Structure and Rules for Delimiting Electoral Districts

Countries that delimit electoral districts must establish rules and a formal structure for carrying out the process. Because different sets of districts can produce different election outcomes, even if underlying voting patterns remain constant, the choices involved in the design of the redistricting process are important. Included among those decisions are the following:

The task of drawing districts must be assigned to some boundary authority. The composition of the boundary authority and the degree of independence granted to this authority vary considerably from country to country. Traditionally, legislatures have been allowed to draw their own districts. Increasingly, however, countries are turning the process over to independent commissions. This is part of an international movement to eliminate "politics" from the redistricting process.

Reforms that have replaced legislatures with redistricting commissions have also included provisions for increased public access to the redistricting process and formal criteria for commissioners to consider when drawing districts. These redistricting criteria are usually listed in the electoral laws of the country. The criteria often include factors such as equality of population, respect for regional and local administrative boundaries and other geographic features such as natural (physically-defined) boundaries, and recognition of communities of interest.

Countries usually have not adopted redistricting criteria pertaining to the actual outcome of the redistricting process--for example, fair representation for political parties or minority groups. This is because single-member districts, used by almost all countries that delimit electoral districts, cannot guarantee results that are proportional, or even minimal, for minority political parties or minority racial, ethnic, religious or special language groups in the population. A few countries, however, have adopted special provisions designed to modify the distorting effects of single-member districts and to ensure some degree of representation for minority groups. Mixed systems, of course, provide more proportional results by electing some seats by party list.

This section examines the choices countries have made for rules and a structure to carry out redistricting, including:


Designation of a Boundary Authority

Countries that delimit electoral districts must designate a boundary authority and establish some machinery for carrying out the task of redistricting. The task assigned to the boundary authority is the same in all countries--divide the country into districts for the election of representatives.

The composition of the boundary authority and the degree of independence from the legislature or partisan concerns granted to this authority, however, vary considerably from country to country. Some countries allow legislators to draw their own districts. Other countries, in an attempt to remove "politics" from the process, assign the task of redistricting to an independent boundary commission. In some countries, redistricting is centralised under a single redistricting authority. In other countries, states or provinces draw their own districts, with or without a uniform set of rules. In many countries, the boundary authority is granted the power to choose the final districting plan. But in some countries with non-legislative boundary authorities, the legislature or the government must approve the final districting plan before it can be implemented.

The types of boundary authorities countries have established and the degree of independence countries have accorded these authorities cover a broad spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is the United States, where the redistricting process is very political and decentralised. The responsibility for drawing districts for the United States Congress rests individually with the fifty states. There are few limitations on the states, and the boundary authorities are almost always political entities, i.e., state legislatures.

At the other end of the spectrum are many of the Commonwealth countries, where politicians have opted out of the redistricting process and granted the authority to neutral or independent commissions. A central agency may draw districts for the entire country. If the central agency does not actually draw the districts, it establishes guidelines for regional commissions and oversees the redistribution process. The final decision as to which district boundaries should be implemented rests with the commission and not with the legislature.

This section will examine alternative approaches to the designation of a boundary authority. It will discuss the composition of the boundary authority, whether the authority should be partisan or non-partisan, and whether a central authority or regional authorities should perform the task of redistricting. Who has the authority to make the final decision as to which set of district boundaries are to be implemented will also be considered.


Composition of the Boundary Authority

The legislature serves as the boundary authority in a few countries. In some countries, particularly many Commonwealth countries, special commissions have been created solely for the purpose of redistricting. In other countries, electoral commissions or other government agencies are charged with the task of redistricting.

In the United States, redistricting is mostly in the hands of the fifty state legislatures. A legislative committee usually produces a districting plan or reviews plans submitted by legislators. In France, the Ministry of the Interior drew the district boundary lines when single-member districts were restored in 1986. But most long-standing liberal democracies now use special redistricting commissions.

Redistricting commissions tend to be small in size, ranging from three to seven members. Canada has three-member commissions; Germany and New Zealand have seven-member commissions. Some commissions are composed wholly or in part of government officials, as in Australia and New Zealand. In other countries, the composition of redistricting commissions is more flexible. For example, Canadian law stipulates that the chair of the independent provincial redistribution commissions be a judge appointed by the chief justice of the province, but the law does not specify the two other appointments. In practice, the other commissioners are usually members of the academic community or government officials, such as the clerks of the provincial legislatures.

Members of the judiciary are well represented on redistricting commissions in many Commonwealth countries. They often chair the commissions, as in Canada. In New Zealand, the chair of the Representation Commission since 1956 has been either a sitting or retired judge, although this is not required by law. In the United Kingdom, senior judges serve as deputy chairs of the four boundary commissions in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Australia, the chairperson of the Australian Electoral Commission, who is a judge, chairs the augmented Electoral Commission.

Redistricting commissions often include public officials with backgrounds in election administration, geography or topography, and statistics. In Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the commissions include electoral officers or registrars-general, as well as the director of ordnance survey (United Kingdom) and the surveyor-general (Australia and New Zealand). Statisticians have an important role on Australian commissions, because population projections, rather than actual census or voter registration counts, are used to draw electoral district boundaries. In Canada, academics knowledgeable about elections and/or geography may be asked to serve on electoral commissions.

