A Geographer’s Place in Redistricting

Once an obscure bureaucratic process, redistricting has made its way to the forefront of American political consciousness. After 10 years with our current legislative maps, the time has finally come to draw new districts in 2021.

While it may feel as though we’ve always aspired to principles of equitable and consistent redistricting—perhaps more in theory than in practice—the push for regularly and fairly drawn maps is relatively recent. It wasn’t until the 1962 US Supreme Court decision Baker v. Carr that “one person, one vote” became part of the reapportionment lexicon. Without that landmark decision, the State of Tennessee may never have been forced to break its decades-long streak of forgoing regular congressional district reapportionment, thus setting precedent and standards for years to come.

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed a handful of high-profile gerrymandering battles play out in the courts, which has made the once overlooked maps feel especially like high stakes. We saw the Pennsylvania Supreme Court strike down its own congressional district map in January 2018, declaring that it “clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” leading to the adoption of a new statewide map later that year. In June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled on a pair of cases from Maryland and North Carolina, declaring—much to the dismay of fair-map advocates—that partisan redistricting was inherently political and thereby not reviewable by federal courts.

These judicial victories and defeats show that partisan gerrymandering is no longer revisited just once a decade. The shared consensus that has emerged between bipartisan lawmakers, officials, and the general public is that districts drawn in favor of one party are fundamentally unfair and unacceptable.

States alone have the power to redraw legislative districts using decennial census data, and all major recent changes to district maps have been in response to lawsuits. The power held by government institutions to both create and resolve the gerrymandering problem is clear, but the power of individuals to influence and encourage fair mapping remains murky.

Constituents can exercise their power at the ballot box, voting for statewide reform initiatives and electing state leaders committed to fair redistricting practices, such as those endorsed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in the last election cycle. Choosing fair-map-friendly politicians doesn’t give constituents total control, but it at least prioritizes the issue and reflects voter expectations before a politician’s first day in office.

However, the November 2020 election saw almost no change in the makeup of state legislatures. Few of the new candidates who pledged commitment to fair maps were voted in, and power dynamics remain largely unchanged in the state houses prepared to draw districts in 2021.

At the same time, a handful of measures that passed in recent election years seek to bring more impartiality and transparency to redistricting. Just last fall, Virginians chose to ratify a constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan commission of citizens and elected officials to draw the state’s 2021 maps. Virginia joins a growing list of states that have established redistricting commissions in recent years, though with varying degrees of “independence.”

In Virginia, for instance, the commission’s maps must ultimately be approved by the general assembly, or else be redrawn by the state’s supreme court. Virginia and other states, such as Colorado, Michigan, Arizona, and California, have made progress toward transparency.

But the vast majority of states will practice the same type of redistricting that has become so notorious, characterized by closed-door meetings, little collaboration, and the state’s incumbent majority party having the final word. The preponderance of these status quo states makes it easy to feel like the bulk of redistricting outcomes are preordained.

Opportunities for public review and participation are unique to the state in which you reside. Wading through the procedures of legislative hearings or open comment periods on proposed maps can be time-consuming and discouraging. With the multitude of issues competing for our attention, it may seem difficult to justify why anyone should feel compelled to take up this fight for a seat at the table.

But when it comes to the fight for fair redistricting, there is no one better equipped than a geographer. Understanding the composition of communities based on shared geographic factors is a deeply powerful perspective to offer. When deployed for the good of equity and access, that perspective is essential to drawing an honest map.

Of course, every local stakeholder should offer input as new districts are drawn. But when creating maps that will comprehensively impact a community’s resource allocation and representation, the contributions of a geospatial thinker cannot be overstated. Having someone in the room who appreciates spatial interconnectedness and understands GIS can level the playing field with final decision-makers.

The geographer can serve as an interpreter for local interests while speaking for underrepresented communities in the process. Even a simple understanding of geographic population density is an asset. For years, our elected officials have utilized such geographic principles for political gain. It’s up to geographers to not only share our expertise but also demonstrate our vigilance to state officials.

The call for geographers is an inclusive one. An academic geographer with expertise in gerrymandering may already feel well suited for this cause. But this community must expand and embrace anyone with a geospatial background and the drive to put it to use. The community’s geographer in the room can be an expert with years of experience or a recent student just getting started. What matters is not the level of skill you bring, but your tenacity to show up and hold officials accountable.

If you’re unsure where to start, consider an AAG guide, 4 ways YOU can make an impact on gerrymandering and redistricting. Official redistricting websites for states, such as California and Colorado, are informative and up-to-date, although many other state websites are less than helpful.

However, there are dozens of nonprofit organizations that have done the investigative legwork for you. Through its People Powered Fair Maps program, the League of Women Voters website has a Civic Engagement and Education focus area that includes community competency building in all 50 states. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides information for state lawmakers and constituents alike. GeoCivics at the University of Colorado hosts a suite of redistricting resources, with a great emphasis on teacher and student activities. And organizations like Fair Maps Arizona, Draw the Lines in Pennsylvania, and People Not Politicians in Oregon are strong outlets for state-specific advocacy activities. These partner organizations provide more than just updates. They can serve as centralized hubs for thought leaders in your state and illuminate ways to get involved. Simply joining an email list for upcoming events is a great way to get started.

It’s worth acknowledging that there is no such thing as a perfectly drawn district map, as some criteria will always be prioritized over others. But with the opportunity to elect new state leadership behind us, public participation throughout 2021 is the best and most logical next step toward more just outcomes. By activating our collective power as a community and pressing to have a geographer in the room in every state, we can set new expectations this year and show why geospatial thinkers are indispensable.

Just as it is vital to participate and hold government officials accountable, we have seen the dangerous and extreme result of a populace that feels kept in the dark on matters of process. In January we saw extremists stoop to violent riots at the US Capitol Building in an attempt to exercise influence.

Soliciting public input is inherently slow and messy, but the deliberate and steady timeline creates invaluable buy-in. It shines light into the often boring and uneventful bureaucratic processes that build the fabric of our major decision-making institutions. A commitment from those institutions to keep redistricting unequivocally transparent, and a commitment from citizens to peacefully bear witness to those mundane yet immensely consequential meetings build a shared understanding that there is nothing to hide.

The time for 2021 redistricting has come, and our officials are in place. Regardless of last fall’s statewide election outcomes, the substantive work is just getting started. This is hardly the time for us to tune out. If you’ve ever cared about gerrymandering and wanted to exercise your power as a geographer to make a difference, this is your challenge to accept.

About the author

Michelle Kinzer

Michelle Kinzer is the government relations manager for the American Association of Geographers (AAG). She serves as the association’s public policy advocate and engages with lawmakers on behalf of its members to advance the interests of the broader geography community. Kinzer is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), where she earned her BA in urban planning with a concentration in global development.