by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

I redistricted.  Here is what I learned.

First, the basics.  Redistricting no longer requires sophisticated computer software that only legislative research departments can afford. For more than 10 years now, computer programmer Dave Bradlee’s online app Dave’s Redistricting has made it possible for anyone with a computer and some free time to draw their own districts for Congress, state legislature, and even local jurisdictions, with remarkably detailed demographic data including race and voting patterns.  In 2012, I held a redistricting contest using Dave’s in which I invited Kansans to redistrict their state and compare their maps to the ones being considered by the state legislature.  Contestants had fun and we produced maps that were just as intuitive, if not more so, than the ones eventually approved by the U.S. District Court after the state legislature failed to agree. Dave’s Redistricting is free, but users are encouraged to make voluntary contributions.  I have no financial interest in the project.

Now it is time for redistricting again. I spent the past several days producing maps for the two states I know best:  Kansas and Missouri.  Here is what I learned. These lessons are applicable to other states.  The maps to accompany this narrative can all be viewed on my blog:

1. Taboos Will be Broken

In Kansas, the Kansas City-area Third District has once again gained population, while the rural “Big First” has lost people.  This means that the Third must shed people and the Big First must gain them, all shuffled through the Second District which lies in between and has also lost population.  The 2020 Census data was recently released and has been incorporated into Dave’s. The lesson is clear:  the Third District can no longer hold all of its two core counties, Johnson and Wyandotte.  There has been too much growth in suburban Johnson County.  One or both counties must be split to reach the population targets, which require all districts to be of equal population with only about a 0.5% allowable variation.

For my proposed map, I ended up doing what was once considered unthinkable in Kansas politics–I split Johnson County, the state’s wealthiest and most populous one.  I tried splitting smaller Wyandotte County, but to rebalance population that way would require me to split the city of Kansas City, Kansas in half, whereas the people of most communities prefer to remain “whole” within a single district.  By contrast, by splitting Johnson County I was able to keep all cities in the county whole.  I moved the outlying, exurban communities of DeSoto, Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill into the Second District along with rural, unincorporated parts of the county.  The rest of Johnson County I kept together with Kansas City in the Third District.

For context: located in Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas is a smaller satellite city of Kansas City, Missouri, analogous to East St. Louis, Illinois.  To the south of it lies Johnson County, a wealthy, growing suburban area.

2. Equitable Representation and Majority-Minority Districts May Conflict

Still in effect, the Voting Rights Act amendments of 1990 encouraged the drawing of more “majority-minority” districts–those with a plurality or majority of non-white Americans.  This resulted in some strangely contorted districts in the 90s, including one shaped like a pair of earmuffs in Chicago, drawn to represent the  Hispanic community.  An African-American majority district in North Carolina was so narrow at points, it was said that a person could switch back and forth between districts just by changing lanes on the freeway.

White Democrats have long complained about these majority-minority districts, arguing that they result in the “packing” of people of color who vote heavily Democratic into just a few districts, making the surrounding districts more Republican.  Democrats of color are conflicted, wanting more representation for the historically underrepresented, but not wanting it to cost their party seats.  I found this problem to be very real in Missouri.

The St. Louis area gave me fits while redistricting Missouri.  This is due in part to the area being a crazy-quilt of different municipalities, many with strange shapes, resulting in district edges that look like interlocking puzzle pieces.  However, what really complicated things was the tension between fair representation and the mandate to draw more majority-minority (or plurality-minority) districts.

St. Louis’ First District is such a district.  It contains the entire city along with many of its diverse, older suburbs.  The district has lost population and needs to be re-balanced.  If one redistricts by modifying the current map rather than starting over, the most obvious way to do this is to extend the First deeper into suburban North St. Louis County.  This results in a district that is still plurality-minority and now has the right population.

Unfortunately, there is a conflicting issue.  Missouri Democrats are badly underrepresented in the state’s current districts.  The overrepresentation of majorities is a common problem in single-member districts.  In the Show Me State, Biden won over 41% of the vote in 2020, yet Democrats hold only two of eight Congressional seats.  Most representational schemes slightly overrepresent majorities, so a good rule to go by is to divide the number of seats by the partisan voting numbers and then round up for the majority, down for the minority.  Doing this results in a finding that Democrats should hold the majority in three, not two of Missouri’s Congressional districts.  The state’s rural districts are heavily Republican, so the best place to re-balance would be the Second District in suburban St. Louis, where the vote was close between Trump and Biden.  However, this requires a different approach.

