Redistricting: Your questions answered

By: - April 23, 2021 6:00 am

The Minnesota State Capitol, pictured in the summer.

Redistricting is just every ten years, so it is easy to miss. The process can seem intentionally murky and designed to allow politicians to choose their voters instead of the other way around. Frustrating as it may seem, understanding redistricting is a key step in being informed about who represents you. Here’s the basics: 

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the term for the redrawing of congressional and state legislative boundaries every 10 years after the census. People move about and the population shifts between areas. Because district populations are supposed to be roughly equal, the boundaries that create those districts must occasionally shift. 

What is gerrymandering?

The term gerrymandering comes from an incident in early 19th century American political history, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill creating senate districts meant to divide the support of the Federalist Party, thereby creating a district more favorable to Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party. (The map resembled a salamander; Gerry+mander = gerrymander. A famous political cartoon arose out of the incident.) It describes the use of redistricting to benefit a specific group or political party.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say a state is roughly 50% Republican and 50% Democrat, and there are 10 congressional districts. You can draw the lines in such a way as to pack all the Democrats into just a couple of districts, and give Republicans a clear advantage in the rest. 

The classic example with a racial component is the North Carolina congressional map from the 1990s. Using demographic data and newly sophisticated mapping software, the drafters of the map connected far-flung minority neighborhoods throughout the state into a single district; this map was later struck down by the Supreme Court in Shaw v. Reno. Gerrymandering specifically based on race has been declared unconstitutional, but there is no such limit on gerrymandering based on partisan affiliation. 

Wisconsin’s legislative maps are heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans, allowing them to lose statewide races while maintaining comfortable legislative majorities. Even though 54% of the popular vote went to Democratic candidates during the 2018 state Assembly elections, for instance, Republicans won 63 of the 99 seats.

This early 19th century cartoon satirized a political map meant to help Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that questions of partisan gerrymandering are political in nature, and that the federal courts should therefore not address them. The Republican gerrymander of the Wisconsin Legislature was allowed to stand without any changes. Minnesota lawmakers could use gerrymandering, but the two parties share control of the Legislature, so partisan gerrymandering is off the table here. 

Why does redistricting matter?

The results of redistricting determine which districts you live in and who represents you in the Legislature and Congress. These are the lines that keep neighbors in Minnetonka from being lumped in with their counterparts in Eden Prairie. 

In a broader sense, the lines drawn at the Capitol — or more likely this time in the state Supreme Court — create political communities for the next decade and indirectly steer the political composition of both chambers of the Legislature. If the maps are drawn to favor a single party, the favored party will dominate the Legislature for the next decade, even if the state as a whole prefers a different party. 

Redistricting is more than just political parties jockeying for advantage. It also reflects genuine changes in the state’s geography. The Twin Cities, for example, have been growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the state, which means they will be home to more legislative seats after redistricting. Since some greater Minnesota regions have been stagnating or losing population, they will be losing seats — and, thus, influence — at the Capitol. The same is true at the national level, where Minnesota could lose a congressional district to states — mostly in the Sun Belt — that are growing faster.

How is Minnesota redistricted?

In Minnesota, as in many other states, the Legislature is supposed to complete redistricting every 10 years. Once the census data is released to the states and the number of congressional seats apportioned, new maps are drafted in committees and must be passed like any other piece of legislation. By necessity, both chambers of the Legislature and the governor must all agree on the same maps, which will be used starting in the 2022 election cycle. 

That looks unlikely this year. The Legislature is divided, with GOP control of the Senate and Democratic-Farmer-Labor control of the House. In addition, Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat. Amy Koch, Republican operative and former Senate majority leader who sat on the Senate Redistricting Subcommittee in 2011, expects that the Legislature will not be able to agree upon a single version of each map, just as they have not been able to for the past five redistricting cycles. 

If the Legislature cannot agree on a map, who draws the maps?

