Redistricting: States Poised to Make the Decisions of a Decade

Since the 17th Amendment severed the direct relationship between state legislatures and the U.S. Senate nearly 100 years ago, the redistricting process has become the single most important lever for states to influence the composition of Congress.   With the mid-term elections over, and new majorities waiting in the wings in 19 state legislative chambers (see breakdown here) as well as the U.S. House of Representatives, all eyes will soon turn to state capitols for redistricting decisions that will likely echo out for a decade to come.

While the number of Congressional seats is determined by population, each state has its own process for utilizing the information to redraw Congressional and statehouse districts. In 42 states the processes is done in the state legislature and then confirmed by the governor and in some states the state supreme court as well.  Seven states use independent commissions appointed by the legislature to redraw the district lines which then must meet further review by other governing bodies. While the results of these commissions must usually be ratified by another governing body, the result’s of Arizona’s commission of non-elected residents does not need final legislative input or approval (see breakdown here).

This week’s election also witnessed three state ballot initiatives that could impact redistricting decisions. California approved Proposition 20 granting authority for drawing Congressional district lines to the independent commission which already draws state legislative boundaries.  Oklahoma voters approved State Question 748 revising the composition of the Oklahoma Reapportionment Commission which sets state legislative district lines, but not Congressional districts.    Finally, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments requiring Congressional and state legislative districts to follow city, county, or geographical boundaries. The amendments also stipulate that districts must have similar population distribution, be compact, and must not favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent or disenfranchise any racial or ethnic group.

Changes in party affiliation and new redistricting procedures will be particularly apparent in states poised to loose or gain seats.  The GOP will benefit from new governors and legislative majorities in both Pennsylvania and Michigan as they tackle the difficult task of redrawing lines after losing a Congressional seat.  While Florida will put its new redistricting procedures to the test as it adds two new Congressional seats.

Although pundits have been quick to note that the redistricting decisions states make in the year ahead will define Congressional elections for the rest of the decade, this may not necessarily be the case.  The Texas legislature famously moved to redraw Congressional district lines in 2003, at the behest of then House majority leader Tom Delay, after the state legislature switched to GOP hands.  The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 2006 that states have the right to redraw district lines at any time.  Given the huge swings we have seen in the past three election cycles, and the hyper partisan environment in which we now live, the redistricting show may be making more regular appearances in state houses across the country.      

States slated to gain or lose seats in the reapportionment process include:

  Download the PDF Version of the Table: "Congressional Redistricting Decisions 2011"

  Download the PDF Version of the Table: "State Redistricting Decisions, 2011"