Redistricting Trends Favor GOP: Why You Should Care

Video: Jeff Reichert "Gerrymandering" Film Director on "Top Line."
WATCH 'Gerrymandering' Director on 'Top Line'

Ever wonder why Congressional District 23 in California has the moniker "Ribbon of Shame," or why Illinois' 17th Congressional District has been dubbed "Rabbit on a Skateboard?"

The two districts are among hundreds in the country that have garnered national fame -- and often ridicule -- for their odd shapes, a result of a controversial process called redistricting.

At least once every decade, state legislatures in 44 states draw up lines for congressional districts in a process that results in much partisan bickering, and one that critics charge is less scientific than political.

It is one of the most important political processes because it not only determines the number of seats a state will get in the U.S. House of Representatives, it also creates boundaries for educational and public institutions.

Next year, when the process begins, it could mean a big boon for Republicans.

As Republicans and Democrats vie for control of the House of Representatives in this election, what happens at the state legislature level on Nov. 2 could have profound implications to the future of both parties.

"The control of state government, in general, both state legislatures and governors, is especially critical and, of course, the parties are keenly aware of this and have been putting an unprecedented amount of money into legislative races around the country," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republicans are expected to gain control of at least a dozen state legislatures around the country, and as many as 19 out of the 46 states where local elections are being held.

GOP gubernatorial candidates also are projected to win key races where redistricting battles will be fought most heavily next year, such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

All other signs also point to a victorious redistricting year for Republicans. In states like Florida, which is expected to gain two House seats, and Texas, which is projected to up its number by four, Republicans are expected to maintain their majorities.

Three other key states are Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, which are expected to lose House seats as a result of the census, which likely will result in territorial fights.

Redistricting -- or "gerrymandering," as it's often called, after a salamander-shaped district created by Mass. Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 -- is a bitterly divided, political process where the stakes for both parties are high.

"People who control the election boundaries in part control the election outcomes," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution. "There's great potential for abuse. When you look over the recent decade, there have been numerous cases of redistricting motivated by partisan factors. We've seen either one of the parties gain a number of seats out of that process."

The redistricting process in Texas in 2003 ended up embroiled in controversy and court delays that escalated all the way to the Supreme Court.

Former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority leader at the time, came under fire for his role in crafting a plan that Democrats charged was a way to ensure that Republicans would continue to stay in power in Washington.

"Redistricting is, for better or for worse, a lot of political jousting," said Erika L. Wood, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Both political parties want to do whatever they can to make sure they get as many voters as they can."

Wood advocates for a more open process that she said should not take place behind closed doors and would involve more input from the public.

Several states have independent commissions that draw up district lines.

In California, a ballot initiative in 2008 created the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission that would be responsible for drawing up state legislative district lines. The commission would require nine votes to enact a plan, three each from Republicans, Democrats and third parties.

Proposition 20, another initiative on the ballot this year, would expand the commission's task to include congressional district boundaries.

Groups in Florida are pushing for a ballot initiative that would change the criteria for drawing district lines, with the criteria that districts reflect communities of interest.

But not everyone agrees that commissions are less partisan than state legislatures.

"The problem is no one has come up with the perfect way," Storey said. "Sometimes, they're called independent commissions. But they're not necessarily independent commissions. But they may actually be just as partisan as legislatures and, in fact, they are likely to go to legislation and they are likely to end up losing redistricting plans."