Redistricting in Indian Country

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the constitutionally required redrawing of the geographic lines that divide districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislature, county board of commissioners, city council, and local school board. It takes place every ten years, after the United States conducts a census to determine how many people live in the United States and its territories.

The goal of redistricting is to ensure that districts have the same number of people. This protects the American constitutional right to have a vote that is equal to any other person’s vote. By redrawing the lines every ten years, the government can make changes based on where people have moved or where populations have increased or shrunk.

It is crucial that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have an equal voice in redistricting, which helps give voters the ability to elect candidates of their choice. How can your Native community participate in this process? How can you ensure that your political power is protected and not weakened? This guide explains the redistricting process and how we can all participate.

Why is redistricting important?

Redistricting is important because it controls access to political representation in the United States. It influences who runs for office and who is actually elected. Elected representatives make many decisions that influence our daily lives, from acknowledging tribal sovereignty to honoring treaties to approving extraction on tribal lands. And the people who live in the representative’s district can call on them to help make positive change.

When people are represented through districts, the U.S. Constitution requires that those districts have similar populations. This ensures that each person’s vote is worth the same as any other person’s. However, because populations grow and shrink over the years, districts have to be redrawn to make sure that populations in each district stay equal. Otherwise, the voting power of a particular community would be limited. For example, one state legislator might represent 25,000 constituents, while another only represents 20,000. The people in the smaller district would have proportionately more representation, making the system unfair.

What about gerrymandering?

But even when districts have the same populations, a particular map can still limit a certain group’s political power. This abuse of the redistricting process is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering can take many different forms. And it has been used to exclude communities from political power for many years. Even if we have 100% voter turnout in an election, gerrymandering can mean that we still lose because the system is rigged against us.

For example, imagine a state with six congressional districts and where one-third of the state population is Native American. A fair map would give Native American voters the power to elect their candidates of choice in at least two of those districts—one third of the total districts in the state. However, a gerrymandered map might split up that Native American population, creating six districts that each have one-third Native American voters. In this example, Native voters would probably not be able to elect any candidates of choice.

In order to prevent this sort of gerrymandering, it is necessary for Native Americans to advocate for their communities in the redistricting process. This is our chance to create a fair system that will stay in place for the next ten years.

How does redistricting impact Native communities in particular?

Native Americans and Alaska Natives face unique challenges in the redistricting process for several reasons. Many redistricting officials may not be aware of these issues, so it is important for you and other community members to raise them and explain why they should be taken into consideration.

  • Under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), if Native Americans or Alaska Natives have a large enough population to make up more than half of a district—and they live close enough to each other to make it reasonable to be in the same district—they may be entitled to a district in which they represent a majority of the population. Imagine each state house district has twenty thousand people in it. If your reservation has over ten thousand Native Americans living on or near it, you may be legally entitled to a district that allows you to elect your candidate of choice. NARF can help you determine whether this legal protection applies to you.
  • If the VRA does apply to your community, you are entitled to a district that lets you elect your candidate of choice. When considering whether a particular map will make that possible, remember that Alaska Natives and Native Americans often have a younger average age than other people living in the state. Anyone under 18 won’t be able to vote, and so when you are considering indigenous representation in a district, make sure to consider the percentage of Native people who are of voting age, not just the overall percentage of Native people in the district. Having fifty percent of the total population may not be enough—determine what percentage of eligible voters are Native.
  • Similarly, Native voters often turn out at lower levels than other groups, due in large part to voter suppression. Make sure to factor in turnout rates when you are considering how many Native voters need to live in a district in order for them to elect their candidate of choice.  There is no magic number—you need to carefully consider all these factors.  NARF is here to help with that process.
  • Many Native people live in rural parts of their states.  When redistricting officials are planning public meetings and hearings, make sure they are not only spending time in the cities.  It is crucial that they come to your communities to hear directly from your people—and it is important that you show up when they do come to you.  Be a resource to them by sharing your stories and explaining why proper representation is so important.

How can I participate?

Even though redistricting officials are in charge of making final decisions about how to draw district lines, everyone can and should participate in that process. Tribes, individual people, and groups can tell officials how they think the district lines should be drawn.

In order to participate, you first want to learn the basic rules of redistricting. Many of those rules are summarized in this packet. However, they are different for every state. NARF has prepared state-specific guides for several states.

Next, you should organize your native community. Find others who are interested in redistricting and educate your neighbors about why this process is important for Indian Country. As a community, you should talk about your goals. What issues are important to you – clean water, Indian child welfare? What levels of government control those issues? Do you want to propose a single district or an entire map?

Part of this advocacy will require you to define your community. The people living on your reservation or in your village may be in your community. But there may be others as well. Think about what other reservations, villages, or areas have similar, shared interests.

Once you’ve defined your community, you can advocate to the redistricting officials and to the public generally that your reservation or village should be kept together in a district. Or if you have a large community, you may want to provide advice about how to fairly divide the community into multiple districts that maximize your political power.