This redistricting process is as old as the republic, enshrined in the Constitution. It has been controversial from the start and vulnerable to distortion. Politicians with the power to draw the lines have done so to gain advantage — whether that meant ensuring that incumbents were reelected or that the political party in power produced districts that gave them a disproportionate share of the seats.

This term, the Supreme Court considered the role of partisanship. But is there a fair and equitable way to draw these district lines? Some states, California being the biggest, have decided the only way to produce fairer lines is to try to take politicians out of the process.

Drawing borders

What is the alternative?

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Every redistricting cycle has produced oddly shaped districts, with lines snaking here and there across counties and neighborhoods. To the naked eye, there is no logic to the lines. To those who have drawn them, they are designed to give somebody, some group or some party an advantage, or to assure that racial minorities receive adequate representation.

In years past, when Democrats controlled state legislatures and governor’s mansions, they did so. In the past decade, as Republicans have gained power in many more states, they have done the same. Democrats now say, as Republicans did earlier, that current congressional district boundaries make it more difficult for them to win a majority of the 435 House districts.

These gerrymandered districts have become easier to draw with the advent of more computing power and more-sophisticated databases. In the past two decades, there have been more-egregious examples of gerrymandered districts.

In urban areas as diverse as Los Angeles, the racial composition of towns and communities plays an important role in how congressional and legislative district lines are drawn.

The districts drawn after the 2000 Census took race into account in the greater L.A. area. The oddly shaped 38th District was designed to link Hispanic communities, with Latinos accounting for 71 percent of the population. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D) represented the district.

This is what Napolitano’s district looked like after the citizen commission drew new lines following the 2010 Census. The commission sought to make districts as compact and contiguous as possible, while also paying attention to racial communities. At the time, Napolitano’s newly drawn 32nd District was 63 percent Latino.

Beginning many years ago, some states began to look for ways to put the power in the hands of more-independent bodies or citizens, although most still involved politicians in the process. A decade ago, California took a radical step by turning over the entire process to a handful of ordinary citizens. Arizona has a similar model. The goal was to take pure politics out of the process and end the protection of incumbents.

A diverse commission

Who made up the group that drew California's lines?

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Even under the best of circumstances, drawing lines is devilishly difficult. Every choice involves a tradeoff, and it is virtually impossible to fully remove politics from the process. There are always winners and losers in redistricting. In the end, an individual, group or neighborhood could feel like they lost out. That was the challenge faced by the 14 California citizens selected to form the independent commission. They quickly learned that even without overt partisanship and with notably idealistic goals, the decisions they were making were more difficult than they had imagined.

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The commissioners had to consider a variety of requirements and priorities as they began their work. Districts had to be equal in population, compact as possible, contiguous and not weirdly shaped. They had to try to respect existing boundaries — cities, counties, neighborhoods and communities of interest — as much as possible. They had to take into account Voting Rights Act requirements, and they were asked not to produce districts that aided or disadvantaged incumbents, candidates or political parties. Taken together, it was a monumental challenge.

The challenge

How the commissioners learned that it is impossible to make everyone happy

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Experts say that the moves toward more-independent line-drawing have reduced the most outlandish examples of gerrymandering — and that the more independent the body, the better the result. But there is limited data upon which to base these views. In June, the Supreme Court sidestepped a decision allegations of partisan gerrymandering in the Wisconsin and Maryland maps. But it could return to the issue due to a pending challenge of North Carolina's redistricting efforts. Even without the court’s involvement, there is growing activity in the states aimed at creating more-independent line-drawing. California is one model that others are looking at, but by no means is it the only one.

About this story

State-by-state redistricting laws from the Brennan Center for Justice. Historical congressional borders from Jeffrey B. Lewis at UCLA. Population and race data from the 2016 American Community Survey. Production and reporting by Jayne Orenstein and Alice Li. Writing by Dan Balz. Graphics by Tim Meko and Reuben Fischer-Baum. Design and development by Jake Crump.

Originally published June 13, 2018.


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