With the midterms less than a month away, it is no surprise that an Ohio redistricting bill found its way back into our trending bills list this week. Redistricting and gerrymandering have been hot topics throughout the year for legislation and debate. Along with the Ohio bill, a Maryland bill addressing their congressional districts has also been getting a lot of looks on BillTrack50. Let’s talk about redistricting and gerrymandering for a minute and then take a look at those two bills.
What is congressional redistricting?
Article 1, Section 4 of the United States Constitution states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Choosing Senators.”
Each state is assigned a number of members in the House of Representatives based on the state’s population; each member represents one unique district. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that each US House district must have an equal number of people. Thus every 10 years, after the decennial national census is complete, congressional representatives must be reapportioned between states. Further, even if the number of districts within a state does not change, districts still usually need to be redrawn to rebalance districts to maintain equal populations. Legislators and governors in each state are tasked with the responsibility of drawing the new boundaries, but Congress has the right to regulate and modify state plans.
There are two different requirements for redistricting on the federal level, equal population disbursement and adhering to regulations outlined in the Voting Rights Act. There can be more requirements on the state level, such as districts must be contiguous, compact, respect geographic features, communities of interest and be fair political boundaries for competition. Each state has a different method for redrawing their district boundaries and those methods have evolved over the years.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political districts in a way which gives one party a skewed advantage over the other in elections. The quality and relevance of representation and policies enacted by legislators and how they align with community values are affected by district boundaries. Party advantage can be manipulated by “cleverly” drawing districts. Legislators use two main strategies to gerrymander districts: packing and cracking. Packing is when lines are drawn in a way that places as many members from one party as possible into one district, thus allowing the other party to win the rest of the districts. Cracking essentially does the opposite, drawing lines which split a single group across multiple districts in a way that diminishes their power even if they have the majority. Here is a great image from Business Insider illustrating the two most common methods of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has become an increasingly divisive issue in recent years; many people argue that when politicians select voters and voters do not elect politicians, it subverts the democratic process. Although gerrymandering to reduce the power of racial minorities in a district is illegal thanks to the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering to cement partisan power has been considered outside the purview of the courts. Recently, however, courts have been taking cases involving accusations of flagrant partisan redistricting, and have even decided some districts are unconstitutional.
In 2018, the Supreme Court heard two cases relating to gerrymandering Gill v. Whitford, (Democrats accused Republicans of benefiting from gerrymandering) and Benisek v. Lamone, (Republicans accused Democrats of benefiting from gerrymandering). An important gerrymandering concept, which was at the center of Gill v. Whitford, is the “efficiency gap.” This gap is a rough measurement on how many votes are “wasted” — meaning they do not contribute to an election win — as a result of the gerrymandering. The efficiency gap was proposed as a way to measure, mathematically, the amount of partisan gerrymandering, which would help judges define a straightforward test to decide if a district map should be allowed. The Supreme Court did not make a substantive ruling in either of these cases.
The Ohio Bill
OH SJR5 establishes a process for Congressional redistricting. Passed in February 2018, the legislation proposed an amendment to the constitution to establish new procedures for the redistricting. Voters passed the amendment in May this year. The legislation outlines a few different items:
- Following completion of the United States Census, state legislators can adopt a new congressional district map if three-fifths of the legislature’s total membership vote to approve, including one-half of the minority party members.
- If the legislature proves unable to adopt a new map, a commission will be formed to adopt a map. That commission will include the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and four legislators, two of whom must come from the legislature’s minority party. A majority of the commission’s members, including two members belonging to the minority party, must agree on a map.
- If the commission proves unable to adopt a map, state legislators will be given a second chance to adopt a map. The map would have to be approved by three-fifths of the legislature’s total membership, including one-third of the minority party’s members.
All of these maps would apply for ten years, however, if the legislature fails a second time, the majority party of the legislature, without support from the minority party, can adopt a map that would apply for four years.
The Maryland Bill
MD HB1022 addresses what many believe is some of the worst gerrymandering in the country. By simply looking at the map below, you can tell that the lines of the districts are messy and do not appear to follow a discernible rhyme or reason (many think it looks like blood spatter). The Maryland districts are among the least geographically compact in the nation. Non-continuous and non-compact districts are often a telltale sign of gerrymandering.
MD HB1022, which died in committee, would have required Maryland’s congressional districts to be drawn “of adjoining territory, be compact in form and be of substantially equal population,” with due regard given to “natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.” Maryland’s constitution requires state delegate and senatorial districts be drawn this way, but congressional districts are not included in this rule. If Maryland’s constitution imposed these same standards on congressional districts, the current congressional district map would be unconstitutional.
Christopher Ingraham :: Washington Post[/caption]
But Wait, There’s More!
These two particular bills came to our attention because they’ve gotten a lot of clicks recently on BillTrack50.com. But there is a lot more activity worth knowing about. For a fascinating rundown of the various cases over the years, see this great survey from NCSL, and for up to the minute information, keep an eye on the All About Redistricting blog by professor Justin Levitt of Loyola.
Finally, you really should know your own districts and who represents them. In case you don’t, enter your address here and find out, or check out our nifty free BillTrack50 app to find out your representatives and how they voted on various bills, along with information about your next scheduled election.
About BillTrack50 — BillTrack50 offers free tools for citizens to easily research legislators and bills across all 50 states and Congress. BillTrack50 also offers professional tools to help organizations with ongoing legislative and regulatory tracking, as well as easy ways to share information both internally and with the public.