Reapportionment is the act of the House of Representatives’ realigning of House districts to create a national map of 435 districts that all contain roughly equal populations. Reapportionments are conducted decennially and coincide with the release of United States census results. It is the census information that is used as the prime source of demographic data during Congressional reapportionments.
In recent years, Congressional reapportionment has become less of a straightforward topic, as fierce debate has opened up regarding census counting procedures and racial gerrymandering. The occurrence of these issues has muddled up the topic of reapportionment and has led to stalemate, stalling of progress, and even has gone so far as prompting Supreme Court cases.
In regards to counting procedures, there has been great debate as to the census’ data reports. Though the census conducts a “head tally” every ten years, because many individuals are missed in the enumeration, the United States Census Bureau statistically adjusts its numbers, accounting for the portion of the population that was presumed missed on census day. Therefore, adjusted figures often raises the raw data that the census receives. The primary characteristics of the people who are missed during the census head count are usually minorities, the poor, and children.
It is primarily because of the inflated numbers of minorities and poor, people who have socioeconomic characteristics of Democratic voters, that Democrats often clamor to use the census’ statistically adjusted number for the basis of reapportionment. Republicans, who were in control of the most recent reapportionment, advocated using the census’ head count data.
It is disputed as to which count is the one that should be referred to during reapportionment. Inflated population numbers not only increase funding to states which recorded higher population numbers, but can often contain enough people missed during census day that entire districts must be redrawn so as to guarantee each district having roughly equal population distributions. In fact, during the reapportionment for the first decade of the 21st century, a grand debate about the use of head-tally numbers versus statistically adjusted numbers when gained the national spotlight when it was discovered that some states would indeed gain a House seat if adjusted census numbers were employed.
Another concern regarding counting procedures in Congressional reapportionment has been the inclusion of non-citizens in House districts. Because the United States census has reported that millions of non-citizens (many of whom are illegal immigrants) are living in the country, the reapportionment process often lends some districts to having a sizable portion of voting-age people who cannot legally vote, leaving disparities in the number of potential voters between certain House districts.
Racial gerrymandering has become a particularly intense topic of debate in recent decades. The 1965 Voting Rights Act stipulates that minority groups cannot be diluted in number or strength when districts are subject to Congressional reapportionment. Therefore, minorities cannot be dispersed among predominately white districts in such a way that lowers the percentage of minorities in a given district versus the proportion of minorities in that said district after the previous reapportionment. Political strategy has become particularly prevalent in the redistricting process as it relates to minority protection. Interpretations of laws on the books that protect minority voting rights have rendered some pretty controversial decisions by political leaders in charge of the reapportionment process. Among these hotly debated “interpretations” include the creation of so-called “majority-minority” House districts. The increase in number of these majority-minority House districts has in fact created a more racially diverse Congress over the past few decades. Another phenomena that has transpired in the wake of creating more majority-minority House districts is the strengthening of House districts that are primarily white and Republican.
It is perhaps little surprise, then, that one of the most significant controversies to have come about in regards to Congressional reapportionments is the use of considering race in the process. These race-based districts have resulted in the creation of many districts whose boundary lines zig-zag in and out like a wild puzzle piece. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that some irregularly shaped districts located in North Carolina and Texas had to be redesigned (Cummings 366). Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor stated that such districts “cause[d] Constitutional harm insofar as they convey[ed] the message that political identity is, or should be, predominately racial,” (qtd. in Cummings 366).
Though reapportionment will likely continue to be a major political struggle early in the decades to come, the fundamental idea of Congressional reapportionment remains the same: equal representation of the American people. The reapportionment process may never be perfected, but we must never lose sight of the true goal of reapportionment and the importance of the functions reapportionment serves to Americans.
Cummings Jr., Milton C., and David Wise. Democracy Under Pressure. 9th ed. Belmont: Pearson 2003