Noticeably missing from redistricting commissions in most Commonwealth countries are legislators and representatives of political parties. The express purpose of this omission is to maintain the neutrality of the commissions. New Zealand is one exception to this rule. Two political appointees, one representative for the governing party and one for opposition parties, serve on the seven-member Representation Commission.

Descriptions of twol commissions, including their composition and degree of independence, can be found in the country examples for Australia (Federal Redistribution in Australia) and New Zealand (Electoral Redistribution in New Zealand).


Partisan Considerations in Choosing a Boundary Authority

Since a country can be subdivided into different district configurations and different election outcomes are possible from these district configurations, even if voting patterns remain constant, the designation of a boundary authority and the powers granted to that authority are very important.

In the nineteenth century, districts almost everywhere were drawn by the legislatures. Legislators from the majority political party were often tempted to draw districting plans that favoured their own candidates at the expense of the candidates from other parties. The delimitation, or redistricting, process came under increasing attack for political bias.

Over the past fifty years, a growing number of countries have moved to neutral or non-partisan commissions to avoid politically biased redistricting. In 1964, when Canada adopted independent electoral boundary commissions for redistricting, the United States was left as one of the few long-standing liberal democracies where the redistricting process remains in the hands of the politicians. The United States has also been one of the only countries to accept partisanship as an inevitable part of the redistricting process.

Disagreeing with the proposition that politics cannot be removed from the redistricting process, many countries have established neutral commissions and enacted rules for drawing district boundaries. These commissions have no formal links to political parties, and commissioners are not permitted to consider political data when drawing district boundaries. Instead, commissioners are obliged to consider criteria such as equal population and respect for administrative boundaries in deciding upon district configurations. Since the adoption of these reforms, few have questioned the neutrality of the redistricting process in these countries.

The only drawback to the non-partisan approach to redistricting is that it does not necessarily produce a politically unbiased redistricting plan. Simply ignoring politics does not mean that a districting plan has no political effect. The non-partisan approach guarantees only that any political bias in a districting plan is unintentional.

Solutions for Political Bias in Redistricting

Some countries have attempted to devise solutions to the problem of political bias in redistricting outcomes. One solution allows representatives of all major political parties to serve on the body that makes redistricting decisions. Another allows representatives of major political parties to analyse the potential partisan impact of a districting plan before enactment. In the United States, one or both of these approaches have been adopted by most of the states.

In the United States, a legislative committee or a bipartisan commission may draw a districting plan. Political data to ascertain the potential partisan effect of a plan will almost certainly be employed. Because a districting plan is almost always enacted by the state legislature, the likely result, however, is a plan that knowingly favours one political party or the incumbent legislators of both parties rather than a politically unbiased plan.

New Zealand has adopted another approach to the problem of politically biased outcomes. Two of the seven members of the New Zealand Representation Commission are political appointees. One represents the governing party and the other the opposition parties. Their presence on the commission helps to ensure that any egregious political bias is recognised and rectified. Because the two political appointees constitute a minority on the commission, they cannot outvote the non-political commissioners. The neutrality of the commission is, therefore, unquestioned.


If partisan considerations are to play a role in the redistricting process, then this should be clearly understood by all political parties and the general public at the outset. Whether the parties actually control the process, or merely monitor the process to ensure a politically fair outcome, the rules regulating the process should remain the same regardless of which party has control of the government or the legislature.

If the redistricting process is to be non-partisan, on the other hand, then political parties should refrain from attempting to influence the redistricting process, at least outside of accepted channels. It is the fact that the process is conducted in a politically neutral manner that guarantees acceptance of the districting plan, even if the redistricting plan results in a politically biased outcome.


Degrees of Boundary Authority Centralisation

Countries vary in the degree to which the delimitation process is centralised. At one end of the spectrum, the delimitation, or redistricting, process is very decentralised, with regional entities such as states or provinces responsible for drawing their own federal electoral districts. Little, if any, federal guidance is provided to these regional entities. At the other end of the spectrum are those countries in which a single central agency is charged with drawing districts for the entire country. In the middle of the spectrum are countries that have established central agencies, but these agencies do not actually draw federal electoral districts. Instead, they may establish guidelines for regional commissions to follow when drawing district boundaries, and they may oversee the federal redistricting process.

The United States is at one end of the spectrum. There the redistricting process is very decentralised. Once the U.S. Congress apportions congressional seats among the states, each of the fifty states is responsible for drawing the allotted number of congressional districts within its own borders. Each state adopts its own redistricting procedures and determines its own redistricting criteria. There is some guidance from the federal government and the courts, however, mostly in the area of population equality and minority voting rights.

Australia and Canada, with federal systems like the United States, have adopted procedures that are more centralised. In Australia, separate commissions for the redistribution of federal electoral districts were established in each state at the turn of the century. Canada borrowed this practice in 1964 when it determined that federal redistribution should be conducted by independent commissions established in each province. However, both Canada and Australia provide the state or provincial commissions charged with creating federal electoral districts with a uniform set of criteria for redistribution. Both countries also provide some degree of central co-ordination for federal redistribution.

