Friday, November 12, 2010

Know Your District

This year’s election was about more than who your community sends to the state capital and Washington in January. It's also about who will be redrawing your district lines early next year--which will influence who your community elects for the next 10 years.

Let’s start from the beginning: A Census is conducted every 10 years, and the results determine how many of the 435 Congressional seats each state receives. Once the number of representatives is allocated, each state redraws its districts to account for population changes. At least in theory. In practice, districts are generally redrawn for political purposes, a practice known as gerrymandering.

Although there are guidelines for the redistricting process--each district must be compact, contiguous, equal in population and there must be an equal opportunity for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice--the process is open to political influence. A few tactics include:
  • Partisan gerrymandering: when the party in control of the redistricting process draws the line to maximize the power of their own party.
  • Bi-partisan gerrymandering: when the parties redraw the lines to ensure reelection for incumbents of both parties.
  • Racial gerrymandering: when districts are created in such a way that minority voters have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
Gerrymandering is also the name of a new documentary from director Jeff Reichert.

The film does an excellent job of covering compelling redistricting stories, such as an up and coming candidate in Brooklyn who was drawn out of his district by the incumbent--a technique known as hijacking. Filmmakers also traveled to Anamosa, Iowa, where a candidate was elected by only a handful of voters because most of the district’s population was locked up in the local prison. (Learn more about prison-based gerrymandering from the Prison Policy Initiative.)

Each state redistricts differently, and Reichert urged reforms that incorporate state’s own traditions, public review and comments, and more. And while the film reminded viewers that "gerrymandering" ought to be pronounced like "Gary," (after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry) and not "Jerry"—that’s one reform which is not likely to be adopted.

Now that you’re interested in the process, you can take a stab at this complicated task by playing The Redistricting Game online. Meanwhile, stay tuned for our next post on redistricting reforms from this year’s midterm election!

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