In November 2003, the Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles weathered a freak storm that dumped more than five inches of rain and hail on the area within just a couple of hours. Storm drains overflowed, homes were drenched with floodwater, and much of the community lost power. Nearly 150 buildings — homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals — were heavily damaged. More than 100,000 residents and businesses lost power in Watts and nearby areas, and 6,000 people sought aid from the county’s emergency center. Firefighters rescued nearly 100 people from waist-deep water. Despite the urgency of the damage, confusion metastasized in the days that followed, and residents struggled to get the answers and help they needed.
Why was the disaster response in Watts so slow? It’s impossible to know for sure, but many people in the community suspected it had something to do with the electoral map.
Two years prior, Watts, a historically Black neighborhood with a growing Latino majority, had been split into three congressional districts and three state senate districts in order to ensure incumbents’ reelection. After the storm, the neighborhood’s leaders hoped to get a state of emergency declared quickly, but they were unsuccessful, and the quest wasn’t made any easier by the fact that they did not have one main representative in Sacramento or Washington to call on.
Motivated by the idea that this working-class area needed cohesive representation, Watts residents mobilized in 2011 to make it happen. They were empowered by the creation, the year before, of the independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Residents of Watts testified at public hearings and wrote letters to the commission. They prevailed, and as a result Watts was put back together in the new district maps. The district sent its first Latina to Congress just five years later, an outcome that would have been unlikely under the old maps.
At the nation’s founding, Benjamin Franklin helped forge the compromise that led to the bicameral Congress we have today, with each state’s representation in the House set by a census of state populations. For almost as long, politicians have been trying to obtain power and grow it by gaming the process of drawing voting district lines, leaving communities like Watts to bear the consequences. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. In 1812 — 25 years after the Constitution was signed — Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on the process of map drawing that gave gerrymandering its name.
Redistricting happens every decade following the census, and the process is happening now. It sets the lines for new electoral boundaries at the federal, state, and local levels, from congressional and state legislative districts all the way down to city councils, county commissions, and school boards, for the next 10 years.
Without fair maps, access to fair representation and community resources is skewed, and the playing field is rarely level. Computer mapping and commercially available consumer data have enabled state and local politicians to be ever more precise in drawing lines to maximize political advantage — often minimizing the political influence of historically marginalized groups. Political mapmaking is a multimillion-dollar endeavor with access to sophisticated technology and teams of lawyers and consultants. In the 2010 redistricting cycle, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s REDMAP project spent approximately $30 million and used hyperprecise data to draw maps to favor Republicans and flip seats in state legislatures and the House of Representatives.
Today there is civil rights legislation pending in Congress, including the Freedom to Vote Act, that would ban partisan gerrymandering. But until it passes or if it never does, there’s still an important step communities can take to increase the chance of having fair maps: getting involved. The redistricting process differs across states, but in all states people have opportunities to make their voices heard. They can testify at public hearings and reach out to legislators and those who draw the maps.
Community members can even draw and submit maps of their own: The technology that politicians have long used to gerrymander is now accessible to communities and courts, helping them to enforce the constitutional promise of equal representation. In communities all over the country, from Chandler, Ariz., to Dorchester in Boston, they’re doing so. The map-drawing process has long been obscured by politicians who benefited from its apparent complexity, but fair redistricting maps are now as easily accessible as Google maps. As a result, hundreds of organizations have been hosting mapping workshops. Fair Count, an organization based in Georgia, hosts Mapping Mondays and Testimony Thursdays to teach Georgians how to draw their own maps and testify at public hearings. This past summer, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project hosted the Great American Map-Off, a contest challenging the public to draw redistricting plans for seven crucial states.
The effectiveness of this public input is especially apparent in states like California, where map drawing is in the hands of an independent commission rather than state politicians. Nine states will use independent commissions this decade to draw state or federal districts or both, compared with six in 2010. However, even in states where politician commissions or state legislatures draw the maps, community input is worthwhile. First, it puts state lawmakers on alert that their constituents care about the maps they are producing and the process by which they are doing it. Second, public input could prove useful in court. Citizen-drawn maps and testimony can be compelling evidence for judges, who play a huge role in the redistricting process by reviewing, and many times striking down, maps that discriminate against communities of color. Public input can provide evidence of more equitable alternatives to the maps drawn by state legislatures.
North Carolina is an example of a state without an independent redistricting commission where public input into redistricting can help reverse the harm that politically motivated redistricting has wrought.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, is the nation’s largest historically Black university. In 2016, in a case of brazen gerrymandering aimed at ensuring the election of Republicans to 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats, the campus was cleaved into two congressional districts by state lawmakers, diluting the influence of Black students and professors. A state court struck down the map in 2019, and a new map reunifying the campus was approved. Residents of Greensboro, taking nothing for granted in a state notorious for gerrymandering, have begun drawing their own maps. Civil rights organizations across the state have mobilized calls for a fair, transparent, timely, and inclusive process in which all North Carolinians have a reasonable opportunity to participate.
If the last decade taught us nothing else, it is that leaving redistricting in the hands of the politically motivated weakens our communities, denies diversity of representation in our halls of power, and subjects Americans to the vagaries of the political winds. We have get-out-the-vote campaigns to ensure that the greatest possible number of voices are heard on Election Day, and now we need to extend that civic engagement to the lines we draw around our communities. Redistricting, too long the domain of politicians, belongs in the hands of the people.
Taylor Savell is a policy analyst at the National Conference on Citizenship, where she focuses on the use of census data for redistricting and federal funding. Caleb Gayle is a writer with a focus on the impact of history on identity. He is the chief executive of the National Conference on Citizenship, a New Arizona fellow at New America, and a winner of the Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award.