Elections Canada, a permanent federal agency, co-ordinates the process of federal redistribution in Canada by bringing commission chairpersons together for discussions before the process begins. Elections Canada also provides each provincial commission with a database for federal redistricting and trained support staff.

In Australia, the federal electoral commissioner--the administrative head and one of the three members of the Australian Electoral Commission--has a seat on each of the state redistribution commissions charged with federal redistricting. The other two members of the Australian Electoral Commission are added to form augmented redistribution commissions for federal redistributions within each state.

In most other countries, redistricting is centralised in a single federal agency that draws districts for the entire country. In Germany, a permanent seven-member constituency committee determines the district boundaries for the entire country (although each state has a voice in the process). In New Zealand, the seven-member Representation Commission undertakes redistribution for the entire country. In France, the Ministry of Interior drew district lines when single-member districts were restored in 1986. And in India, when redistribution last occurred in 1973, a delimitation commission conducted the process administratively for the entire country.


A major advantage of a centralised redistricting process is that the redistricting criteria can be interpreted or applied without regional variation and, as a result, districts may be more uniform in construction. A major advantage of a decentralised process is that district boundaries are drawn by individuals more familiar with regional geography, communities of interest and other local circumstances.


Authority for Choosing the Final Districting Plan

In the nineteenth century, in nearly every country that delimited districts, legislative approval was required before a redistricting plan could be implemented. Recent reforms designed to remove politics from the redistricting process have reduced the power of legislatures to approve redistricting plans. In most countries today, the legislature plays only a limited role or no role at all in the redistricting process. However, some countries do require executive approval, rather than legislative approval, before a redistricting plan can be implemented. While this removes the decision from legislators--those who directly benefit from the districting plan--it still leaves the redistricting process open to charges of political influence.

In many countries with redistricting commissions, the legislature plays no role in the redistricting process. Final plans produced by the commissions have the force of law. In New Zealand, for example, the final plan of the Representation Committee, once published, cannot be changed or appealed. Since 1983, Australia's augmented Electoral Commission has had the same power. The augmented Electoral Commission hears objections to the plan proposed by the Redistribution Committee and may modify the plan based on these objections. Adoption of this modified plan by the augmented Electoral Commission completes the process; no affirmation by the legislature is required.

In other countries, the legislature can debate and, possibly, even delay the enactment of a commission's plan, but it cannot modify the plan. In Canada, for instance, the 1964 Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act removed the responsibility for redistricting from the Parliament and gave it to independent electoral commissions in each province. Parliament is permitted to consider plans produced by the commissions but has no vote on their implementation. Parliament has used this provision to delay the implementation of plans, however. This has prompted a change in the law; there is now a sixty day limit on Parliamentary debate and consideration.

In the United Kingdom, the final proposals of the four Boundary Commissions take effect only after an affirmative vote by Parliament. But Parliament's power to accept or reject a plan is a formality. It has almost always affirmed commission proposals; to do otherwise would be viewed as "political." The only two exceptions were in 1948, when Parliament proposed the addition of seventeen seats for under-represented urban areas, and in 1969, when Parliament delayed the implementation of a redistribution plan on the grounds that impending changes to local government boundaries would render the plan obsolete. Conservatives viewed both of these actions by the Labour government as political.

The United States is the anomaly with regard to legislatures and the adoption of redistricting plans. Most states assign the task of federal redistricting to the state legislature. The few that assign the task to an agency or a commission still require an affirmative vote of the state legislature to enact a redistricting plan.


Allowing the legislature to accept or reject a plan--let alone create it--opens the redistricting process up to charges of political bias. In fact, many plans adopted by legislatures do favour one political party over others. Still, plans drawn by neutral commissions can also produce politically biased election outcomes, however unintentional.


Frequency of Electoral District Delimitation

In most countries that delimit electoral districts, there is some mandatory interval by which redistricting must occur. Some countries, however, notably France, have no requirement. Although there is no standard time interval, the range of intervals for redistricting is not particularly broad. New Zealand redraws its electoral districts every five years; Australia, at least every seven years; and the United States and Canada, every ten years following a decennial census.

In some countries, the stipulated time interval between redistributions has changed periodically. In the United Kingdom, for example, the first House of Commons Redistribution of Seats Act in 1944 required redistribution every five to seven years. The law was changed in 1958 to require redistribution every ten to fifteen years, because members of Parliament and political parties objected to the frequent alterations in constituency boundaries. In 1992, the interval was shortened to every eight to twelve years because of the wide population disparities that had resulted from infrequent redistributions.

Of course, the establishment of a mandatory time interval does not necessarily mean that redistricting will occur. India has not delimited its constituencies since 1973, despite a legal provision requiring redistricting after every decennial census. By a political agreement, redistributions in India have been suspended until the turn of the century.

The disadvantage of infrequent redistricting is the wide discrepancies in district populations that often result over time. Districts that are drawn with very small population deviations at the beginning of a decade, for instance, may vary considerably in size by the end of the decade.

Australia has adopted a unique solution to this problem. Rather than use current enrollment figures, federal electoral districts are redrawn using projections, such that the number of electors enrolled in each district will be equal three and one-half years into the future, the midpoint of Australia's seven-year redistricting cycle. For more information about this process, see the case study on Australia, Federal Redistribution in Australia.


