Up Front

Web Chat: The Politics of Congressional Redistricting

Thomas E. Mann

Following each decennial Census, states re-draw the boundaries of their voting districts, often to the benefit of one party over another. Some states which have lost population lose seats in the House of Representatives and some growing states gain. This highly-charged political process is taking place against a backdrop of fierce partisanship at the national and local levels at a time when sophisticated redistricting technology is widely available and when the decisions made by state governments will reverberate in the coming elections.

On April 20, Thomas Mann answered your questions on the status of the redistricting process, and efforts for reform around the nation, in a live web chat moderated by David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO.

The transcript of this chat follows:

12:31 David Mark: Welcome to the chat. I’ll open the discussion by asking about Texas, which will get four new House seats through reapportionment. Will Republicans realistically be able to add four new seats or will gains be limited by Voting Rights Act regulations?

12:33 Tom Mann: This is a case in which complete partisan control of the redistricting process is no guarantee that the majority party will reap the benefits of additional seats in the state delegation. Over a majority of the population gains in Texas have come from Hispanics and many of them are concentrated in urban areas. They will almost certainly garner at least two of the four new seats and the odds are that Democrats will win those seats.

12:36 David Mark: California for the first time will draw districts based on recommendations by a non-partisan citizens panel. Will this put incumbents in danger and how else might it affect the redistricting process?

12:40 Tom Mann: California has specialized in eliminating competitive House districts through the redistricting process. No other state comes close to them. The new commission is almost certain to put some incumbents in both parties in more competitive districts. However, it is not clear that one party will gain. The current lineup of seats by party pretty much reflects their statewide strength.

12:40 [Comment From Dan: ] Who’s got the edge in the redistricting process across the country – Democrats or Republicans, and why?

12:45 Tom Mann: Republicans have a clear advantage because of their success in the 2010 midterm elections, in which they took control of many governorships and state legislatures. They control the process in 17 states with roughly 200 seats while the Democrats are in charge in only 7 states with 49 seats. But there are other factors limiting Republican gains, including the fact that they now have many seats in districts won by Obama in 2008 (60). Republicans will likely put a higher priority on shoring up some of their vulnerable incumbents than in drawing new Republican districts.

12:45 [Comment From Sally: ] Is it all 50 states that will see new congressional district boundaries? I have heard only about Texas and Ohio. Is that where the big fights are?

12:46 [Comment From Stephanie: ] We’ve limited the House to 435 members for many years now, but there was a time when the size of the House changed with the Census. What’s the history on that? Why did they decide to cap it, and should it stay capped?

12:47 Tom Mann: States with only a single House district have no congressional boundaries to redraw. All of the others have to redistrict to account for seat gains/losses and/or population shifts within states. Major battles are shaping up in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina as well.

12:48 [Comment From John: ] It looks like the south and the west will gain seats, while the industrial northeast and the farm heartland will lose. Who makes the ultimate decision on which states will win or lose a seat? Is that process complete?

12:50 Tom Mann: That Apportionment process is complete. It is determined by a congressionally-approved formula applied to new census data. Ten states, mostly in the industrial north/midwest, will lose 12 seats. Eight states, including 4 in Texas and 2 in Florida, will gain a total of 12 seats.

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12:50 [Comment From Rebecca: ] You’ve written about how political this process is, and some call redistricting the “incumbent protection” process. Is that good or bad?

12:56 Tom Mann: Redistricting in most states in done through the normal legislative process. (A few states use a bipartisan or independent redistricting commission.) Political self-interest — protecting the interests of incumbents and/or the dominant party — drives the process and is constrained only by requirements for equal population, protection of minority interests, and some other criteria specified by individual states. I believe this self-interest should not automatically prevail over broader public interest in competitive elections, accountable elected officials, and communties of interest.

12:56 [Comment From Don: ] How can we best reform the redistricting process and remove the partisanship that seems to dominate it?


1:02 Tom Mann: There are a variety of approaches. One is to alter the basic electoral system by moving from single-members districts to some form of proportional representation. Another is to lodge redistricting authority with independent, nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions. Arizona and now California are two examples of this. Yet another is to build into state (or federal) law requirements for competitive elections and partisan fairness. Finally, a new effort underway this cycle is to rely on transparency and public participation to create alternative maps and use them to bring pressure to bear on those with formal redistricting authority. I’ve been involved in a collaborative effort to develop open-source mapping software to do just that. It is being picked up by individuals and groups around the country. You can get information at publicmapping.org.

1:02 [Comment From Joe: ] How can ordinary citizens get involved? The whole redistricting system seems rigged to me.

1:02 Tom Mann: My last answer is directly responsive to your question.
Wednesday April 20, 2011 1:02 Tom Mann

1:03 [Comment From Tom: ] I saw Rep. Dennis Kuchinich on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and he said his district was going to disappear entirely. Does that really happen?

1:05 Tom Mann: Ohio will lose two seats. That means two current incumbents will be out of a job in Ohio, 12 nationally, just because of reapportionment. Kuchinich may well survive this process but it will be driven by Republicans, since they control the process.

1:05 David Mark: Thanks for joining us today.