Legislative boundaries for congressional, state senate and house, and wards are redrawn after each decennial census to create political districts that are generally equal[i] in population size – this process is called redistricting.  The shapes and characteristics of these districts are extremely important in determining if minority groups are fairly represented in the political process at the local, state, and federal level.  Well designed political boundaries can help insure that minorities have an equal voice in not only determining who represents their interests and concerns but also in influencing important public policy decisions.

There are four basic principles behind redistricting.

1. Compactness and Contiguity

A compact district is a tightly drawn shape without irregular boundaries.  A district that is not compact could be sign of race-based redistricting and, therefore, a signal to the courts.   In a contiguous district, all the parts of the district are connected – there are no islands or doughnut holes unless dictated by natural boundaries.   Such districts are not allowed.

2. Communities of Interest

Districts can be drawn to preserve, i.e., not fracture, populations that share needs and interests.  Such interests could be defined by income, cultural characteristics, environmental conditions, and so forth.

3. Political Objectives

Districts drawn to satisfy political objectives would protect incumbents and/or achieve other political goals such as strengthening the political power of the map drawers or weakening the opponents.  Partisanship in the redistricting process is not uncommon.

4. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The central purpose of the Voting Rights Act was to give every person of age the right to vote.  Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act intends to protect minorities from processes that deprive them of an effective vote due to their race.  Such processes are defined as "minority vote dilution."  In the context of redistricting, two examples of minority vote dilution are "packing" and "cracking."  Packing occurs when districts are drawn such that a particular minority is concentrated in a minimum number of districts.  Cracking occurs if a geographic concentration of a certain minority is split by a redrawn boundary such that the minority loses voting strength on either side of the line.  Generally, in the courts, the Voting Rights Act principle trumps the other basic principles.

There are four types of electoral districts relevant to the conversation about minority opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.  The first example is the "majority-minority district."  In these districts, at least 50% of the voter eligible population belongs to a particular minority group.  This is the most obvious instance protecting minority opportunity.  The second example is the "minority-coalition district."  In these districts, 2 or more minorities together are a majority.  In the third example, a minority group controls the election only with the crossover of the non-minority voters.  This type of district is called a "crossover district."  The fourth type is the "influence district."  In such a district, while the minority cannot control the outcome of the vote – and hence elect their own – the group can influence the outcome.  There is no clear indication from the courts that such districts satisfy the Voting Rights Act.

Additional detail is presented in "The Impact of Redistricting in Your Community – A Guide to Redistricting".  This document was produced by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian American Justice Center, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

A New York Times article "5 Ways to Tilt and Election" provides a brief discussion of partisan objectives behind redistricting.

[i] While congressional districts must be equal in population size, the courts have allowed local and state districts to vary by no more than 10% from smallest to largest district.