Originally created 07/30/01

Redistricting glossary



Over the years, court cases and colorful politicians have created a set of terms unique to the redistricting process.

Communities of interest: Cities, counties and neighborhoods that have similar interests, such as agriculture or geography, such as those along the coast. Courts have said districts should be drawn to keep similar communities together.

Compactness: Districts that are not spread out. Courts have ruled that districts should be as compact as possible. An extreme example of a noncompact district disallowed by the courts was the original 11th congressional seat drawn in 1991: It stretched from Atlanta to Savannah and was only as wide as the interstate in places.

Deviation: The amount a district's population can vary from the ideal size. Courts have ruled that congressional districts can have a deviation no greater than plus or minus 1 percent. Experts say the courts have been less specific about legislative districts, but the Legislative Redistricting Office recommends a deviation limit of plus or minus 5 percent, for a total range of 10 percent. Republicans are calling for a deviation of only 2.5 percent.

Gerrymandering: Generally, this is the act of drawing noncompact districts with twisting boundaries for political reasons. The term goes back to 1812 Massachusetts, where a district with many small offshoots was said to resemble a salamander and was christened Gerrymander in reference to Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

Ideal size: Every legislative district should be roughly the same size - this year, the number is 45,580 people for a House district and 146,187 for the Senate. The figure is determined by taking the number of residents reported by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years and dividing it by the 180 House seats and 56 Senate seats.

Majority-minority district: A district with a majority of its residents from the same racial or ethnic minority. Because blacks and Hispanics tend to register to vote and turn out in lower numbers than whites, the courts have determined that a district must be made up of at least 65 percent minority residents to be considered a minority seat.

Minority-influence district: A district where the minority population is less than about 55 percent, where minority residents would likely influence elections even though they might not be able to decide the outcome on their own.

Multimember district: One district holding twice as many people as an ideal district, but where two legislators are elected to separate seats. This is common in many other countries, but the practice was discouraged in the South by courts that concluded multimember districts were designed to dilute black voting strength. Democrats argue that such districts aren't illegal if blacks aren't harmed.

One man, one vote: The principle established by courts that every lawmaker represent the same number of people so each vote has the same relative effect on elections.

Packing a district: This is the practice of making a district more than 65 percent black or Republican to prevent neighboring districts from having enough blacks or Republicans to win there.

Retrogression: Lowering the minority percentage within a district or lowering the total number of minority districts within a state. Courts have ruled that legislatures can reduce minority voting strength only in rare cases and only for compelling policy reasons.

Source: Walter C. Jones, Morris News Service