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Redistricting, a Devil’s Dictionary

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Posted on Nov 6, 2011
YouTube / propublica

By Olga Pierce, Jeff Larson and Lois Beckett

This article was produced by ProPublica.

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities—neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors—voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas’ collective interests.

To that end, states are required to redraw lines for districts, all the way from Congress to county boards of supervisors, every 10 years to reflect demographic changes.

But that’s where theory meets the harsh reality. Instead of voters choosing politicians, redistricting at its worst lets politicians choose voters.

Communities can have their influence diluted or overly concentrated by line-drawers interested in partisan gain, limiting minorities’ influence, or pleasing powerful interests. (See our earlier story, The Hidden Hands in Redistricting.) The right lines can all but guarantee an incumbent a decade’s worth of electoral success, or alternatively can help send others into retirement.


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Such shenanigans persist, despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent legal decisions meant to limit them. Indeed, increased mapping technology and know-how have allowed for ever more subtle manipulation of district lines.

Here’s a rundown of the realities of redistricting, and the terms used by critics and insiders alike:

Cracking: This technique splits a community into multiple districts to ensure it doesn’t have significant sway with a candidate. In the ugly racial history of redistricting, cracking was often used to ensure that African-Americans could not elect African-American politicians. The Voting Rights Act banned racially motivated cracking, with some success. But cracking is still common, with the goal now frequently to fracture communities for partisan gain.

Austin: Texas Republicans, who control both the state legislature and the governor’s office, approved very Republican-friendly congressional redistricting earlier this year. A case in point: liberal Austin, which the plan splits into six districts that radiate outward to encompass hundreds of miles of conservative suburban and rural territory. (The Justice Department recently moved in court to block the plan, but not because of cracking in Austin. Instead, the suit alleges, lawmakers tried deliberately to minimize the voices of minority voters. Lawyers defending the Texas plan on behalf of the state say it protects Latino incumbents and creates additional Latino-friendly districts.)

Rochester area: In the 2000 redistricting cycle, slow population growth cost New York State two congressional seats. In a backroom deal, Republicans and Democrats agreed to eliminate one seat each. As part of the deal, the Democrat-friendly Rochester area was creatively sliced into multiple districts so it would be represented by one Republican and one Democrat.

The 28th District is a wide and narrow ribbon along Lake Ontario that incorporates parts of the Rochester area and Buffalo, 75 miles away, and is represented by Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. The 29th District lumps another piece of the Rochester area into an Appalachian mountain district that spans 100 miles south, represented by Republican Tom Reed. New York is still in the midst of its latest redistricting, and it’s an open question whether the Rochester area will be made whole again.

Packing: When faced with too many unfriendly voters, it can also be a winning strategy to limit the damage by drawing them all into one district. The benefit for you is there are fewer of the voters you don’t want in all the surrounding districts. When race is involved, redistricting pros call it bleaching.

Voters in the packed district often lose out because no matter how large their influence in the district, they can only have sway with one representative. If the community members were spread over more districts, and had significant population in each, they could have the ear of multiple politicians.

Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville: Florida’s 3rd Congressional District scoops African-American neighborhoods out of three cities to form a district that has mostly swampland in between. Districts like this one, created in the 1990 redistricting cycle, helped African-American congressional candidates win historic victories. But the districts surrounding it are now much whiter, and thus more Republican, than ever before. Many credit the 1990 redistricting with turning Florida from a blue state to a red state.

Birmingham, Montgomery: At 62 percent African-American, the Alabama 7th Congressional District was already a safe minority district. But when the Republican-controlled state legislature redistricted this year, they extended the district’s tendrils further into Birmingham and Montgomery to carve out African-American neighborhoods and create a 64 percent African-American district. The result: The surrounding districts now have almost no African-American voters. Previously competitive, the districts are now safely Republicans.

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By Robert757, November 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wonder if a more fair election district map could be obtained if drawn by strictly fixed rules ex: every district must have the same shape,maybe a square or hexagon, with the size adjusted so each has equal population. If the starting point of the grid was also defined, perhaps the location of the state capitol building, the map could be drawn by computer program, leaving no room for maneuvers for political advantage by the party in power.

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By ardee, November 7, 2011 at 6:23 am Link to this comment

Blueokie, November 6 at 7:56 pm

I havent the faintest idea of what you are so angry about. But, then, I think that you do not know either.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, November 7, 2011 at 4:31 am Link to this comment


This article is very comprehensive and well worth the read.

It shows adeptly how we have allowed our political system to be “gamed”. And, frankly, we should be have permitted such manipulation in the so-called Greatest Nation on Earth.

The list of machinations: Redistricting, Media Messaging Manipulation, corporate money for candidate campaigns, the illicit Supreme Court judgment that decided corporations have the same “freedom of speech” as individuals, revolving doors at Federal oversight agencies, cronyism (like nepotism), etc., etc., etc ... ad nauseam.

Regardless of the party, Left or Right, we have made of America a Banana Republic. And it is time to right that wrong by means of a profound reformation of the country employing Progressive Values as a political guideline. Which needs a national debate.


So, here is my contribution to that debate.

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By Blueokie, November 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment

Ardee- Really, more than one state?  Thank heavens there is someone like you to
point out the painfully obvious to those not blessed with your intelligence and
insight.  I suppose the qualifier, “those of us in the region”, somehow managed to
slip past that monstrous IQ.  Thank goodness a lowbrow like myself forgot to
uncheck the notify box so that you could beam down on me with your wisdom.

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By ardee, November 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm Link to this comment

This is, I believe, more of a symptom than a sickness. Both parties do the same thing when in the majority, nor is this limited, as some poster’s seem to believe, to one state but is a universal across our nation.

Yet another example of why we need more than the current two parties running things for their own self interest instead of the interests of the people they supposedly represent.

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By Blueokie, November 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

Nice article to introduce just how the Imperialist Corporatist Party with their
Republican arm and their Dim-ocratic arm working in tandem have replaced a
representative republic with the facade of such.  As well as cleaning out the
rampant corruption in this system, doing away with the anachronistic Electoral
College must be considered of equal importance.  For those of us in the region
nothing that happens in the White Peoples Banana Republic of Profound Stupidity
(some call it Texas) is much of a surprise.

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By SoTexGuy, November 6, 2011 at 11:23 am Link to this comment

Yeah! redistricting for Party Unity and Preeminence.. that’s the Texas way for sure!

What else could have possibly given that Clown Perry and the worst face of the Republican party their decade long dominance?

All for the best, right?


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