The disadvantages of frequent redistricting are the costs in money and time to undertake the process. In addition, frequent changes to district boundaries disrupt ties between representatives and their constituencies. To determine the optimal interval, countries must balance the costs of redistricting with the benefits of maintaining districts with some measure of population equality.


Length of Time Permitted for the Delimitation Process

While there are no time constraints on the delimitation process in some countries, other countries impose quite rigid constraints on the length of time permitted for the redistricting process. The existence or absence of a legal deadline, however, does not necessarily relate to the time actually taken to redraw districts.

Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom imposes a mandatory time limit for completion of the redistricting process. Although there is no federal law and few state constitutions that set time limits, candidate-filing deadlines for upcoming congressional elections serve as a practical deadline for federal redistricting in the United States. If a state legislature does not complete redistricting by the candidate-filing deadline, the courts will intervene and either draw a plan of their own or implement a districting plan proposed by one of the parties to the court case. Hence, the practical, if not legally imposed, time period for redistricting in the United States is two years, beginning with the date that numbers from the decennial census are released and ending with the candidate-filing deadline for the first congressional election of the decade. In the United Kingdom, the redistribution process can take more than twice as long as it does in the United States. In fact, the English Boundary Commission Report released in 1983 took seven years to complete. The last English Boundary Commission Report, completed in 1995, took four years to prepare.

By contrast, redistricting in Australia and New Zealand takes less than one year. In 1984, for example, Australia undertook an extensive redistribution. Districts for the 125 seats in the Lower House were redrawn to create 148 new districts. The entire process--drawing up proposals, holding public inquiries, and modifying proposals to produce a final plan--took only six months to complete. Prior to 1993, the Representation Commission in New Zealand was required to publish a final plan no later than six months after formal deliberations began. The 1993 Electoral Act, however, does not contain this time restraint.

Two factors that appear to affect the length of time needed for redistricting are the design of the public inquiry process and whether the legislature is permitted to debate or modify a redistricting plan. The elaborate public inquiry process utilised in the United Kingdom adds considerably to the time needed for redistribution. In Canada, the major source of delay has traditionally been Parliament. A sixty-day restriction was eventually placed on Parliament for the review of proposed federal redistribution plans.

Given the political nature of redistricting in the United States, it is remarkable how quickly the process is completed. Legislatures in most states are responsible for drawing the lines and enacting the final congressional districting plan. Part of the reason for the timeliness in most states is the lack of any structured public input into the redistricting process. While some states did hold public hearings during redistricting in 1991, it is doubtful that these hearings led to significant modifications in any redistricting plans.


The major disadvantage of a lengthy redistricting process is the same as that associated with a lengthy time interval between redistributions, i.e., large population deviations may result. In England, for example, there were wide discrepancies in district populations following the 1983 redistribution because the Boundary Commission redrew constituencies with voter registration counts from 1976, the year the redistribution process began.


Public Access to the Delimitation Process

One distinction between countries with redistricting commissions and countries where legislatures, election commissions or government agencies conduct redistricting is public access to the process. Many countries that have adopted neutral redistricting commissions have incorporated public access provisions as part of the reforms to limit the influence of legislators and political parties in the redistricting process.

One of the aims of Canada's Electoral Boundaries Redistribution Act of 1964 was to increase the public's awareness of and involvement in the redistribution process. The act, modelled on Australia's redistribution process, borrowed Australia's practice of granting the public an opportunity to present suggestions or objections to commission proposals. In Canada today, once an independent electoral commission has completed its proposal and published the map in the local newspapers, the general public is invited to present written briefs or oral representations at public hearings held by the commission. Commissions have received hundreds of comments from a wide variety of sources. Local jurisdictions, political parties, members of Parliament (M.P.'s), candidates for Parliament, political activists and other interested citizens have all offered comments on proposed federal redistribution plans. Redistribution plans have often been revised after these hearings.

Although Australia's redistribution process has been modified since Canada borrowed major portions of it, public involvement is still an important part of the process. In 1983, for example, the process was changed to give the public two opportunities to offer comments on proposed redistricting plans. Australia's four-member Redistribution Committee receives suggestions from the public, political parties, candidates, and M.P.'s before beginning to draft a plan. Once the Redistribution Committee has completed a plan, the augmented Electoral Commission hears public objections to the proposed plan, if there are any, and produces a final map. The only avenue for legislators in Australia to comment on a federal redistribution plan is through the public hearing process. See the case study on Australia, Federal Redistribution in Australia, for more details on the public inquiry process in this country.

In the United Kingdom, the process of public consultation is similar, although a public inquiry is held only if local authorities or at least one hundred electors object to the proposed map. Despite this caveat, the public consultation process takes much longer to complete in the United Kingdom than in other countries. One reason is that second inquiries may be held if a proposed plan is modified and new objections are raised.

In countries without standard procedures for public access, litigation may be the only avenue for the public to challenge a redistricting plan. In the United States, civil rights organisations, public interest groups, and interested citizens frequently file lawsuits if they deem a redistricting plan unfair. One consequence is that the number of redistricting lawsuits filed in the United States is enormous, far greater than in any other country. Increased public access to the redistricting process may or may not reduce the number of court challenges to redistricting plans in the United States since there are other reasons as well for the proliferation of lawsuits. But greater public access to the process would certainly make the process appear more open and democratic.


