Every decade, the United States government undertakes a consequential and complicated task: First, count everyone in the country and figure out where they’re currently living, and then decide how to best represent them in the halls of power. This is called “redistricting,” a process that results in states making new maps of their voting districts.
Redistricting is notoriously prone to partisan abuse. The best-known strategy is called “gerrymandering,” in which maps are deliberately redrawn in order to dilute one party’s influence and give the other an electoral advantage. This has dire consequences, especially when it’s used to take political power away from marginalized and oppressed communities.
In the West, the stakes are no different, and the region’s demographics have changed significantly since the last redistricting process. Over the past decade, rural communities have shrunk, and the region has grown more racially and ethnically diverse. Urban areas have also changed as a younger, wealthier white population relocates to cities, while the suburbs have become more diverse. Shifting populations also mean that, after 30 years with only one district, Montana is gaining a second congressional seat. California, on the other hand, is losing representation for the first time in history.
High Country News spoke with Yurij Rudensky, an expert on redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, about what these demographic changes mean for the West and how states are dealing with the process. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: Redistricting can come off as a wonky process run by political insiders and advocates. Can you explain why redistricting is so important to democracy?
Yurij Rudensky: Redistricting will really set the contours of debates and policy solutions over the following decade. The West is facing serious issues related to water, fires and climate change, so ensuring that impacted communities have effective representation will be critical. More than that, no matter what someone’s political issue is, redistricting will impact how that issue will be debated and addressed.
HCN: Many states in the West use a bipartisan “congressional commission” to make their district maps. Can you explain how these commissions work?
YR: The way the system works is that party leaders from both the majority and minority appoint two commissioners each. Those four partisan commissioners come together and select a fifth person to chair the commission.
Ideally, any commission will try to operate in a way that builds consensus. But as you probably know, we are living in incredibly polarized times, and these processes really require cooperation. Montana’s commission, for example, couldn’t agree this year on the fifth person, so the state Supreme Court picked.
HCN: Montana is adding a district this year. How does this polarization impact how that district will be drawn?
YR: When bipartisanship is hard to come by, you get two camps running the redistricting process independently and vying for the tie-breaking member — a “winner” allied with one party or the other. It really puts the weight on a single person, rather than a broad set of stakeholders. Adding a new district raises these stakes further by putting Montana on a national stage.
The commission was put in place to ensure that communities come first. Whether that’s how things play out is yet to be seen.
HCN: Arizona is one state where changing demographics have moved the needle in elections. What are voting rights advocates watching for this year, as the state goes through the redistricting process?
YR: Arizona is now squarely a “purple” state. It also is receiving a lot of national attention as it rapidly changes. When these political dynamics are intertwined with the growth of various racial groups, it creates the sort of environment where redistricting choices carry significant consequences.
In prior redistricting processes, Arizona was originally covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a provision designed to prevent discriminatory maps. This required the state to submit its plan to the Department of Justice or a federal court in D.C. It actually created a lot of common purpose among the state’s commissioners.
The history of the commission is important here. In 2001, Arizona’s map failed to be approved and the commission had to do a second round to pass it. In 2011, it was the Voting Rights Act that brought the commission together to ensure that Native and Latino communities in particular had fair representation.
But key provisions of the Voting Rights Act were struck down in 2013. This time around, they won’t have to submit their maps.
HCN: What tactics do commissions use to influence the process in a way that benefits one political interest over another?
YR: Abuse can come in different forms. At its worst, it’s when one political interest hijacks the process and draws districts with predetermined outcomes, rendering elections meaningless. This leaves entire communities of people without fair political expression.
One of the ways that happens is by “cracking” communities, or taking a coherent and unified community and splitting it across two or more districts to make sure that they have minimal power.
The biggest thing to look out for is whether certain communities, particularly communities of color, are being packed.
When a community is too large to be cracked, the other tool in the gerrymander’s tool box is packing. Instead of splitting the community, influence is limited by drawing a district that is concentrated with people of the same political persuasion. Rather than being able to influence the outcomes of multiple districts, they set the political agenda in just one. The biggest thing to look out for is whether certain communities, particularly communities of color, are being packed.
HCN: Washington state is a good example of shifting political battle lines in the West. Can you explain how map-drawers might think about demographic shifts there?
YR: The Latino population has grown steadily in Washington state. As of 2020, Latinos formed 13% of the state’s population. The growth has been mostly in the agricultural regions of the state and for the first time, central Washington, rather than the South Puget Sound, is the real redistricting battleground.
Beyond racial and ethnic identity, these communities have a tremendous amount in common. Race is just one criteria, and a map-drawer should be thinking about that when setting boundaries. They are largely agricultural communities and have ties throughout the area.
When you look at the record of discriminatory impacts on these communities’ representation and their population growth, it’s clear that there’s a strong claim for Latino communities in central Washington to command a state legislative district. Maps should be drawn in a way that gives excluded communities that have not had a fair chance to influence politics a fair opportunity.