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Elections and Redistricting Reform

By Matt Hiland
January 18, 2009

The people of the United States of America have just completed an historical election and the impending inauguration of Barack Obama carries with it more excitement among the populace than any inauguration I can remember. One of the great things about this election was that hundreds of thousands of Americans became actively involved in politics for the first time in their lives. With this groundswell of grassroots involvement and the next census just around the corner in 2010, this seems like a great time to bring the topic of redistricting reform to the forefront of political discussion.

Each state sets its own laws and procedures for deciding when and how to re-draw political districts. Many states require members of the current state legislature to perform redistricting, and I think we are all aware of the horrendous gerrymandering that has occurred to protect incumbents or strengthen the position of the current majority party. In fact, my home state of Texas owns of one of the most heinous instances in recent history. Despite being an obvious and inherent conflict of interest, allowing seated representatives to perform redistricting has led to increasing numbers of “safe” districts for each party, meaning that many districts are stacked in favor of one party or the other. While one could argue that people who live near each other probably tend to vote similarly to each other, this purposeful drawing of non-competitive districts essentially reduces the impact of each person’s vote, leading to voter apathy and to increasing extremism in the candidates’ positions.

Several organizations – including academic, non-partisan, Republican, and Democratic ones – have advocated for redistricting reform, and both Senator McCain and President-elect Obama are on record in support of it. Several states (Texas included) have initiated reform legislation and John Tanner (D-TN) and Zach Wamp (R-TN) introduced House Resolution 1365 in the U.S. House of Representatives to encourage more states to do so. Some of the common recommendations among these initiatives are:

- Redistricting commissions should be non-partisan and independent.
- Redistricting procedures should be transparent and encourage public participation.
- Districts should be competitive and composed of equal populations.
- Districts must comply with the Voting Rights Act.
- Districts should be geographically contiguous and compact.
- Redistricting should only occur immediately following a decennial census.

In my opinion, these recommendations make a big step in the right direction, especially when the commissions are designed to properly reflect the citizens’ demographics and are properly separated from elected representatives. However, the potential downfall is that the commissions may be appointed by seated elected representatives and that they may be given considerable leeway in defining the criteria by which to draw new districts. In any case, it is clear that the drawing of districts should become more about data analysis and less about political bargaining. This should be music to geographers’ ears and hopefully many of you will become more involved in defining the algorithms by which redistricting can become more objective and fair. I encourage my American readers to contact your representatives and encourage them to support redistricting reform.

Matt Hiland is an IT/GIS consultant living in Austin, Texas. If you have questions or would like a list of sources used for this article, you can email him at

- Americans for Redistricting Reform (
- Center for Governmental Studies (
- Common Cause (