The primary advantage to granting public access to the redistricting process is that the outcome is more likely to be viewed as fair if the process is perceived as open and accessible. In countries with plurality or majority electoral systems, granting the public access to the process may be especially important because of the tendency of single-member districts to distort the relationship between the percentage of votes a political party receives and the number of seats the party wins.


Establishment of Criteria for Delimiting Districts

Countries that have recently established or reformed their redistricting practices have often instituted a set of formal rules, or criteria, for their boundary authorities to consider when drawing electoral districts. Although this is especially true in countries that have adopted neutral boundary commissions, many countries that allow the legislature or a government agency to redistrict have enacted redistricting criteria as well. These rules are usually listed in the electoral law, but they can sometimes be found in the country's constitution. Examples of redistricting rules enacted by selected countries can be found in Election laws or constitutional provisions listing redistricting criteria for selected countries.

The rules often specify that districts should be as equal in population as possible, taking into account a variety of other factors. Administrative and/or natural boundaries and other geographic features such as sparsely populated or isolated territory are factors commonly listed. Respect for communities of interest is another factor many countries specify. In some countries, especially developing countries, redistricters are asked to consider the predominant means of transportation and/or communication as well.

Almost all countries that have formal redistricting criteria require that districts be as equal in population as possible. Many countries specify tolerance levels or population deviation limits from the electoral quota. The electoral quota is simply the population of the territory to be redistricted divided by the number of legislative seats (or districts) allocated to that territory.

Although the representation of voters has taken precedence over the representation of communities in the twentieth century--as evidenced by the number of countries that require districts to be as equal in population as possible--respect for administrative areas, physically-defined natural communities and geographically concentrated communities of interest continue to play prominent roles in redistricting. In fact, a primary function of single-member districts is to provide representation for geographically-defined communities.

Criteria Relating to Election Outcomes

Equal population, geographic considerations and communities of interest are criteria that relate directly to the process of creating districts. Other criteria relate to the outcome of the redistricting process--for example, requiring that district plans be drawn so that political parties are fairly represented or that racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities have an equitable chance of representation. But countries that delimit districts usually do not adopt criteria relating to the fairness of the outcome. This is because countries with single-member districts can rarely meet these standards, if fairness of outcome is defined as proportional or near proportional representation for political parties and minority groups.


Redistricting criteria can conflict with one another. For instance, although almost all countries list population equality as a redistricting criterion, few countries actually have districts that are close to equal in population. The reason is that other criteria have been deemed more important than strict adherence to population equality. Respect for administrative boundaries and natural communities, for example, often require districts to be smaller or larger than the electoral quota.

Countries that establish redistricting criteria must either prioritise the criteria or accept certain inconsistencies in district configuration. Many countries choose to specify the most important criteria and/or place limits (such as population tolerance levels) on the redistricters, but still permit redistricters some discretion in balancing these criteria.

Equal Population

The most widely accepted rule for redistricting is that districts should be relatively equal in population. This is because representation by population is a central tenet of democracy, and, in countries that employ single-member districts, this rule translates into the principle of equal populations across districts. Equally populous districts are necessary if voters are to have an equally weighted voice in the election of representatives. If, for example, a representative is elected from a district that has twice as many voters as another district, voters in the larger district will have half as much influence as voters in the smaller district.

The degree to which countries demand population equality varies. The United States is unique in its adherence to the doctrine of equal population. No other country requires deviations as minimal as the "one person, one vote" standard that has been imposed by U.S. courts since the early 1960s. New Zealand comes closest to that strict standard, but deviations of up to five percent from the electoral quota are permitted.

In Australia, federal electoral districts must fall within 10 percent of a state's electoral quota, as forecast by population projections three and one-half years into the future. Australia aims for equality of population halfway through its seven-year redistricting cycle to avoid wide discrepancies at the end of the cycle. Australia's close attention to population equality is relatively recent. Thirty years ago, the practice of heavy rural loading--creating rural districts that were much smaller in population than urban districts--was quite common. (For more information on Australian redistricting practices, see the case study on Australia, Federal Redistribution in Australia.)

In Canada, the independent commissions charged with creating federal electoral districts are allowed to deviate by up to 25 percent from the provincial quotas. But since 1986, commissions have been permitted to exceed the 25 percent limit under "extraordinary circumstances." This provision was used to create five of the 295 seats in the Canadian House of Commons in 1987, and two of 301 seats in 1996. In 1996, one Quebec seat was created with a population 40.2 percent below the provincial average, and one Newfoundland district was created with a population 62.5 percent below the provincial average.

In Germany, as in Canada, districts are not to deviate from the electoral quota by more than 25 percent. It is not until a district deviates by more than 33 percent, however, that the law requires that a district be redrawn. The German legislature, which must approve any proposed federal redistricting plan before it can be implemented, often refrains from adopting district modifications recommended by the Electoral Districts Commission until a district deviates by 33 percent or more.

