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How redistricting is changing America's voting maps

Attorney Waverly Harkins takes a cell phone photograph of the expanded view of newly proposed congressional boundaries between Hinds and Madison counties following a meeting of the Joint Congressional Redistricting and Legislative Reapportionment Committees at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Attorney Waverly Harkins takes a cell phone photograph of the expanded view of newly proposed congressional boundaries between Hinds and Madison counties following a meeting of the Joint Congressional Redistricting and Legislative Reapportionment Committees at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Redistricting. The process of creating maps to determine who represents you at the state and federal level.

Across the country, nonpartisan and bipartisan commissions – some made up entirely of citizens – are redrawing state electoral maps ahead of the 2022 midterms.

The idea is to take politics out of redistricting. So how’s that going?

Today, On Point: From Virginia to Michigan, we hear how redistricting is changing America's voting maps.


Doug Spencer, associate professor of law at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Manager of All About Redistricting.

Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections. (@mcpli)

Also Featured

Marcus Simon, delegate for the 53rd district of Virginia. (@marcussimon)

Tenisha Yancey, Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives, serving Michigan’s 1st House District. (@repyancey)

Interview Highlights

On the current cycle of redistricting efforts across the country 

Michael Li: "Since the last redistricting cycle — maps were last redrawn in 2011 — a record number of states have enacted some form of redistricting reform to change the way that we draw our legislative and congressional districts. And so this decade, in states like Michigan and New York, states are putting into effect new processes, which are designed to bring the public much more into the process. To take politics a little bit more out of the process, and to produce maps that aren't so much the product of negotiations and backrooms.

"Now, some of these commissions ... are more successful than others. But the idea is that the people should be involved in the process. And that's something that I think people responded to, in part because there was so much abuse last decade, so much what we call gerrymandering and rigging of the maps. People really did respond to that last decade, and push reforms in states across the country, from Utah to Michigan to Colorado."

On the racial impact of partisan gerrymandering 

Michael Li: "The maps that commissions and state legislatures around the country are drawing in right now will be used for the next 10 years to hold elections. And how the maps are drawn will determine who wins power, and whether maps are representative. John Adams, at the founding of the country, talked about how legislatures — and by extension, Congress — should be exact portrait miniatures of the people, as a whole.

"And as a result of map drawing, unfortunately, sometimes you have that, and sometimes you have really skewed maps. So, for example, last decade in North Carolina, which is a 50/50 state and battleground state, Republicans drew a map that had 10 Republican seats, and three Democratic seats. So Democrats had about 25% of the seats, even though they got about 50% of the vote.

"And so that kind of gerrymandering puts a thumb on the scale in a really heavy way. Redistricting also can be a way to discriminate against communities of color, which last decade were 100% of the country's population growth. And yet, in states like Texas, you're seeing that there are not only no new opportunities being created for Latino, Black and Asian communities. They're actually going backwards. They're taking away opportunities, and thus having congressional delegations, having legislatures that are even less representative."

Nonpartisan and bipartisan commissions are redrawing state electoral maps. How are differences in these commissions affecting the ability to draw fairer maps? 

Michael Li: "This cycle is really showing that there's certainly been a lot of reforms. But not all reforms are necessarily created equal. And so independent commissions, where you have strong conflict of interest rules about who can serve on the commission, you have an independent selection process. So for example, in California, you have to be screened by an independent screening board to be put on a finalist list. And then people are picked randomly off of the final list after interviews. And so that's a much more independent process than in other states, where even if they're citizens that are directly picked by lawmakers — so you can pick somebody that you know is going to be good for your party, or good for your interest, your very parochial interest.

"And so those are very different types of systems. Some systems, as in Virginia, lawmakers themselves, actually serve on the commission. In Ohio, the commission that draws the legislative plans consist entirely of statewide and legislative members. And so it's 100% lawmakers. And what we found, and what we see in this decade, is that the commissions where lawmakers are very involved in the process, either by picking the people who serve on the commission, or serving on the commission themselves, it's really hard for them to take off their partisan hat. I mean, they come in with a partisan hat. They keep it on, and they come in with an idea of what they want the maps to be, and they just blow through everything else and get to that point.

