How is the census connected to redistricting?

The federal government counts how many people reside in the United States once every ten years for reapportionment, among other purposes. The census count happens at the beginning of each decade. The accuracy of the census count is very important as the distribution of federal funds at the local level and the distribution of political power at all levels of government depend on it.

The census is also important because redistricting is based on the population data collected by the decennial census. During redistricting, the political lines are redrawn so that each district is equal in population size based on the decennial census data.

After the 2010 Census, most of the census data relevant to redistricting will be publicly available by April of 2011. Some redistricting data may be released later in 2011. The U.S. Census Bureau will release all other data after 2012.

What is the redistricting process?

Redistricting is the process by which census data is used to redraw the lines and boundaries of electoral districts within a state. This process affects districts at all levels of government — from local school boards and city councils to state legislatures and the United States House of Representatives.

Is there a difference between reapportionment and redistricting?

Yes. Reapportionment and redistricting are two different concepts, but many people mistakenly refer to them as though they mean the same thing.

Reapportionment is the allocation of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (House) to each state and does not involve map drawing. The 435 House seats are divided among the 50 states based upon each state’s population as determined by the census. The larger the state population, the more congressional representatives (and districts) the state will be allocated.

Redistricting, on the other hand, involves map drawing—the actual division or drawing of the district boundaries for United States congressional representatives and state or local officials elected within a state. Redistricting can occur at any level of government. Even if a state does not gain or lose a seat during reapportionment, it must redraw districts to make them equal in population size.

Why is the redistricting process important?

How and where districts are drawn in your state will often determine if your community can elect representatives of choice to sit on your local school board, city council, state legislature and Congress. It can also influence whether or not your elected officials respond to your needs, such as ensuring equal educational opportunities or health care for everyone.

When does the redistricting process take place?

Redistricting takes place every ten years, soon after data from the census is received. Each state will receive census information regarding the population, age and race of its residents. However, different states will have different timelines for finishing the redistricting process. 

Are there any examples of redistricting plans harming minority voters?

Minority voters have frequently faced discrimination in voting during the redistricting process. The following examples summarize some of the most egregious acts that denied opportunities for minority voters to elect a candidate of choice in recent redistricting cycles.

African Americans

During the redistricting process in the State of Louisiana that followed the 2000 Census, Louisiana adopted a discriminatory plan for its State House of Representatives that worsened the position of Black voters.

The results of the 2000 Census showed that the African- American population in Louisiana increased in real numbers and as a percentage of the overall state population. In January of 2001, however, the Louisiana legislature created a redistricting plan that completely eliminated a majority-minority district in the New Orleans area where there was no Black population loss according to the 2000 Census. The proposed redistricting plan also reduced the percentage of African-American voters in several other districts where African-Americans had a reasonable opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.

With regard to the proposed elimination of the New Orleans district, the State admitted that it eliminated the district in a conscious effort to limit African-American voting strength in the New Orleans area and to increase electoral opportunities for white voters. In the state’s view, white voters were entitled to proportional representation in Orleans Parish, though proportionality did not exist for African-Americans elsewhere in the state or under the Voting Rights Act.

Notwithstanding this discrimination, Louisiana sought judicial approval for its reapportionment plan under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (see chapter 5 for more information) and vigorously argued that its 2001 redistricting plan was valid. On the eve of trial, and after fifteen months of litigation, evidence emerged that the 2001 plan violated the State’s own redistricting principles. It was only at that point that the State withdrew the discriminatory redistricting plan and created a new redistricting plan that did not dilute African-American voting strength.

This is only one of many examples of the unlawful exclusion of African-American voters and their representatives from the redistricting process. Most notably, every initial state legislative redistricting plan for the Louisiana House of Representatives has drawn an objection since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

Asian Americans

Involvement in the redistricting process has been a relatively recent endeavor for Asian Americans. Asian American participation in redistricting began after the 1990 Census. Historically, areas with significant Asian American populations were split into different districts, reducing the voting power of those populations.

In 1992, the riots in Los Angeles took a heavy toll on many neighborhoods, including the area known as Koreatown. It is estimated that the city suffered damages of more than $1 billion, much of it concentrated on businesses operated by Koreans and other Asian immigrants. When residents of these neighborhoods appealed to their local officials for assistance with the cleanup and recovery effort, however, each of their purported representatives – members of the City Council and the State Assembly – passed the buck, claiming that the area was a part of another official’s district. This was because new district lines drawn after the 1990 Census fractured Koreatown. Koreatown, barely over one mile square, was split into four City Council districts and five State Assembly districts, and because Asian Americans did not make up a significant portion of any official’s constituency, officials were left with little incentive to respond to the Asian American community.

In Chicago, there was similar fracturing during redistricting efforts. Even though the Asian American population is now nearly 5% of the state’s population, and in some neighborhoods, Asian Americans make up around 30% of the population, no Asian American has ever been elected to the Illinois General Assembly or any statewide office, or the Chicago City Council.2 After the 2000 Census, five Illinois Senate districts were over 10% Asian American; yet, after the lines were redrawn in 2001, only two Senate districts were over 10% Asian American. The 2001 redistricting divided Chicago’s Chinatown—a compact community whose members have common ground in terms of history, ethnicity, language, and social concerns—from two Illinois Senate districts into three Senate districts, and from three Illinois House districts into four House districts.3 In addition to the Chicago Chinatown area, there are several other Asian American communities that have been fragmented by past redistricting, including the area encompassing Devon Avenue, Lincolnwood, and Skokie, which was divided into two different Senate districts, and the Albany Park area in Chicago, which was similarly divided.


After the 2001California statewide redistricting, MALDEF challenged the legality of three California districts. MALDEF asserted that two congressional districts had been racially gerrymandered to exclude Latino voters in order to limit the influence of the Latino vote. MALDEF also challenged a state legislative district under the Voting Rights Act because it was not drawn as a majority-Latino district. The court ruled against MALDEF and the districts were allowed to stand.

In 2003, Texas redrew its congressional district boundaries and dismantled the Latino-majority 23rd Congressional District along the U.S.-Mexico border. The incumbent in that district, who was not the preferred candidate of Latinos, faced an increasing threat of removal by the growing Latino electorate in the district. In order to shore up the re-election chances of the incumbent, Texas moved over 100,000 Latinos out of the 23rd Congressional District and reduced the Latino citizen voting age population of the district from 57% to 45%. MALDEF represented Latino voters of Congressional District 23 in a challenge to the redistricting plan and in 2006 won a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas had discriminated against Latinos in violation of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

How can my involvement in redistricting make a difference for my community?

Your voice and participation in the redistricting process can help ensure that the redistricting plans adopted by your jurisdiction do not harm your community.