The Redistricting Process for Local Governments


By Bobby Baker
The United States Constitution requires a census be done every ten years for the purpose of redistricting Congress, but every state and local government entity must also adjust their district lines as a result of population changes.  Many people are interested how the redistricting process works at the local level for city and county offices.  Redistricting for local government entities is simpler than redistricting for federal and state legislative offices, yet caution must be exercised when redistricting city and county offices.  The following is a basic primer laying out the steps that are followed in the redistricting process for cities and counties to simplify the process and secure preclearance from the Justice Department.

Georgia is one of several southern states which are subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  This means that any new district maps must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance and a higher level of scrutiny in order to prevent “retrogression” which is the reduction in voting strength of a language or racial group.
There are several fundamental steps which are followed by local officials when beginning the redistricting process.  First, they get the 2010 Census block data for their city or county.  Second, districts are analyzed in light of the Voting Rights Act requirements to protect minorities and not abridge the right to vote on the basis of race, color or language.  Third, city or county officials designate a redistricting team to start drawing new districts and coordinate public participation.  Finally, the local government entity must approve the redistricting maps and submit a preclearance application to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Redistricting is fundamentally a political process, and anyone with walking around sense will recognize that you can’t take politics completely out of a political process.  With that said, for any government entity which does not want to end up in court defending their new redistricting plan they should make every effort to ensure the process is transparent and good records are kept.  Citizen participation and comment is permitted and should be welcomed.
When starting the redistricting process the local officials will do some basic math.  Census block information is divided by the number of districts in the city or county to determine what the average population should be for each district.  Next, the average population is compared to the existing population in the current districts.  The percentage difference between each district must be determined.  The Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment requires legislative districts to have substantially equal populations, but percentage deviations in population may exist between districts.  The district deviation will probably be no more than 3% and justification for any deviation must identified for possible review.
Once the district population analysis is done, the next step is to examine the districts in light of the population mix based on racial and language composition.  Special care must be taken not to pack or split up racial and language minorities located in geographically identifiable areas, but there are traditional redistricting principles which may be considered, such as, preserving the heart of the prior districts, protecting incumbents, compactness and contiguity of districts, and preserving communities of interest.
After the analysis of the districts is done it is time to begin the map drawing process.  The local county or city attorney will play an important role in this phase of the process, and local governments will be able to utilize readily available commercial software to help expedite and simplify the map drawing process.
Public feedback and comments should be invited once the maps are complete.  Local governments must give adequate notice of public hearings and other opportunities to comment on the draft maps.  The proposed redistricting  maps may be posted on websites with provision made to accept written comments, and public hearings should be advertised throughout the community to ensure fair notice is given throughout the county or municipality.  Cities and counties should allow sufficient time to conduct a second round of public hearings if it is necessary to amend the original maps after receiving the initial round of public feedback.
Finally when the new redistricting maps have been analyzed and reviewed, they will be ready for formal approval by the governing body in a public forum.  The approved maps will be sent to the U.S. Department of Justice following the preclearance submission guidelines contained in 28 C.F.R. Part 51.  While preclearance is sought from the Justice Department, the election superintendant’s office can be preparing notices to affected voters that their polling location and local government districts have changed.
Notice, transparency and public access are the key elements of the redistricting process for your local government as they prepare new maps based on the 2010 census data.  Unless your community has experienced significant population change since the last census, the redistricting process will occur with relatively little notice throughout the Georgia and the country.
For more information, contact Bobby Baker at 770.818.4240 or [email protected].