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

Congressional redistricting is in the news–and in my inbox.  Every day, I get a dose of emails from both sides reminding me of the critical importance of redistricting.  Most of these focus on Congressional districts, about which I have written in previous MPSA blog entries.  To summarize very briefly, both Republicans and Democrats gerrymander districts to their advantage whenever they get the chance.  However, among the largest states with the most Congressional districts to draw, Republicans have the advantage.  This is because most heavily Democratic large states like New York and California use nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions to draw their districts (Illinois is an exception).  Meanwhile, heavily Republican large states such as Texas let the state legislature do it, as do highly competitive “purple” states like Florida and Ohio, which have Republican majorities in their legislatures.

The furor over redistricting and gerrymandering also distracts attention from all of the other districts currently being drawn, including those for state legislatures, city councils, and county commissions.  Casual observers may dismiss these as “lower” offices, but their importance is hard to overstate.  Consider public schools–despite the long reach of laws like No Child Left Behind–schools ultimately are both run and funded at the state and local level, albeit with some federal control and input.  State legislatures and local school boards make policy, finding themselves at the heart of controversies like masking mandates, and allegations that Critical Race Theory is being taught in classrooms.

Then there are the bulging treasuries of many states.  Even “red” states are flush with cash right now thanks to economic growth and federal funds for COVID relief and the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) infrastructure bill.  It falls to state legislatures to allocate this money, so how they get elected is critical. These are the very officials elected from districts now being redrawn, often out of the spotlight, while political activists and the news media keep us glued to the latest news about Congress.

Drawing state legislative and local districts involves many of the same challenges as Congressional districting, and then some.  For example, all state legislators except Nebraska’s are elected in partisan races, so partisan gerrymandering is a concern.  Not only that, but unlike the U.S. Senate, state senators are elected in-district, and these districts have been required to be equal in population ever since the Gomillion v Lightfoot, Grey v Sanders, and Baker v Carr Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s.  Before that, state house and senate redistricting skewed heavily rural, even in states with large cities like Illinois.  Now, both state house and state senate districts must be redrawn every 10 years, just like Congressional districts.

A second challenge for state and local redistricting involves so-called “majority-minority” districts.  The term itself is becoming obsolete, as many U.S. states no longer have a white majority.  Yet redistricting to represent historically-underrepresented racial “minorities” (that is, people of color) remains very much an active controversy.  Also, it affects more states.  For example, Kansas does not have enough people of color to form any “majority-minority” Congressional districts.  However, there are more than enough to affect statehouse redistricting.  These concentrations are found not only in cities like Kansas City, Wichita, and Topeka, but also in rural parts of Western Kansas, which have growing Hispanic populations.  In fact, Finney County in Western Kansas recently became the state’s first majority-minority county in modern times.  As in bigger cities, the cities and towns of these areas often have parts of town that have larger populations of people of color than do others, so the drawing of local districts is of critical importance as well, as is the question of whether representation will be in-district, at-large (city or countywide), or a combination.  In-district representation tends to better-represent political minorities (including political as well as racial minorities), but can also lead to parochialism and turf battles, which is why at-large districting was adopted in the first place.  Or rather, that is the official story.  For years, critics have alleged that at-large redistricting is in fact a deliberate, if unspoken attempt to dilute minority representation, and there is substantial evidence indicating that it does make it harder for political and racial minorities to get elected.

“Majority-minority” redistricting is a real challenge for Democrats.  Today’s political climate means that a large majority of the Republican Party’s base is made up of white people, while people of color tend to favor Democrats.  There are exceptions, such as Trump’s surge among Hispanic voters along the Texas-Mexico border in 2020, or the long-established preference of Cuban-Americans for Republicans.  But on the whole, the larger the population of people of color in a district, the more likely it is to favor Democrats.  Yet that is not the whole story.  In many districts with large nonwhite populations–whether a majority or not–there are numerous white allies who help elect African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and other elected officials.  Today, only 18 of the 53 members of the Congressional Black Caucus represent majority-minority districts.  Not only that, but concentrating larger populations of people of color into a few districts may also constitute “packing,” pulling diverse and mostly Democratic-voting populations away from the surrounding districts and making those others more heavily Republican.  Majority-minority districting is mandated by the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1990, but is also complicated by a series of confusing U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s including Shaw v Reno and Shaw v Hunt.  The upshot of these rulings is that race cannot be the only factor considered when drawing a district, but it can be considered.  In a more recent case, Rucho v Common Cause, the Court refused to intervene in allegations of partisan gerrymandering but left open the door for cases regarding racial gerrymandering.

The next complicating factor concerns “communities of interest.”  In Congressional maps, these are often broad, often including whole cities or counties together in a single district.  Yet the smaller state and local districts invite more opportunities–and more hair-splitting.  Is a school district a community of interest?  What about a small suburb?  Which has priority if a district cannot be drawn keeping both of them “whole”–the town or the school district?  Of course, complicating this all still further is the jigsaw puzzle nature of the process–any change in one district reshuffles the neighboring one, which then changes the next neighboring one, and so on and so forth.

There is more.  Some states do not have the same requirements for drawing statehouse districts as they do for Congress.  In Missouri, the General Assembly draws Congressional districts while a bipartisan committee draws those for statehouse and state senate.  In recent decades, that committee has always deadlocked, forcing the courts to approve the final maps.  Redistricting in the states ultimately must follow the state constitutions, meaning that court challenges that would probably be rejected at the federal level may be brought under state law.  This is exactly what happened in Ohio recently, when the state courts ruled that a new map violated the state’s constitutional requirements that voters be proportionally-represented.  Many states such as Ohio have also seen recent ballot initiatives pass which change the redistricting process.  It gets even more confusing in Missouri, where a second ballot initiative passed in 2020 which rescinded most of an earlier initiative, passed in 2018 and known by supporters as “Clean Missouri.” Now Missouri’s redistricting procedures are mostly back to the way they were earlier–the bipartisan committees which usually deadlock and kick the whole thing over to the courts.

Finally, there is the issue of agenda-setting, that classic political science concept that denotes what the public and news media are thinking, saying, and reporting, and who influences it.  The heavy attention given to the coming midterms and Congressional redistricting is likely to distract the public away from these state and local offices, despite their importance.  This means that if worst-case Congressional gerrymandering scenarios are avoided, the public may breathe a premature sigh of relief while the real controversies involve the people drawing the other maps, outside the public glare.  This would be a shame.  Issues in the public spotlight like masking mandates, policing, teaching about race in the schools, and more, are all affected far more by what happens in these state and local districts than by anything that happens in Congress.  We should keep a watchful eye.


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