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CRS — Congressional Redistricting: An Overview

December 27, 2012

Congressional Redistricting: An Overview (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The decennial apportionment process determines the number of seats in the House of Representatives for which each state qualifies, based on population counts (for more on the apportionment process, see CRS Report R41357, The U.S. House of Representatives Apportionment Formula in Theory and Practice, by Royce Crocker). The redistricting process determines where those seats are geographically located within each state. Apportionment allocates the seats by state, while redistricting draws the maps.

Redistricting is a state process governed by federal law. Much of this law is judicially imposed because, in 1929, Congress let lapse its standards requiring districts to be made up of “contiguous and compact territory and containing as nearly as practicable an equal number of inhabitants.” If Congress chooses to legislate again in this area, its authority will come from Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, granting the authority to Congress to change state laws pertaining to congressional elections.

The goal of redistricting is to draw boundaries around geographic areas such that each district results in “fair” representation. An effort to favor one group of interests over another by using the redistricting process to distort this fairness is often referred to as gerrymandering. Aside from distorting representation, it is believed by some that such gerrymandering diminishes electoral responsiveness by minimizing political competition among the parties.

Many of the “rules” or criteria for drawing congressional boundaries are meant to enhance fairness and minimize the impact of gerrymandering. These rules, standards, or criteria include assuring population equality among districts within the same state; protecting racial and language minorities from vote dilution while at the same time not promoting racial segregation; promoting geographic compactness and contiguity when drawing districts; minimizing the number of split political subdivisions and “communities of interest” within congressional districts; and preserving historical stability in the cores of previous congressional districts.

Most redistricting is currently done by state legislatures. Some believe that allowing redistricting to be the purview of state legislators promotes, at best, status quo districts protecting incumbents and, at worst, blatant partisan gerrymandering that can lead to a decade of one-party dominance. Reform efforts mostly have aimed at transferring the redistricting task from state legislatures to independent redistricting commissions. Efforts at creating these commissions have been successful at the state level; however, proposed federal legislation (for the 112 th Congress, see H.R. 453, H.R. 590, H.R. 3846, and S. 694) to create such commissions within all states has not been successful.

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