arguing that the district was drawn to move Republican voters out and Democratic voters in, making it a safe Democratic seat. In North Carolina, a state court ruled the same year that the Republican-led legislature drew a map that blatantly tipped the scales toward their own party.
If gerrymandering had a slogan, it would be “It’s Unfair But Everybody Does It.”
Why Redistricting Matters
Redistricting might just sound like the most boring adult coloring book ever, but it has a huge impact on your representation in Washington, D.C. and who controls Congress. There’s a lot riding on it.
Burying Jim Crow
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned states from drawing district lines in ways that might discriminate against African-American voters. Remember, this was the Jim Crow South, where states used all kinds of aggressive tactics to keep African-American people from voting. The new law required that when a state with a history of racial segregation drew new Congressional districts, the federal government had to review them to ensure that they were fair. Fast forward to 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned some key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As a result, that layer of federal review is no longer required and some advocates are worried that future maps will discriminate on the basis of race.
Cracking and Packing
States get very creative when it comes to drawing districts. Two common tactics are called “cracking” and “packing.”
- If you want to give a particular group of people less power, you might “crack” that part of the population into multiple districts. For example, if you crack open a liberal city and divide its residents among five different conservative districts, liberals wouldn’t have much power in any of those districts.
- If you wanted to keep a particular group from having power in multiple districts, you might “pack” them into just one district. Say you pack all the Latino voters in a metro area into a single district. They might elect a Latino representative, but they won’t have much of a chance to push for Latino representation in other districts.
A few relatively recent developments help explain why redistricting has become so controversial. The first is technology. Political parties now have access to sophisticated software with tons of information on individuals. It enables them to make razor-sharp judgments about how we’re likely to vote in the future and then draw district lines to maximize one party’s advantage over the other.
The second reason is that the U.S. has become deeply polarized. Political parties have always fought to win, but these days, political parties are internally “sorted” more than in the past, meaning that nowadays there are very few Republicans that lean left and very few Democrats that identify as conservative. As voters become more polarized, so do the representatives they elect. They really, really don’t want to share power with the other side, and they certainly don’t want to give power to some independent commission that cares less about party politics.
Lastly, there’s the Supreme Court. As we mentioned earlier, the Voting Right Act of 1965 required that certain states and cities get approval from the federal government any time they wanted to change their election laws. But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down that part of the Voting Rights Act, saying that times had changed and that federal review was no longer necessary.
Then, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts don’t have authority from the Constitution to determine whether states are gerrymandering their maps. That ruling has made both parties bolder in several states — both red and blue.
For example, in 2018, 54% of voters in Wisconsin voted for Democratic candidates for the state legislature, and only 44% for Republicans. And yet, Republicans won 63 of 99 seats. That kept Republicans in charge of Wisconsin’s state legislature, and what’s one thing state legislatures do? They draw Congressional maps.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, Democrats have a slight edge among registered voters but control seven of the state’s eight congressional seats.
And It’s Not Just Congress
States don’t just draw maps of Congressional districts; they also draw district maps for your state legislature. When you vote for representatives in your State Senate, State Assembly, General Assembly, or House of Delegates, these maps come into play.
Most of the same rules and issues we’ve discussed here apply to state legislative maps as well. For example, in 2018, 54% of voters in Wisconsin voted for Democratic candidates for the state legislature, and only 44% for Republicans. And yet, Republicans won 63 of 99 seats. That kept Republicans in charge of Wisconsin’s state legislature, and what’s one thing state legislatures do? They draw Congressional maps.
As you can see, a lot of people have a hand in redistricting. Here’s some more detail on who does what. Click on any player to learn more about how they impact other issues.
In 33 states, state legislatures draw district maps for the House of Representatives. Usually, the legislature has a subcommittee that drafts maps, which then go before the whole legislature to be revised and approved. It’s worth noting that several of these states do have advisory commissions for map-drawing, but unless the state has an independent commission, the state legislature is ultimately responsible for approving any district lines.
A state’s governor can play a major role in redistricting. In states where state legislatures draw the maps, a governor can usually veto those maps. In states that have redistricting commissions of one kind or another, the governor often has the power to appoint members to those commissions. In some cases, governors even serve on the committees that draw district maps.
Under the Constitution, states get to decide when, where, and how elections for Congress will take place. Still, it gives ultimate authority to Congress, which can make or change its own rules. Congress doesn’t get involved too often, though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one major example of when it did, by requiring that certain states and cities get the federal government to approve any changes they wanted to make to their elections.
Some representatives want Congress to get involved again. In early 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, a bill that would, among other things, reduce partisan gerrymandering.
In the 1960s, the Supreme Court was instrumental in recognizing that outdated voting laws and racist voter intimidation in southern states were denying many people an equal right to vote. In recent years, however, the Court has gone in another direction, and in 2013 struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on another part of the Voting Rights Act, the one that bans voting laws that negatively impact minorities. Most experts expect the Court to rule that this part of the law is unconstitutional, which means states could try to enact laws that make it more difficult for minorities to vote.
Every 10 years, Americans fill out their census, and the results determine how many seats in Congress each state will have. The census is run by – you guessed it – the Census Bureau. Government agencies aren’t usually too flashy, but things did get spicy at the Census Bureau recently.
In the lead-up to the 2020 census, the Trump Administration tried to include a question about whether the person filling out the form was a U.S. citizen, arguing that this would lead to a more accurate census. But critics worried that this question would discourage people from participating and actually lead to a less accurate census.
Later, the Trump Administration ordered the Census Bureau to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census, meaning that they wouldn’t count toward a state’s population. Since states with bigger populations get more representatives in Congress, this move would have had pretty major consequences. (In case you were wondering, there’s a name for looking at the census and figuring out how many representatives each state should get: reapportionment.) Regardless, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump Administration both times.
In any state legislature, the Republican and Democratic parties have leaders (they go by names like Majority Leader, Minority Leader, or Speaker). These party leaders often play a role in selecting at least some of the people who create district maps, whether on legislative committees or politician and advisory commissions. What this means is that even in states where non-legislators (aka non-politicians) have the opportunity to sit on redistricting commissions, seats usually go to party insiders and other well-connected people.
State courts and judges
As we mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court ruled recently that the federal courts should not be making decisions about gerrymandering and redistricting. State courts, however, are another story. In some states the chief justice of the state supreme court nominates members of redistricting commissions. State courts might also be in charge of certifying the district lines drawn by state legislatures, or can be called in to redraw maps if legislatures and the governor can’t come to an agreement.
Independent Redistricting Commissions
A small handful of states have a different process where an independent redistricting commission creates the maps. In this system, a group of people are in charge of the process, rather than the state legislature and the governor. That group usually includes a balanced mix of ordinary citizens, and sometimes includes retired judges. Some people believe this makes the redistricting process less about politics and more about fairness.
Politician & Advisory Commissions
Different states, different commissions. You might have a “politician” commission, which tends to be made up of current and former elected officials and party insiders. Some states use an “advisory commission,” usually a mix of political insiders and citizen experts, like college professors. In either case, while these commissions do participate in the process, ultimate authority still rests with state legislatures.