What is redistricting?

Redistricting is a legally required process that occurs every 10 years in which districts for the U.S. House and state legislatures are redrawn. Once the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population figures for all 50 states (in every year ending in “1”), seats in the U.S. House are handed out accordingly. Some states gain seats, some states lose seats, and some keep the same number of seats. But regardless of whether or not your state gains or loses, new districts for congressional seats and state legislative seats must be drawn to create districts that are equal (or as close to possible) in population.

For example, the state of Nevada has seen explosive population growth in the Las Vegas area over the last decade, and because of this, it will be moving from its current three House seats to four in the 2012 election. Much of that growth occurred in freshman Rep. Joe Heck’s (R-Nev.) Las Vegas-based 3rd district, which has grown from 666,000 residents after the 2000 Census to more than one million people today, and has more people than any other district in the country. His new district, therefore, needs to cut out about 350,000 of those people in order to make it equal with the state’s other three congressional districts. Because of all these changes, the congressional map in Nevada will look significantly different for 2012 than it does now, and Heck and his Nevada colleagues will have significantly different districts to run in.

Who draws the lines?

Most states put the power to draw the new districts through a normal state legislative process – i.e. the state legislature drafts and passes bills, and the governor decides to sign or veto them. If a bill is not passed, it will then often go to the courts to decide what to do.

But some people don’t like the idea of legislators effectively drawing districts for themselves, so a few states have adopted independent commissions to draw the lines. Currently, six states have commissions, which range from a brand-new citizens commission in California – which is comprised of amateurs selected in a lottery – to one that is appointed by party leaders in New Jersey.

When does it happen?

Every state has its own timetable. A few states have completed the redistricting process already, some are in the middle of it, and some will wait till next year to even start drawing new districts. It is left completely up to the states, with the only requirement being that it must be done by their next election, which is 2012 for congressional seats. (A few states, like Virginia, hold odd-year state legislative elections and must compete their state legislature maps this year.)

Why is it a big deal?

Because redistricting comes around only once every 10 years in most states, and because it is such a complicated process – involving heaps of Census data and all kinds of insider terminology – it’s something only the most politically inclined tend to follow. But often, it can lead to significant turnover in the people who represent a state and the number of Republicans and Democrats in the House. Because of this, both parties spend millions and millions of dollars every 10 years on research and lawyers, in hopes that the map will be drawn in their favor.

The people most concerned about redistricting, of course, are the lawmakers themselves, who can have their political careers made or broken by the process.

How are lawmakers affected?

The worst thing that can happen to a lawmaker, of course, is to have his or her district carved up into a bunch of pieces, or to be drawn into a district with another member of Congress. That makes winning another term in Congress much more difficult. In states that are losing seats, whoever is responsible for drawing the lines will generally target certain districts for elimination – either because of population shifts or the politics of the day – and then draw the map around that eliminated district. Members with more seniority and close ties to the state legislature are more immune from having their districts changed or eliminated, while newer and less plugged-in members are generally the first to get the short end of the stick.

In Louisiana, for example, state legislators were forced this year to eliminate one congressional district due to population loss after Hurricane Katrina. That district, as it turns out, belonged to the state delegation’s lone freshman Republican, Rep. Jeff Landry. There was another freshman in the delegation, New Orleans Democrat Cedric Richmond, but because of the political realities, it was clear from day one that Landry was the most likely target for elimination. Now Landry must decide whether to run against a fellow member of Congress – likely Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) – in a district that includes very little territory that Landry currently represents. (Every election cycle after redistricting features a number of matchups between incumbents.)

Even when their states aren’t losing or gaining seats, though, lawmakers can see significant changes to their districts or even see their districts cut altogether. This may happen due to big shifts in population, but more often than not, it’s because control of the redistricting process has shifted between parties. If a party controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion in a given state, they basically have carte blanche to draw the map however they please. And often, this can lead to big changes and/or gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering?

This is easily the most well-known insider word in redistricting terminology. To gerrymander is basically to draw a political district into an odd shape for some political reason. Often, it will be done to combine communities of a similar racial, cultural or political background in order to preserve a seat for an incumbent. Gerrymandering leads to the kinds of odd-shaped districts that are often maligned by good-government groups. The term was coined in the early 1800s, when then-Massachusetts governor (and later vice president) Elbridge Gerry signed a redistricting bill that included a district that looked like a salamander.

Why is it important this year?

Redistricting is particularly notable this year, because Republicans have nearly unprecedented control over the drawing of the maps. Of the 340 districts that aren’t being drawn by commissions, Republicans will drawn more than 200 of them, while Democrats will draw fewer than 50. This is because Republicans made huge gains in state legislative and governor’s race in 2010 and now control the legislature and governor’s mansion in many key redistricting states, including Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Republicans will use the process to try and shore up their new House majority and add seats that they can win. If they’re successful, they can make holding their majority much easier over the course of the next decade.

What else should we watch for?

Legal action is the 800-pound gorilla that looms over every state’s redistricting process, and there will be plenty of lawsuits over the maps that are eventually drawn. Much of the case law on redistricting is unsettled, and there remain many questions that could be answered by the courts in the months and years ahead – particularly when it comes to districts that feature a majority of people of a racial minority. Look for this issue to crop up again and again, as the courts try to decide what the Voting Rights Act means for those districts.

And though most states do this only once ever 10 years, there have been isolated instances of so-called “mid-decade redistricting,” which Republicans did in Texas and Democrats did in Georgia last decade. Basically, once those two parties gained both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, they decided it was a good time to draw new districts that could benefit their party. But such an action can come off as a political power grab, and Texas Republicans in particular, led by then-House speaker Tom DeLay, got plenty of bad press over their effort in 2003.