The following points are a general description of legal principles for redistricting. In the redistricting context, what is or is not permissible often depends on a variety of factors that are unique to any given situation.
One Person, One Vote: Equal Population within constitutional variances
- Congressional Districts: Unlike Legislative Districts, with which the Arkansas Board of Apportionment is concerned, Congressional Districts must be more precise in their population equality – less than 1% difference in the population totals for each Congressional District is usually required. This is because Congressional districts are governed the Apportionment Clause of Article I, § 2 of the United States Constitution – a different legal standard than Legislative Districts.
- Legislative Districts: The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution governs legislative districts and the Courts have held that an “overall range” of 10% or less is presumptively constitutional. For example, if the ideal district size is 100 people then it would be possible to have the smallest district in the state contain only 95 people while the largest district could contain up to 105 people – an overall range of 10% or less.
Compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Don’t discriminate against racial or language minorities. This federal law states that any practice or procedure that has a discriminatory effect on racial or language minorities is illegal. A common example of a discriminatory practice or procedure would be districts that are drawn, intentionally or not, so that minorities do not have an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
Compliance with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment: Don’t draw districts based solely or primarily on race. The United States Supreme Court has held that districts should not be defined exclusively by race; although, it is allowable to take race into account (i.e. “be race conscious”) while drawing district boundaries. There are possible exceptions where drawing a district based primarily on race might be done. Possible exceptions are: avoiding a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – either § 2 or § 5, or to remedy past discrimination.
Geographically Contiguous Districts: The Courts have held that districts must be geographically contiguous. The entire district must be connected in some way. In other words, it would not be permissible to have a portion of a district that was an “island” and not connected geographically to the rest of the district.
Geographically Compact Districts: The Courts have held that geographically compact districts are ideal. For example, a district shaped like a circle or a square would be “geographically compact.” In practice, most districts have some irregularity in shape; nevertheless, the more bizarre the district shape, the less likely it is to be approved by the Courts.
Minimize Splitting Political Subdivisions: The Courts have held that, where possible, it is preferable to minimize splitting political subdivisions such as counties, cities and voting precincts. In other words, where it is possible, it is better to keep whole counties, cities and voting precincts intact.
Maintain Core of Existing Districts where possible: Preservation of the “cores” of existing districts is a redistricting principle. When district lines are re-drawn, the map makers can take into account the existing districts, their geographic location, and the current population. It is better to keep the core of an existing district where possible.
Maintain Continuity of Representation where possible: It is permissible to avoid making current office holders run against other incumbents by not putting them in the same district. The rationale for this principle is that voters who have already chosen a candidate should be able to continue to choose that same candidate. At the same time, it is also possible that two incumbents might be placed in the same district if necessary.
Maintain Communities of Interest where possible: Preservation of communities of interest describes the goal of maintaining a group of people in a specific geographic area where those individuals share common interests, i.e., common economic, social, cultural, ethnic, religious or even political interests.
Minimize Partisan Gerrymanders: A gerrymander is a district drawn to favor one group over another. All of the criteria listed above have been created by the Courts as limitations to prevent one group from taking unfair advantage of another group in redistricting. With respect to partisan gerrymanders, the United States Supreme Court has indicated that it is possible to bring a lawsuit regarding partisan gerrymanders; however, the Supreme Court has not identified what is or is not legal with respect to partisan gerrymanders. As a result, there is a great deal of uncertainty about partisan gerrymanders and, as such, they should be minimized.