"And so the commissions that have performed much better are those that have a more independent process for selecting members. And have strong conflict of interest rules about who can serve. So, people will have views, of course, but it's a little bit like selecting a jury. You want people who can set aside those views and look at things in a clear-eyed way. And to apply the law as it's written, and not come in and decide what they are going to do, having already been decided."

Can we take the politics out of redistricting?

Michael Li: "A lot of times when you talk to people they'll say, Well, you can't take politics out. Everybody has a political view. And that's certainly true. But you can get people who are a little bit more removed from the process, not so clearly tied in ... they don't live and breathe politics. And that can make a big difference. And also, you know, with all these commissions, you have checks and balances. ... For example, in California, to pass a map, you need support from some Democrats, some Republicans and some independents on the commission. So you can't have just like Democrats and independents teaming up to screw Republicans, for example, or vice versa.

"There's a lot of design that goes into a well-constructed commission. Now, in terms of evaluating maps, there are a lot of different dimensions that you would look at. One of which, of course, is certainly how well maps have done for communities of color. But you can also look at the maps from a partisan fairness standpoint, there are lots of metrics that you could use. And so, for example, the maps in California are very fair from a partisan perspective. The maps in Colorado and Michigan have very minimal levels of partisan bias, and those are clear indicators of success. So that's in stark contrast to states like Texas, and Georgia and North Carolina, where lawmakers drew maps and they're wildly skewed. And there are clear examples of how they have tried to disadvantage communities of color in order to help create these skews."

How can people challenge if they think commissions have not taken the politics out of map drawing?

Michael Li: "Commissions have to follow federal law. And so if, for example, they don't comply with the Voting Rights Act or don't get everything completely right there, you can bring legal challenges in federal court. But there also are remedies available in state court. So, for example, in Ohio, both the legislative and congressional maps that were passed in Ohio have been challenged. And just this week, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the legislative plan, which created a Republican supermajority in the state that is not a Republican supermajority state.

"The court found in a decision that those were partisan gerrymanders in violation of the state constitution, the Ohio Constitution. And ordered them to be redrawn within 10 days, and said that the court would supervise the redrawing to make sure that that got done correctly. And so there are remedies in state court, especially where you have these reforms that set clear standards, and then you can go into court to enforce those standards.

On lessons learned in how America can successfully redraw electoral maps

Michael Li: "Virginia offers a lot of lessons. And it's important to understand that in Virginia, the reason the commission is the way that it is, is that in Virginia, you can't put something directly on the ballot. You have to go through the Legislature to pass any kind of reform. And so lawmakers were very involved in crafting this. And it is a little bit of a Frankenstein-like hybrid. And you know, it has its strengths. But you know, it also, I think, shows some of the weaknesses. For example, it is very easy to deadlock in Virginia. There is a really strict threshold for passing maps, and it's always easy to deadlock.

"And it's more likely than not that maps will end up in the Virginia Supreme Court, which did a great job as Doug mentioned. But, of course ... heavy court-drawn maps is not the optimal. Ultimately, you want the commission to draw maps. And I do think both the citizen commissioners, and also the legislative ones, there was just not a really rigorous screening process. If you're applying in California, you have to write five essays, you get interviewed by the auditors office. So there's a really rigorous process for vetting people. Where you let lawmakers directly pick people, that can be problematic. And so there's a lot of design that I think has to go into commissions."

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "Opinion: No, Republicans aren’t hammering Democrats in redistricting. They’re doing something worse." — "With redistricting now finished in just over half the states, a misleading narrative has emerged that the gerrymandering hasn’t been all that bad. By focusing on one narrow fact — that the overall distribution of seats between the parties might not change much — this story misses the full, much grimmer picture."

This program aired on January 14, 2022.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr Twitter Guest Host, On Point
Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.


Jess Yarmosky Freelance Producer, On Point
Jess Yarmosky was a freelance producer for On Point.



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