Journalism in the Public Interest

Redistricting, a Devil’s Dictionary

Redistricting is a hard-knuckled game, in which voters often lose. Here are the colorful, and telling, terms used by insiders.

Watch the video: The Redistricting Song

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities -- neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors -- voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas' collective interests.

To that end, states are required to redraw lines for districts, all the way from Congress to county boards of supervisors, every 10 years to reflect demographic changes.

But that's where theory meets the harsh reality. Instead of voters choosing politicians, redistricting at its worst lets politicians choose voters.

Communities can have their influence diluted or overly concentrated by line-drawers interested in partisan gain, limiting minorities' influence, or pleasing powerful interests. (See our earlier story, The Hidden Hands in Redistricting.) The right lines can all but guarantee an incumbent a decade's worth of electoral success, or alternatively can help send others into retirement.

Such shenanigans persist, despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent legal decisions meant to limit them. Indeed, increased mapping technology and know-how have allowed for ever more subtle manipulation of district lines.

Here's a rundown of the realities of redistricting, and the terms used by critics and insiders alike:


Cracking: This technique splits a community into multiple districts to ensure it doesn't have significant sway with a candidate. In the ugly racial history of redistricting, cracking was often used to ensure that African-Americans could not elect African-American politicians. The Voting Rights Act banned racially motivated cracking, with some success. But cracking is still common, with the goal now frequently to fracture communities for partisan gain.

Austin: Texas Republicans, who control both the state legislature and the governor's office, approved very Republican-friendly congressional redistricting earlier this year. A case in point: liberal Austin, which the plan splits into six districts that radiate outward to encompass hundreds of miles of conservative suburban and rural territory. (The Justice Department recently moved in court to block the plan, but not because of cracking in Austin. Instead, the suit alleges, lawmakers tried deliberately to minimize the voices of minority voters. Lawyers defending the Texas plan on behalf of the state say it protects Latino incumbents and creates additional Latino-friendly districts.)

Rochester area: In the 2000 redistricting cycle, slow population growth cost New York State two congressional seats. In a backroom deal, Republicans and Democrats agreed to eliminate one seat each. As part of the deal, the Democrat-friendly Rochester area was creatively sliced into multiple districts so it would be represented by one Republican and one Democrat.

The 28th District is a wide and narrow ribbon along Lake Ontario that incorporates parts of the Rochester area and Buffalo, 75 miles away, and is represented by Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. The 29th District lumps another piece of the Rochester area into an Appalachian mountain district that spans 100 miles south, represented by Republican Tom Reed. New York is still in the midst of its latest redistricting, and it's an open question whether the Rochester area will be made whole again.


Packing: When faced with too many unfriendly voters, it can also be a winning strategy to limit the damage by drawing them all into one district. The benefit for you is there are fewer of the voters you don't want in all the surrounding districts. When race is involved, redistricting pros call it bleaching.

Voters in the packed district often lose out because no matter how large their influence in the district, they can only have sway with one representative. If the community members were spread over more districts, and had significant population in each, they could have the ear of multiple politicians.

Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville: Florida's 3rd Congressional District scoops African-American neighborhoods out of three cities to form a district that has mostly swampland in between. Districts like this one, created in the 1990 redistricting cycle, helped African-American congressional candidates win historic victories. But the districts surrounding it are now much whiter, and thus more Republican, than ever before. Many credit the 1990 redistricting with turning Florida from a blue state to a red state.

Birmingham, Montgomery: At 62 percent African-American, the Alabama 7th Congressional District was already a safe minority district. But when the Republican-controlled state legislature redistricted this year, they extended the district's tendrils further into Birmingham and Montgomery to carve out African-American neighborhoods and create a 64 percent African-American district. The result: The surrounding districts now have almost no African-American voters. Previously competitive, the districts are now safely Republicans.


Hijacking: If there's an incumbent you don't like, you can make their re-election difficult by putting them in a district with another incumbent to contend with. If you don't like either incumbent in the newly drawn district, even better, because only one can be re-elected. If the two incumbents are from your rival party, you can force a costly primary battle, weakening your likely opponent before general election.

Cleveland, Toledo: Which brings us to the curious case of Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich. Ideological kindred spirits, friends, and now incumbents in the same oddly-shaped district. A district the Republican state legislature appears to have designed by drawing a straight line connecting the two representatives' homes, 110 miles apart, in Toledo and Cleveland. Republicans in Ohio's state legislature have defended the new district maps, saying they don't break any laws.


Kidnapping: Most politicians have geographic political bases; places they came up in politics where they have supporters, political allies, donors and name recognition. But what if their home address ends up in a different district than their base? That can make re-election tough, as North Carolina Congressman Brad Miller is about to find out. A new district boundary adopted by the state legislature there elegantly sweeps out to cut his home in Raleigh out of his old district. Republicans in the state have said that gaining congressional seats is a goal of their redistricting effort.


Gerrymandering: Taken together, all of these handy techniques are known by this most famous redistricting term. In 1812, a Massachusetts governor named Eldridge Gerry was blamed for a redistricting plan designed to weaken the influence of the opposition Federalist party. The map, drawn to favor the Democratic-Republicans, included a long, squiggly district wrapped around the other districts like a salamander. The district, immortalized by a famous political cartoon, was dubbed the "gerry-mander." (This was not fair to Gerry, since he was was not actually responsible for the map.) Gerrymandering has become the term of choice for all misbehavior in redistricting, but particularly refers to districts drawn in bizarre, wandering shapes for the benefit of particular politicians. A special subset of this is the sweetheart gerrymander, where incumbents of different parties collude to draw districts that make sure everyone stays in office.