The United Kingdom allows even larger deviations in district populations. The original standard was set at 25 percent in 1944. But the standard was repealed only two years later. The current rule requires that constituencies be "as equal as possible," but this rule must be balanced against the principle of respect for local boundaries as much as possible. Equally populous districts can also be disregarded for "special geographic circumstances." Allowances for natural communities prompted English boundary commissioners in 1983 to leave the Isle of Wight with 95,000 electors as a single constituency, while respect for local London boundaries left suburban Surbiton with only 48,000 electors. Likewise, recognising the difficulties of island travel, the commissioners in Scotland granted the Western Isles (population 24,000) and Orkney and Shetland (population 31,000) their own representatives.

The degree to which a country adheres to strict equality of population is related to the significance attached to individual political equality. The United States is strongly committed to individual rights and equality, so perhaps it is not surprising that it developed the strictest population deviation standards of any country using single-member districts. Other countries, while recognising the importance of population equality, have chosen to balance this factor against other redistricting criteria perceived as equally valid. In the United Kingdom, respect for local administrative boundaries is given precedence over exact equality of number. In many African countries, the need to recognise individual tribes may take precedence over population equality. Each country must determine how much variation from the ideal of exact population equality will be tolerated to accommodate other redistricting goals.

Geographic Criteria

In many countries, the electoral laws specify that geography, or certain geographic factors, be taken into account when delimiting electoral district lines. Geographic criteria can be divided into two categories--criteria relating to geographic boundaries and criteria relating to geographic size and/or shape. A boundary authority may be asked to consider factors from either or both criteria.

Criteria Related to Geographic Boundaries

Respect for clearly established boundary lines is often specified as a criterion for those redistricting to consider when drawing electoral district lines. These boundaries can include administrative boundaries such as county and municipality lines and/or natural boundaries created by dominant topographical features such as mountain ranges, rivers or islands.

Geographic redistricting criteria such as respect for administrative boundaries and physically defined natural communities are a higher priority in some countries than in others. In the United Kingdom, for example, respect for local administrative boundaries and natural communities is the most important concept guiding boundary commissioners. Large population disparities are tolerated as a result.

Criteria Related to Geographic Size and Shape

Factors such as the remoteness of a territory, the sparseness of population, or geographic accessibility are sometimes listed as criteria to consider when drawing district lines. These factors are particularly important in countries which have large, sparsely populated territories, like Canada, Australia or Russia, or countries with islands or other isolated constituencies that are more difficult to serve.

Two other factors that are sometimes listed as redistricting criteria relate specifically to the geometric shape of a district--contiguity and compactness. Advocates of these criteria hold that districts should not be oddly shaped and that all pieces of a district should be inter-connected. The latter criterion seems to have been taken for granted by redistricting authorities almost everywhere and is specifically mentioned as a rule in a number of countries. For example, many state constitutions in the United States list contiguity as a requirement for legislative districts.

Recently, this issue has led to disagreements in some states in the United States as to whether a district connected by a single point is, in fact, contiguous.

The issue of district compactness, like contiguity, is often taken for granted and may or may not be specifically listed as a criterion to consider. When it is listed, compactness is rarely defined. Like contiguity, the issue of compactness has led to disagreements, and even court challenges, in a number of states in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ordered the redrawing of a number of oddly shaped "majority minority" congressional districts. Although the shape of these districts was not the basis for the Court's decision, the fact that the districts were not compact was considered evidence of an impermissible motive in creating the district boundaries.

Communities of Interest

Because of requirements that single-member districts be relatively equal in population, single-member districts often do not reflect distinct geographic communities as signified by municipal, county or other administrative boundary lines. This does not mean, however, that political representation has been divorced from the notion of "community" in countries that delimit single-member districts.

Many countries that delimit single-member districts continue to emphasise the importance of creating districts that correspond as closely as possible to pre-existing communities, defined as administrative divisions and/or "communities of interest." The rationale for recognising communities in redistricting is that electoral districts should be more than conglomerations of arbitrary, random groups of individuals. Districts should, as much as possible, be cohesive units with common interests related to representation. This makes a representative's job of articulating the interests of his or her constituency much easier.

Defining Communities of Interest

A "community of interest" is rarely defined by statute but it is generally thought of as a group of individuals united by shared interests or values. These shared interests may be the result of a common history or culture, a common ethnic background, or a variety of other ties that create a community of voters with distinct interests.

Although the perimeter of a community of interest may correspond to the boundaries of an administrative division, this is not necessarily the case. For example, a river may form a boundary between two administrative divisions, but the entire river valley may comprise a unified community of interest. In this instance, an electoral district that follows the administrative boundary would divide a community of interest.

In general, criteria related to communities of interest can be divided into three categories: (1) criteria related to administrative or geographic boundaries; (2) criteria related to common interests or common characteristics; and (3) criteria related to patterns of interaction. Criteria related to administrative or geographic boundaries are discussed under Geographic Criteria (see Geographic criteria).

Some of the criteria related to common interests or characteristics are:

Countries specifying that communities of interest be considered for redistricting have adopted a variety of approaches. Some countries regard communities of interest as the basic redistricting criterion, with all the other criteria subsumed below it as components of communities of interest. Other countries regard communities of interest more as a residual concept, filling holes left in a list of more specific redistricting criteria, such as the consideration of administrative boundaries and geographical features.

