Redistricting and Representation 101

The 2010 decennial census is nearly complete and within the next couple of months US states will once again be redefining congressional district lines. For practical reasons, redistricting is a necessary process in the US political system. US House of Representative districts must be relatively equal in population size and from time to time district lines must be redrawn to account for population shifts.

Although there are practical reasons for redistricting, the actual practice is subject to partisan bias. There has been a great deal of debate over how to provide safeguards against this bias and “fairly” draw district lines. Yet, even with these safeguards, drawing lines may still be difficult because federal law requires states to ensure that minority populations have ample opportunity to select representatives in their states. As I will discuss below, meeting the criteria for this federal requirement is not a straightforward process.

In order to prevent the potential for partisan bias in redistricting, several states have created strict procedures dealing with redrawing district lines. These procedures limit who can formulate the redistricting plans, what data they can use to do this, the rules and procedures they must follow when redrawing district lines, and who must approve their plans once they are complete. Some states prevent legislators, legislative appointees, public officials, and other politicians from drawing up plans. Some states also prevent the designers of the plans to use data dealing with party registration, election results, socio-economic status, or incumbent residences when drawing district lines. Furthermore, some states require that plans be subject to a public hearing and/or judicial review before they are finalized.

Even if states are able to create a non-partisan commission that is capable of impartially drawing district lines, states may still run into problems when ensuring, by federal law, that minority populations in their states have a fair opportunity to select representatives of their choice.  Ensuring that minorities are able to elect a representative of their choice is not a straight forward process. There are two approaches to ensuring that minorities are represented: the “majority-minority district” approach and the “influence district” approach (see Figure 1). In the “majority-minority district” approach, districts are drawn to ensure that districts either have a majority of the “majority group” or a majority of the “minority group”. In the “influence district” approach, “minority groups” make up a small, but significant percentage of the population in multiple districts. Although this ensures that the “minority group” cannot elect a representative of their own choice, this does ensure, given their numbers, that they can significantly impact electoral outcomes (as in, be the decisive voting bloc in the electoral outcome).

Supporters of “majority-minority districts” approach argue that this approach ensures descriptive representation for minorities. Minorities are able elect someone like them, and this ensures that there is a legislator who is fighting for their interests. Opponents of the “majority-minority district” approach argue that by concentrating minorities in one district, you bleach the other districts surrounding it, ensuring that the legislators in the other districts care less about minority interests. They suggest that it is not enough to have a small number of minority representatives in Congress if the other representatives care little about minority interests. They argue that it is better to split up minority populations into “influence districts” so minorities can influence multiple legislators, making it likely that more legislators have a vested interest in representing minority interests (even though those legislators will not be members of the minority group themselves).

There are several critiques of the “influence district” approach that Richard Engstrom thoroughly examines in an upcoming paper about influence districts in an edited volume by Dan McCool, The Most Fundamental Right: The 2006 Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Engstrom’s main focus is analyzing how social scientists and courts concretely define “influence districts”. He argues that there is no adequate definition for what a “influence district” is and the lack of definition creates several issues for those who draw and ratify district lines. Furthermore, the ambiguity makes it hard for social scientists to determine whether minorities in “influence districts” actually affect electoral outcomes in these districts.

Another critique of the “influence district” approach that  Engstrom discusses suggests that minority representatives are better at representing minority interests than representatives from “influence districts”. Empirical evidence does support this argument: African-American representatives are the best at representing minority interests in the House. Furthermore, other critiques suggest that “influence districts” only persuade Democrats to better represent minorities, not Republicans. In fact, many have made the argument that increasing the number of minorities in a Republican “influence district” only encourages Republican candidates to be more hostile towards minority interests.

Based on the above critiques, if states and courts want to keep using “influence districts” to ensure minority representation, they almost certainly have to ensure that these “influence districts” elect Democrats (ideally minority Democrats) as the representatives. Two conditions must be met for this type of influence district to exist: the “minority group” voters must be unified in voting for the Democrat and the “majority group” voters must be divided enough to split their vote between Democrats and Republicans (furthermore, in order for a minority candidate to be elected, the “majority group” Democrats have to vote for the minority candidate in both the primary process and in the general election). Regardless of the conditions, this type of influence district creates the potential for partisan bias in defining House districts, as it ensures that only Democrats get elected in many districts.

In sum, redistricting is a necessary process in the US political system, but it is subject to partisan bias. Even if states create rules and procedures to overcome this bias, officials still have to ensure that minority populations in their states receive adequate representation. The actual practice of doing so is subject to debate. Currently both “majority-minority districts” and “influence districts” are used to ensure minority representation, but it is unclear if either approach accomplishes this goal. The former approach ensures descriptive representation, but limits how much legislators outside minority districts care about minority interests. The latter approach may encourage multiple legislators to care about minority interests, but only if those legislators are Democrats. This debate may not be resolved for some time. It will definitely be something that we will all soon read and hear about in the news as states begin to redraw district lines in early 2011.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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