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Threats to the One-person, One-vote Principle: Gerrymandering & the 2020 US Census

May 17, 2018 Teri Lyn Hinds NASPA

Earlier this week, voters in Pennsylvania headed to the polls. Pennsylvania, when considered based on popular vote counts, is a purple state: half the voters tend to vote for Republican candidates and half tend to vote for Democratic candidates. Despite that split, since 2011, when the state’s district lines were redrawn after the 2010 national census in a process called redistricting, Republican candidates have consistently won in 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled in February 2018 that the state’s congressional map, drawn to favor Republican candidates, violated the state constitutional guarantee of “free and equal” elections and ordered the districts to be redrawn. Tuesday’s primary elections in Pennsylvania were the first to use the new district maps.

 (Image source: By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart) - Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6030613)

 (Image source: By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart) - Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6030613)

Analysis conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice presented strong evidence that the bias in Pennsylvania’s district map was the result of intentional manipulation in drawing district boundaries by single-party control of the redistricting process. This intentional distortion of an electoral district is called gerrymandering, a term that first appeared in the Boston Gazette in March 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redrawing of a Massachusetts district that was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.  While gerrymandering is nearly as old as our republic, incidents of suspected partisan gerrymandering increased after the 2010 Census, resulting in two challenges to partisan gerrymandering reaching the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in the last year. With the 2020 Census looming, and subsequent mandatory redistricting in all states with more than one congressional district, concerns around ensuring both a complete and accurate census and fair and balanced electoral districts are rising. This post will explain the relationship between the decennial census and the redistricting process and highlight current threats to ensuring fair representation for everyone in the United States.

Census & Redistricting

The decennial national census is stipulated in Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, as amended by the Fourteenth Amendment, which links the number of all people within a state directly to the number or representatives allotted that state in the US House of Representatives. Though not articulated until the 1960s, the one-person, one-vote principle is considered foundational to our representative democracy, echoing in the minds of many the desire of the founding fathers to create a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Following each decennial census, representatives are apportioned to the states on the basis of their population counts from the most recent census. States may gain (e.g. Nevada gained one seat following the 2010 Census) or lose (e.g., Louisiana lost one seat following the 2010 Census) seats in the United States House of Representatives due to shifts in population between states, but every state is guaranteed at least one Representative.[1] Within a state, congressional districts must also be redrawn following the census to reflect shifts in population. States are held to a strict equal population requirement, established in the 1964 SCOTUS ruling in Wesberry v. Sanders, in drawing their federal electoral districts[2].

The method by which states define their electoral districts varies by state. Seven states have only one member in the US House of Representatives and therefore do not create Congressional districts within the state[3]. Thirty-seven states leave control of their congressional redistricting process in the hands of their state legislators. Four states rely on independent commissions – where direct participation by elected officials is limited – and two states employ a political commission for congressional redistricting.


While the one-person, one-vote is not without shadows, e.g., until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, the Constitution counted slaves as only 3/5th of a free person, intentional attempts to manipulate electoral districts to diminish the voices of some constituents or favor the voices of others have traditionally been denounced by politicians from all parties. In the United States, gerrymandering on the basis of race and party are nonetheless persistent. While SCOTUS has ruled that both racial (Thornburg v. Gingles, 1985) and proven partisan gerrymandering would violate the constitution (Davis v. Bandemer, 1985; Vieth v. Jubelirer, 2004), the Courts have been unable to identify a clear standard to apply in cases of alleged partisan gerrymandering.

In addition to Pennsylvania, at least three other states have pending court cases challenging the composition of their district maps on partisan gerrymandering grounds. SCOTUS heard arguments in October 2017 in Gill v. Whitford which involved the question of whether Republican officials in Wisconsin created districts intentionally to disadvantage Democratic candidates. In March 2018, the drawing of Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, drawn by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and alleged to have been biased to favor Democratic candidates, was contested before SCOTUS in Benisek v. Lamone. In addition to cases from Maryland and Wisconsin, SCOTUS issued a temporary stay in a North Carolina case contesting a revised congressional district map introduced in the state in 2017. The Court’s decisions on Gill & Benisek, expected to be released in June 2018, will undoubtedly change the nature of electoral maps in the US and one can only hope the result is in keeping with the one-person, one-vote principle.

Undercount Concerns for the 2020 Census

Given the reliance on the apportionment and redistricting processes on population counts provided by the decennial census, it is important that the counts produced by the census are as complete and accurate as possible. Counting every person[4] across a country as geographically large and diverse as the United States is daunting under the best of circumstances. Avoiding differential undercounts, e.g., missing a large proportion of children, people of color, rural residents, and low-income or homeless individuals, has long been a challenge that the US Census Bureau takes proactive steps to counter. Because census data are also used to allocate billions of dollars in federal funding to states and municipalities – nearly $600 billion in 16 programs supporting children from low-income families, federal highways, and Medicaid in FY2015 – undercounts have financial repercussions on state budgets and service providers. In addition to these federal and state disadvantages, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that census data are also frequently used by businesses to determine where to open new locations and by counties when considering school closures.

The upcoming 2020 Census faces additional hurdles, too. The 2020 Census will be the first to allow individuals to respond online, introducing fears that the digital divide in our country will introduce or exacerbate differential undercounts between urban and rural areas, and low-income or homeless individuals. The addition of a question to ascertain citizenship status, added in March 2018 after questions for the 2020 Census should already have been finalized and field tested, has introduced concerns of an undercount among immigrants, regardless of their citizenship status. Despite federal protections preventing sharing of census data with anyone, including law enforcement or other branches of the federal government, many experts believe that fears about data sharing will keep immigrants from responding to the 2020 Census.

Student Affairs and the Census

Community actors, including colleges and universities, are important partners that can help counter possible undercounts in the census. The Census Bureau has created a Community Outreach Toolkit to help community partners learn about the census, identify common barriers to participation, and encourage all people in their community to be counted. Working with other partners in your communities can help send consistent and repeated messages to community members dispelling fears and encouraging participation in the census. The Census Project has developed a toolkit to help community organizers create coalitions to promote a fair and accurate census. Reviewing these tools can help student affairs professionals and institutions understand and explain the importance of the census for their campus and broader communities.

[1] There are currently seven states with only a single member in the US House of Representatives: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

[2] Another 1964 case, Reynolds v. Sims, held state electoral districts to the same equal population standards.

[3] See footnote 1; five of those seven states use political commissions for their state redistricting and two rely on independent commissions.

[4] The Census is charged with counting every person within each state, not just those who are considered US Citizens.