Despite the ambiguity inherent in the term "communities of interest," redistricters in many countries take communities of interest into account when drawing electoral boundaries. Redistricters knowledgeable about local conditions can sometimes identify communities of interest, but more often these communities are identified through a public hearing process.


Redistricting criteria inevitably conflict with one another. One possible means to resolve a conflict between criteria is to determine the most salient or most important "community of interest" in a given instance. Public hearings are essential to this process. For example, a redistricting plan that follows ethnic community boundaries rather than administrative boundaries may prevail if members of the public assert that the ethnic community boundaries are more relevant to them than administrative boundaries.


Fairness for Political Parties and Minority Groups

Criteria specifying fairness for political parties and minority groups within a country focus on the electoral outcome, rather than the process, of redistricting. Electoral systems that rely exclusively on single-member districts, however, cannot guarantee proportional representation or even some minimal percentage of seats for minority political parties or for ethnic, racial or religious minority groups in the population. Special electoral provisions are required if single-member systems are to ensure minority groups some representation. Mixed electoral systems, because they combine single-member districts with seats that are allocated to political parties on the basis of a party list, may not have to institute special provisions to provide minority representation.

Countries that delimit single-member districts usually do not adopt redistricting criteria that refer to fairness in outcome, either because fairness cannot be guaranteed or because seats allocated on the basis of a party list vote are considered sufficient to provide fair outcomes. Instead, countries that delimit districts often rely on redistricting criteria that ensure a fair and impartial process.

Difficulties Ensuring Fairness for Minorities

Drawing boundaries for single-member districts with a view towards achieving proportional representation for political parties or certain minority groups within a country is virtually impossible. Single-member districts inevitably produce disproportionately fewer seats for minority parties and minority groups, unless these groups are geographically concentrated in such a way that line drawers can create a proportionate number of districts in which these groups predominate.

Minority parties and minority voters that are optimally concentrated geographically, and are of sufficient size to control the majority of votes in a requisite number of districts, can hope to achieve representation that is more proportional. This is true of parties such as the Bloc Quebecois in Canada. Most minority parties and minority groups, however, do not achieve this level of proportionality in representation in single-member districts. In fact, without special provisions for minority representation, minority groups can be severely under-represented.

A few countries that delimit districts have made provisions to ensure that racial, ethnic or religious minorities are represented in the legislature. The United States and New Zealand are two examples.

Minority Representation in the United States

The United States, because of its sizeable racial and ethnic minority population and its history of discrimination against certain minority groups, has had to address the issue of fairness to minorities in promulgating redistricting plans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its amendments in 1982 have established that a redistricting plan that dilutes the voting strength of minority voters by dividing the minority community among different districts may be invalid. Protected minority groups (blacks and Hispanics, for the most part) must meet three conditions to qualify for this protection:

If a minority group is able to satisfy all three of these conditions, a redistricting plan must be fashioned such that minority voters constitute a majority of voters in one or more districts. The minority community must demonstrate that these conditions are satisfied in a court proceeding. In fact, in a series of recent court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court held that several jurisdictions that created "majority minority" districts voluntarily--that is, without being required by a court to do so--must redraw these "majority minority" districts without taking race or ethnicity into account.

The Voting Rights Act guarantees racial and ethnic fairness in some minimal sense in the United States. It is minimal because only minority communities that are able to satisfy all three of the conditions are given an opportunity to form the majority of a district and elect a candidate of choice. Blacks and Hispanics are far from proportionally represented in the United States Congress. The minority community in New Zealand is better represented in the legislature because of a more effective provision.

Minority Representation in New Zealand

A unique feature of New Zealand's electoral system is a provision for representation of the descendants of New Zealand's aboriginal Maori population. In addition to sixty general legislative districts, the Representation Commission created five Maori districts in the last redistribution in New Zealand. These Maori districts are geographically defined and overlay the general electoral districts. To vote in a Maori district, rather than a general election district, a Maori voter must register on the Maori roll. Registration on this roll is optional; Maoris can choose to register on the general roll instead. Because of this electoral feature, Maoris in the last election in 1996 were represented in the legislature roughly in proportion to their percentage of the population.


Countries that delimit single-member districts cannot guarantee proportional representation to minority political parties or to minority groups within their borders, at least not without special provisions or additional seats elected by a party list vote. Instead, redistricting criteria may be adopted to ensure a fair and impartial redistricting process. Although this will not necessarily produce proportional, or even minimal, representation for minority parties or groups, it does guarantee that any bias is unintentional.

Countries with deep racial, ethnic or religious divisions usually opt for some form of proportional representation rather than rely on single-member districts to elect representatives. Unless the minority group is geographically concentrated or special provisions for minority representation are adopted, the election outcome produced by single-member districts will benefit some groups at the expense of others. In a deeply divided country, this fact may well lead to instability rather than foster strong and stable governments.


Federal Redistribution in Australia

This case study deals with the determination of the boundaries of electoral divisions for the House of Representatives of Australia's Federal Parliament, a process known as "redistribution" in Australia.

The Australian Constitution requires that the numbers of members of the House of Representatives elected from each Australian state be proportional to the populations of the states. It also stipulates that a federal electoral division cannot be formed from territory from more than one state. A consequence of these requirements is that separate redistribution processes must be undertaken to determine the boundaries of the federal electoral divisions in each state and in each territory represented in the Parliament.