Correction, November 2, 2011: An earlier version of this story stated that the City of Rochester was split into multiple districts. In fact, the city proper is entirely encompassed in the 28th congressional district. The urban area as defined by the U.S. Census, however, is split into four districts. This post has been updated accordingly.

Different variations of “block voting” might also be worth noting, since there seems to be some growing popularity at the local district, especially for “at-large” approaches.  The idea seems to be that, rather than creating districts where certain minorities are guaranteed at least some representation, the entire community votes on all the positions, effectively silencing the minority.

(One creepy form I heard suggested in a town by me is to have everybody vote for an official party, and then have those parties appoint the seats proportionally.  Thankfully, that obscenity was shot down, but I’d expect it to pop up again.)

It seems to me that this shouldn’t be rocket science.  We want districts to be based on demographic data—that’s the primary use of Census data and it’s original purpose—so high school geometry should suffice to show where the lines need to go.

The more human involvement, the more we need to hear about bad ideas and obvious unethical acts being “perfectly legal,” as if not going to jail is the only consequence that matters.

But, as was discussed the last time the topic came up, we also need more representation.  The size of the House of Representatives is kept artificially low, meaning that our individual voices are noise in the crowd.  And then we remove our representatives from our neighborhoods, assuring that it’s easier and cheaper for lobbyists to sway them than we can.

The easiest was to look at this is to view both parties as political shake down gangs or even criminal cartels, if you will.  They do this only to retain power and eliminate any competition, i.e., third parties.  It undermines basic democracy and the purpose of the republican form of government described in the Constitution.  I like what California voters are attempting, i.e., to make end runs around their legislature by putting more and more things up for direct referendum, but that won’t stop gerrymandering by whatever party is in power.  The worst aspect of gerrymandering is we end up with more and more “safe” House districts which translates into more and more extreme Representatives.  My prediction is the country will be ungovernable by 2013 and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Casey Ann Hughes

Nov. 2, 2011, 10:32 p.m.

Can you explain what “retrogression” is? We have a ward that is over 90% black and has been probably since 1980. Some of us (including the incumbent) would like to move some of those blacks into another ward - leaving it at least 65% black. The consultant said the black percentage could not be reduced because of retrogression. It has to stay about the same as it was during the last redistricting that was approved by Justice. This makes no sense to us. If blacks are going to be appropriately represented on the City Council, that ward has to have a smaller BVAP %. It was likely set up that way to allow the first (and only) black member. Is it forever to be a packed ward?

Casey, I’m far from an expert, but my guess would be that making the change you suggest would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act by redrawing the district for racial reasons.  It might also make it easier to split your two-thirds down the middle into strict minority votes.

In biology, retrogression means reversion to an earlier form, so either of those might make sense as explanations to neatly cover any actual motivations.

And I absolutely agree with Max that the parties are the most dangerous things to our rights.  They’re two companies (and they are corporations) that, combined, have nearly a 100% “market share” of who we’re allowed to vote for (for many offices, you can’t elect someone with no party sponsorship; you can choose anybody you want, as long as who you want is already on the list), and they’re dedicated to keeping it that way, whether by making it impossible for anybody else to win or by taking over movements with similar rhetoric.

Someone here recently pointed out that it’s nonsense for someone to spend millions of dollars to get a job with a fraction of that as a salary.  In the market, we call that an unfair business practice, cutting prices to drive the competition out of business.

Casey Ann Hughes

Nov. 3, 2011, 9:18 a.m.

Thanks for the answer, John. However, it’s depressing that a packed district must forever remain that way.

I have another term I would like to use for districts drawn based on racial profiles. It’s called RACISM. Just because it is drawn to favour minority group doesn’t exclude it from the racist definition. All this really does is pit one community against another further creating an already insurmountable drive. While over time I had hoped for unity: all i find being created is a further divide. While I was used to this in the 3rd world countries I grew up in; How can we allow this to happen in a place like the US!?????????

Excerpt from Justice Stevens Minority Opinion in the Citizens United case:  “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

And if things were not bad enough because of our corrupt political parties, we now have the bizarre Citizens United decision by the USSC that allows more corporate money to pour into political campaigns, anonymously and unrestrained.

Barry Schmittou

Nov. 3, 2011, 2:49 p.m.

Please help me get a Grand Jury to indict Obama and his Director’s for protecting Wachovia banks laundering of $378 billion for murderous drug cartels, and multiple corporate crimes Obama and Bush have protected as seen by pasting :

Bank of America, American Express Bank International and Western Union also laundered drug money and no one was prosecuted.

AIG, JP Morgan Chase, MetLife, Prudential, Unum, rigged huge bids and no one was prosecuted!!

This motion was filed in Federal Court on 9/13/11 but Judge Trauger would not appoint a Special prosecutor as I requested.

Additional evidence linked in the motion includes quotes from Numerous Federal Court Judges that prove insurance Company Doctors’ ignore life threatening medical conditions including Brain lesions and Multiple Sclerosis, cardiac conditions of many patients, and a foot that a new mother broke in 5 places.

The Judges quotes can be seen at :

Multiple insurance companies are also committing identical crimes and endangering lives in five different types of insurance while Obama and Bush protected them, as seen at :

You or someone you know will be on a local or Federal Grand jury soon. Obama and Bush and many of their administrations top leaders should be indicted for multiple treasons and insurrections against the laws of the U.S. as evidenced at the websites above and their links !!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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The Story So Far

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities—neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors—voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas’ collective interests.

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