Every ten years, the United States conducts a national census, and the results of that census inform a wide range of policy decisions—from where hospitals are built to how much funding each state receives for Medicaid. Critically, the Census also determines the number of seats each state is allocated in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Due to the change in population counts and subsequent reallocation of House seats, all states must redraw their legislative district maps, a process that is known as redistricting. Following the results of the 2020 Census, redistricting is well underway in state legislatures across the nation—but the process can be contentious.
Even though redistricting is a battle primarily fought in the halls of state legislatures, it has national implications. For young people, the results of this process are extremely significant, as many of these maps will stay in place for a decade until the next Census and redistricting process occurs in 2030. Learning about how we can take action to combat some of the nefarious partisan activity that impacts redistricting will help us to advocate for a more fair and representative democracy.
Challenges to Fair Redistricting
1. Redistricting Committees Work To Diminish the Power of Communities of Color.
Gerrymandering, a term for the manipulation of legislative district’s boundaries to give one political party an advantage, can greatly influence which party has more electoral power in the state’s Congressional delegation. All too often, it robs power from non-white voters by “cracking and packing” communities of color. States may “crack” communities so that voters of color constitute a small percentage of many districts and don’t hold a majority in any district. Conversely, states may also “pack” voters of color into one district, resulting in people of color making up a large majority of one or two districts, with white people making up a slimmer majority (but a majority nonetheless) in all other districts.
The Texas congressional maps are an example that has drawn widespread attention, as the state is gerrymandered on every level, from the State Board of Education to U.S. House Districts. Texas lawmakers used gerrymandering to pack Hispanic voters into fewer districts and dilute the presence of Black communities in other districts. 95 percent of Texas’s population growth since 2010 was due to people of color, and Texas added eleven new Hispanic residents for every new white, non-Hispanic resident. Despite this, Texas lawmakers managed to add a majority-white congressional district and eliminate a majority-Hispanic district. Texas lawmakers also cut the state’s only majority-Black district in the 2020 redistricting process. Only 39.8 percent of the Texas population is white, yet white people constitute the majority in 59.3 percent of legislative districts.
Maps like the ones from Texas reinforce systemic racism by giving white voters control of more districts, which ultimately comes with the political power to choose the majority of the representatives in Congress. This disproportionate allocation of power also results in voters of color having less opportunities to elect representatives who are committed to solving issues faced by communities of color, slowing down progress on racial justice.
2. College Campuses Are Targeted by Right-Wing Politicians.
College campuses have a high concentration of young people in a small geographic area. Because young people are more progressive on average than older generations, many college campuses are surrounded by large blocks of progressive, student voters, making them a prime target for partisan gerrymandering. College campuses are sometimes cracked and diluted into surrounding districts, while other states may opt to pack multiple colleges into a single district. Both outcomes result in college-age populations having less political power.
Additionally, minority-serving institutions are nearly twice as likely to be gerrymandered compared to institutions that primarily serve white students. Until 2020, North Carolina A&T State University, the country’s largest historically Black university, had a congressional line drawn through the middle of campus, dividing the college into two different House districts. Before a court decision required the campus to be contained into one congressional district, students would frequently cross the district line on the walk from their dormitory to the lecture halls.
3. Prison Populations Are Used To Decide District Populations—Even Though Most Incarcerated People Can’t Vote.
Prison gerrymandering occurs when the Census Bureau includes prison populations in population counts for congressional districts, meaning incarcerated people’s “usual place of abode” is defined as the prison or jail where they are incarcerated. However, many incarcerated people cannot vote due to practical or legal barriers, and many serve sentences as short as six months, meaning their location in the jail was only temporary when officials conducted the Census.
Prison gerrymandering primarily harms people of color and young people, two groups that are disproportionately jailed. Before the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau asked the public for feedback on its residency definitions. The Bureau received nearly 78,000 public comments about prison populations, and 99.9 percent said incarcerated people should be counted in the community they call home, not the place they are incarcerated. By not counting incarcerated people as residents of their home community, prison gerrymandering disproportionately shifts power away from over-policed communities of color and to the permanent residents of prison towns, who tend to be white. In sixteen states, over 75 percent of the incarcerated population is incarcerated in a disproportionately white county. Many of these districts have more Black Americans who are incarcerated than Black Americans who are not.
In 32 states, the state legislature controls redistricting, which can be problematic because the party in power may choose to draw a map that is more favorable to them. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Some states use non-partisan or independent commissions, which prohibit incumbent politicians and party officials from making redistricting decisions. While we should continue to work towards broader redistricting reform that includes criteria to prohibit partisan gerrymandering, there is still action you can take right now to promote fairness during redistricting.
1. Pass the Freedom To Vote Act
The Freedom To Vote Act (FTVA) would increase transparency and accountability by requiring redistricting commissions to publish the data used to create maps. States would be required to use computer modeling to assess a map’s partisan impact and decide its fairness using formal criteria. Legal challenges to partisan gerrymanders would automatically be referred to a federal district court in Washington D.C.
The FTVA would also apply, even retroactively, to all maps drawn after the 2020 census, meaning it isn’t too late to reverse the gerrymandered maps that states have already produced. Tell Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act today!
Most states take public testimony into consideration when redistricting. Preparing written or spoken testimony about the redistricting process is a great way to engage with your legislators and represent your community.
Testifying is your opportunity to explain to mapmakers how their decisions will directly impact you and your community members—and young voices need to be heard in this process. Check out the FiveThirtyEight project to learn more about redistricting in your state, including how to testify.