Dividing St. Louis City and County and St. Charles County with more north-to-south orientation rather than east-to-west results in two Democratic-majority districts instead of one, better-representing the St. Louis area and the state as a whole.  On this fair-representation map, St. Louis area Republicans would still have representation too, because outlying parts of the metro would still be in Republican districts shared with adjoining rural areas, and these districts would now have neater boundaries.  Unfortunately, such an approach is likely to run afoul of the VRA Amendments.  Such a division results in districts which are each more than 60% white.

In general, there is a strong correlation between race and partisanship today.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not create another Democratic district in Missouri without breaking up the state’s one current, plurality-minority district.  Democrats who have complained that the VRA Amendments promote districting schemes which “pack” Democrats and benefit Republicans in the surrounding districts appear to be correct, at least here.

3. More Districts, More Problems

It took me far longer to redistrict Missouri’s eight districts than Kansas’ four.  Each district is an interlocking puzzle piece, and shifting one affects another, which in turn affects another, and so forth.  I was astonished at how quickly I could draw hypothetical maps for Kansas once I resolved the issues with the Third (KC-area) District.  I did not even need to take the large but sparsely-populated Big First from Colorado to Missouri, as many observers fear.  I only split two one counties in the entire state and did not split any cities.  Still, I kept all districts within the acceptable population variances.

Missouri was another beast entirely.  It took hours of work to balance competing interests in the state.  For example, the Sixth District in northern Missouri includes a substantial portion of the Kansas City area, which may not seem like a fit with the lightly-populated rural counties to the north and east.  In the current map, the Sixth even dips down into Kansas City’s Jackson County for more suburban territory.

This is not because of partisan gerrymandering.  Rather, without some of the KC area, the Sixth would have to swell to an immense size, not unlike Kansas’ Big First.  There are just not enough people in rural northern Missouri to form a district without either reaching deeply into central Missouri, or taking a portion of one or more of the state’s urban areas.

4. Partisan Gerrymandering is Harder Than It Looks

Speaking of partisan gerrymandering, rumors are abuzz that Kansas and Missouri Republicans will try to gerrymander away one Democratic district each.  Both are in the Kansas City area.  In Kansas, this would involve splitting Wyandotte County from Johnson County, putting them each in separate districts together with several rural counties.  Intuitively, this would suggest putting Wyandotte in the adjoining Second District.  However, that would mean the Second would become a Democratic district, as it already includes Democratic Douglas County (Lawrence) and closely-divided Shawnee County (Topeka).  To draw a GOP gerrymander would instead have to bring the Big First all the way to the Missouri line, wrapping around the Second and reaching down to put Kansas City in the same district as rural western Kansas.  The current Third District is not a majority-minority district but it does have a good deal of diversity, so if it is broken up in this way, court challenges are possible.  The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene in cases of partisan gerrymandering but kept open the door to those involving racial gerrymandering–particularly when they dilute votes from people of color.

5. Gerrymandering Does Not Always Mean Messy Maps

I drew gerrymandered maps for both states, removing one Democratic-majority district in each.  Except for a few strange intersections, probably no more than any other map like this, the maps are relatively neat.  The Missouri gerrymander splits only a few counties, while the Kansas one splits no counties at all. Observers not familiar with the local demographics and politics may even think these maps look perfectly normal.  In fact, the most-intuitive way to redraw the lines in St. Louis is arguably a gerrymander, because it involves rebalancing the First District’s population loss by moving Second District’s most-Democratic precincts into the First, making the Second more Republican.

The bottom line:  looking for “messy” maps is not the best way to identify a gerrymander.

6. Redistricting Is Addictive

Before you try out Dave’s Redistricting yourself, let me warn you: it is highly addictive.  I keep finding myself wanting to try out one more tweak or align just a few more boundaries.  I keep trying for the impossible–e.g. preserving a plurality-minority district in St. Louis while drawing two Democratic districts there at the same time.  It is not unlike the quest to reach the next level in a video game.  Just five more minutes, please–and one more precinct!  Redistricting is a series of tradeoffs, and there is no one, correct answer.  For those who enjoy such things, it is easy to become completely immersed.  Don’t forget to shower, eat and sleep.

Tools like Dave’s Redistricting allow the general public to explore the once-hidden world of drawing districts after the decennial census.  They help us educate ourselves about how this process works, demystifying it but also showing just how complicated it is. Unlike the Xbox or Nintendo Switch, redistricting is not just a game–it has real consequences for representation and allocation of resources.  It also happens to be an awful lot of fun.

About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter