Redistricting: Communities of Interest – How They Are Defined, Used and Sometimes Misused in Drawing Districts

By Tony Sissons, Research Advisory Services, Inc., Phoenix

Methods for conducting the 2020 Census are being tested in a couple of large jurisdictions.  Can the next round of redistricting be that far away?

This is a good time to start a review of election district ‘design criteria’. There are some differences between state‐level redistricting (legislative and congressional districts) and the redrawing of election districts in counties, cities, community colleges and some school districts. But many of the concepts are universal. In this series of columns we will cover them all, noting their applicability as we go. These columns may get a little technical at times. Tough it out…spinach before cheesecake.

Our first topic, communities of interest (COI), applies to redistricting at all governmental levels and is usually found in constitutions and state statutes as one of the legal rules governing the shapes of districts. In Arizona’s Constitution, the wording is: “District boundaries shall respect communities of interest to the extent practicable”. Similar wording, including ‘respect’ and ‘practicable’ is found in the redistricting laws of most state and local governments, providing some latitude to the entities charged with drawing new lines.

The term ‘communities of interest’ predates redistricting, having been used in law, business, sociology and insurance for many decades. A distinction between active and passive definitions is important in our context. An active COI is a group of individuals having a shared concern who unite to advocate for a common cause. The passive usage describes a group of people assumed to have a common grievance, interest or other similarity, which justifies treating them as a class for legal, marketing, or other purposes.

Note that in the active definition, the COI members themselves identify the group, whereas in the passive case, the delineation of the COI is done by outsiders. In either case, the interest can have a geographic boundary or be widespread throughout a jurisdiction.

In redistricting practice, the passive COI is the most common. Although an organized group might spontaneously appear at a public hearing to insist on being kept together within an election district, the most frequent delineations of COIs are made by the map drafters.

The U. S. Supreme Court acknowledged and enhanced the concept of communities of interest in Miller v. Johnson (515 U.S. 900 (1995)), a Georgia congressional district case. There, a district had been drawn to combine Black suburbs in the Atlanta area with the poor Black residents of a coastal county 260 miles away. The Court stated that the “social, political and economic makeup of the Eleventh District [told] a tale of disparity, not community”. The Court cautioned that a community of interest must have a tangible basis in actual shared interests. A “mere recitation of purported communities of interest” is insufficient. Nor is it sufficient to claim the existence of a COI after a district has been drawn. The Court rejected the COI justification offered by the Texas legislature in Bush v. Vera (517 U.S. 952 (1996)), partly because the evidence of commonality had not been “available to the Legislature in any organized fashion before the [plan] was created.”

How big can a COI be? If attention is truly paid to the ‘shared values’ parameter, there is a natural limit to the size of a COI. How large can an area be, wherein all residents are likely to share the same interest? There is no question that within a block‐watch area, a neighborhood association, an elementary school attendance area, or a historic preservation neighborhood, there are probably unifying issues around which residents coalesce. The economic and social makeup is also likely to be similar. But, how about a school district, a suburb, a town, a city? As the number of residents increases, the likelihood of uniformity of thought, on any topic, goes down.

What does it mean that election districts should ‘respect’ COIs? The three ways of potentially disrespecting COIs are: dividing, submerging or amassing COIs.

The first ‘disrespect’ occurs when a COI is divided by a proposed election district boundary. Whatever voting strength or influence COI residents had in their current district will be diminished if parts of the COI end up in two of more new districts. Each part will have a smaller proportion, thus less influence, in each of the new districts.

Submerging a COI can happen when a neighborhood of like‐minded residents is surrounded by neighborhoods of other‐minded folks. If a district is drawn around all of them, the COI’s voting influence will be swamped by the votes of the surrounding residents. If, however, the COI can be geographically joined to a close‐by district of similar‐minded residents, the submersion can be avoided. This is not always possible, and if the geographic corridor used to rescue a vulnerable COI is too long or too narrow, the charge of gerrymandering can endanger the whole plan. (We’ll talk about gerrymandering in another article in this series.)

Amassing COIs is not so much a disrespect, as sometimes a questionable practice. Amassing happens when map drafters consciously place many similar communities of interest in the same district. In some circumstances, that can make sense. If, for instance, four historic‐preservation COIs were placed in the same district, either because they asked to be, or because it made sense to the map drafters, their proximity (older central part of the city) and commonality of purpose would be rational reasons to aggregate them.

If, however, four neighborhoods with very similar economic and social characteristics all sought designation as COIs (so that each individually would not be divided by a new district boundary) plan drafters would not necessarily be obligated to place them in the same district. In fact, if there is too much assembling of like‐with‐like neighborhoods in a plan, it starts to look as if districts are being created to benefit particular incumbents or political parties.

That last caution – avoiding creating a large number of homogenous districts – is a point covered extensively by Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort – Why the Clustering of Like‐Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” (ISBN 978‐0‐618‐68935‐4). Bishop describes how movers are increasingly picking their new neighborhoods on the basis of the right ‘feel’ and finding that their new neighbors think just like them. With that amount of self‐selected opinion clustering occurring naturally, plan drafters would be wise not to amplify the effect and create “balkanized communities whose inhabitants find each other culturally incomprehensible”.

In summary, this is the advice we give our client jurisdictions, very early in the process:

–Invite the public to suggest boundaries and rational bases for their communities of interest.
–Delineate all of the jurisdiction’s communities of interest before any districts are drawn.
–Keep communities of interest geographically small.
–Don’t designate counties, cities or towns as COIs; they have their own ‘boundary respect’ protections.
–Recognize that similar communities of interest do not need to be put into the same district.
–Avoid ‘discovering’ or claiming the existence of new communities of interest to justify districting decisions.

Tony Sissons is a political demographer, expert witness, and redistricting consultant.

(Originally published in The Arizona Guardian, November 12, 2009)

Specializing in the analysis of data about geographic areas – Census blocks and tracts, Zip Codes®, voting precincts, land parcels, and traffic analysis zones