With lawmakers unlikely to agree on new maps, Peter Wattson, a retired longtime Senate counsel, is lead plaintiff in the first challenge in the nation to a congressional or legislative redistricting plan this decade. The idea behind this complaint is to kickstart the process of appointing this cycle’s judicial panel, so that Minnesota’s judicial branch is prepared to redistrict in the event that the Legislature cannot come to an agreement.

This has been the case in Minnesota during every redistricting cycle since 1971. Since 1991, the Minnesota Supreme Court has appointed a special redistricting panel, made up of active and politically balanced members of the state district courts and court of appeals, to draft and approve the new maps. 

Wattson said that the actual drawing of the new maps will be done by a special redistricting aide hired by the panel, but that final approval lies with the panel itself. He cautioned not to expect any major changes to any district boundaries outside what is necessary for the relative population balance. Koch said she agrees with this assessment and expects most of the district growth to be centered on the inner-ring suburbs.

Wattson calls this a ‘least changes’ plan, which the state courts have been following since at least the 1980s. In 1972 and 1992, federal three-judge panels attempted to make major revisions to the previous legislative plans, before having their more “creative” plans struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court for being too drastic.

Has the pandemic affected the process this year?

Although there was some concern that former President Donald Trump’s proposal to rush the census data release would lead to lower quality data, the Biden administration’s delay of that data may enable it to meet the quality standards of previous censuses. The data that determines how many congressional seats each state gets should be released by the end of April.

The more detailed demographic data necessary for redistricting is expected sometime from the middle of August to the end of September. This timeline does present a challenge for other states that have elections this year, but Minnesota should have time to redistrict even with the delay. During the last redistricting cycle, the maps were not published until mid-February of the election year. 

Still, the delay creates problems for political operatives and parties as they attempt to prepare for 2022. Recruiting candidates for district races is difficult when candidates don’t know what the district will look like. 

Koch said the delay more broadly affects incumbents, especially those with doubts about running for re-election. 

In Minnesota, candidates must live in the district in which they run, creating questions for certain candidates about if they will even be eligible for the districts they are considering. In addition, fewer people are paying attention to the process, meaning there could be fewer candidates with experience outside the traditional realms of politics and law.

What are some changes we can expect with these new maps?

More districts will be clustered in the major cities, while districts in the rural areas of Minnesota will be still larger. This is Minnesota following the national trend of urbanization. Comparatively fewer people living in the rural counties and small towns of Minnesota means fewer districts in these areas. 

Wattson expects that Minnesota might lose a congressional district, resulting in more people in each district, with the rural districts expanding the most. 

As part of his lawsuit, Wattson has submitted his own redistricting proposal, in which he would eliminate the rural 7th Congressional District. He would divvy it up by giving the northern half to the 8th District, which traditionally covers northeast Minnesota and is anchored by Duluth. The southern half would go to the heavily rural 1st District, anchored by Rochester. The Twin Cities would still be in separate congressional districts, due to their high populations but also tradition. Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been represented by different members of Congress since 1891, a streak unlikely to change next year. 

In the Legislature, the most urbanized counties will gain additional House districts. Hennepin and Ramsey are home to either the entirety or the population core of 29 and 12 districts, respectively. 

The population increases in both these counties mean they should each gain one whole additional district, and possibly more if the map is drawn to have the core population in these two counties with arms reaching into the surrounding areas. Even though more mixed counties like Olmsted, Washington and Anoka are growing at prodigious rates, the number of districts or cores within their county lines are expected to stay the same. The population growth in the Twin Cities and their innermost suburbs overshadows the surrounding exurbs and other metropolitan areas.

Politically, Koch expects the GOP to continue their dominance of greater Minnesota districts, while the DFL dominates in urban neighborhoods and expands their reach in many suburban areas. 

Redistricting will not affect the political and demographic trends in these areas; it only responds to them.

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Lucas Brooks
Lucas Brooks

Lucas Brooks is a college student from Tennessee. He first became interested in politics after the 2016 election and maps state legislative election results. In his free time, he loves to hike and antique-hunt for landscape paintings.