What is Gerrymandering?

POLITICS

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that North Carolina’s legislature unlawfully relied on race when drawing two of the state’s congressional districts. (SCOTUSblog)

Use this great lesson plan on redistricting and gerrymandering from the good folks at KQED.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Discussion Ideas

  • The Supreme Court just decided a case concerning redistricting in North Carolina. What is redistricting?
    • Redistricting is just what it sounds like—the process that establishes the boundaries of an electoral district represented by a member of the U.S. House of Representatives or other legislative body. Districts determine who votes where.
    • Legislative districts are reconsidered every 10 years (after the Census is conducted) to make sure each district represents about the same number of people. As of the 2010 Census, a legislative district has about 700,000 constituents. Districts are redrawn for a number of reasons.
      • population increase. Increased population density in one district could lead to that district being divided.
      • population decrease. Migration out of a district could mean that district could join another.
      • compliance with the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures protections for the voting rights for all citizens. The video above outlines it succinctly: “You can’t clump all the people of color into one district, or spread them out so much that their vote doesn’t mean anything.”

 

  • “This is a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering,” said former attorney general Eric Holder. What is gerrymandering?
    • Gerrymandering describes the process of determining the boundaries of an electoral district to favor a particular party or demographic.
    • Gerrymandering is very complex, but can be broken into two major components: cracking and packing.
      • cracking. Cracking describes the process of diluting the voting power of a population center controlled by the opposition, by “cracking” that district into several geographically larger, but more sparsely populated districts.
      • packing. Packing describes the process of concentrating opposition voters into as few districts as possible.

 

  • Why are redistricting and gerrymandering so important?
    • Legislative districts give incumbent parties political power. That power includes shaping and apportioning budgets, determining school rules and standards, and deciding how to use public lands and resources.
    • Cracking and packing can reduce the political power of one political party, or “community of interestneighborhoods, such as Chinatowns or gay villages.

 

  • How did SCOTUS rule in the recent redistricting decision? Take a look at the short SCOTUSblog article for some help.
    • The justices (minus new Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was not on the court when the case was heard in December) affirmed a lower court’s ruling, that the redistricting process relied too much on race when determining the boundaries of North Carolina districts 1 and 12. (Take a look at the districts here.) In other words, the state had packed African-American voters into those districts while reducing the influence of African-American voters in the rest of the state.
      • Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion: “The Constitution entrusts States with the job of designing congressional districts. But it also imposes an important constraint: A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason. In this case, a three-judge District Court ruled that North Carolina officials violated that bar when they created two districts whose voting-age populations were majority black. Applying a deferential standard of review to the factual findings underlying that decision, we affirm.”
    • According to the Washington Post, “Election law experts said the ruling could make it easier to challenge redistricting decisions that were justified on partisan grounds.”

 

  • How might states and localities avoid gerrymandering when redistricting?
    • listen to the public. Redistricting is usually conducted in private political committee meetings. Redistricting commissions and committees could hold public hearings, make drafts available to the public, and invite discussion from constituents.
    • don’t let politicians do it. In most western democracies, politicians are not involved in the redistricting process. In 2011, California established the nonpartisan, 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Committee members are not politicians, and are responsible for drawing districts containing equal populations, ensuring minority representation, and trying not to divide city and county neighborhoods.
    • don’t let people do it at all. Some critics of current redistricting methods think states should use computers to design districts. Computer algorithms, they argue, could eliminate any political data whatsoever.

 

  • Find your district! All you need is your zip code.
    • What considerations do you think went in to determining your district boundaries in 2011?
    • Do you think your district boundaries will change after the 2020 Census?

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

SCOTUSblog: Court strikes down N.C. districts in racial gerrymandering challenge

Washington Post: Supreme Court rules race improperly dominated N.C. redistricting efforts

KQED: Redistricting and Gerrymandering lesson plan

SCOTUSblog: Cooper v. Harris

(extra credit!) Supreme Court of the United States: No. 15-1262 Roy Cooper, Governor of North Carolina, et al. v. David Harris, et al.

InsideGov: Congressional District Lookup

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