The basic line of thinking that underlies the current redistribution provisions in the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, which were substantially implemented in 1984, is that the legitimacy of the process can be guaranteed by attention to the following considerations:

Timing of redistributions. Provision is made for redistributions to be conducted with sufficient frequency to limit malapportionment, i.e., the inequality in the voter populations of divisions within a state or territory. In addition, the timing of redistributions is determined by law and cannot be manipulated for political advantage.

Constitution of bodies conducting redistributions. Redistributions are undertaken by politically neutral and independent bodies.

Provision for public input. The redistribution process is very public, and extensive scope exists for the views of interested individuals and bodies to be taken into account.

Criteria governing the drawing of boundaries. The bodies undertaking redistributions are required to work in accordance with well-defined and reasonable criteria which are broadly supported across the political spectrum.

Automatic implementation of redistributions. Once a redistribution has been made, it is not subject to veto at the political level, nor by Parliament.

Now consider each of these in more detail:


Timing of Redistributions

There are only three situations in which a redistribution of a state or territory represented in the Parliament can be initiated:

when there is a change in the number of members of the House of Representatives to be chosen in the state or territory at a general election, as determined approximately two years before each general election;

when a prescribed level of malapportionment is achieved and sustained in the state or territory;

when seven years have elapsed since the state or territory was last redistributed.


Of the three possible "triggers" for redistributions, change in representation entitlements has been by far the most important and has accounted for the majority of redistributions initiated since 1984. There have been no redistributions triggered by malapportionment.


The rules governing the timing of redistributions are based on objective criteria, and do not permit the government of the day any discretion with regard to the scheduling of redistributions. The rules also clearly ensure that there is a limit on the length of time that can elapse between redistributions, which has tended to limit the extent to which malapportionment can arise.


Constitution of Bodies Conducting Redistributions

A redistribution in Australia occurs in two main stages. During the first stage a proposed redistribution is produced; during the second stage objections to the proposal are dealt with and a final determination is made. Different bodies, though with overlapping memberships, are involved in the two stages.

The proposed redistribution in a state is made by the redistribution committee for the state, which consists of:

the electoral commissioner, who is a statutory officer appointed under the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, the administrative head, and one of the three members of the Australian Electoral Commission

the Australian electoral officer for the state, who is a statutory officer appointed under the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, and who heads the Australian Electoral Commission's administrative structures in the state

the surveyor-general from the state government of the state (or, where the state has no surveyor-general, a person nominated by the relevant state minister as holding an office equivalent to that of surveyor-general)

the auditor-general from the government of the state

The second stage in the redistribution process commences after the proposed redistribution has been published. Objections to the proposed redistribution are considered and a final determination is made by the augmented electoral commission. This body consists of the redistribution committee for the state or territory, plus the two members of the three-member Australian Electoral Commission who were not members of the Redistribution Committee, i.e., the chairperson of the commission and the so-called "non-judicial appointee".

There is a consensus among Australia's main political parties that the membership of the redistribution committees and augmented electoral commissions is appropriate and enables them to operate in an independent and politically neutral way.


Provision for Public Input

Extensive provision is made for public input into the redistribution process. Redistribution committees are required by law to call for public suggestions at the outset of the redistribution process, and any suggestions received are made publicly available and can be the subject of further public comment. All suggestions and comments are required to be considered.

After a proposed redistribution has been published, objections to it may be lodged. The augmented electoral commission is required to conduct a public inquiry into an objection unless the objection covers matters which were already substantially raised in earlier suggestions or comments, or is frivolous or vexatious. Submissions regarding the objection may be made at the public inquiry by the person or organisation objecting, and any person who or organisation that made suggestions or comments.

The augmented electoral commission may also invite other witnesses to appear. The augmented electoral commission is not bound by the legal rules of evidence, and in general has considerable flexibility in determining how inquiries will be conducted. Inquiries are typically held in the capital city of the state, but on some occasions in the past an augmented electoral commission has chosen to hold an inquiry in a provincial city, particularly where such an approach facilitated the examination of a controversial proposed boundary.

Having held such public inquiries as are necessary, the augmented electoral commission is required to make a further proposed redistribution. As part of that process, the augmented electoral commission must determine whether, in its view, the proposed redistribution is "significantly different" from that put forward earlier by the redistribution committee, and then make an announcement to that effect. If the proposed redistribution is not regarded as significantly different from that of the redistribution committee, there is no provision for further objections, and the proposed redistribution is in practice reflected in the final determination made by the augmented electoral commission. If the proposed redistribution is regarded as significantly different, further objections can be lodged by individuals who or organisations that had previously made suggestions or comments or lodged objections, and a further public inquiry or series of public inquiries must be held.

The net effect of all of these changes has been to make the redistribution process a far more open and accountable one than was previously the case. The redistribution committees and augmented electoral commissions have tended in their statements of reasons to give substantial explanations of their proposals, addressing in some detail the suggestions, comments and objections they have received. As a result, those who made suggestions, comments or objections have been better placed than before to appreciate why their own preferred positions may not have been accepted. Participants at inquiries into objections have typically been given extensive opportunities to expand on their submissions, so that the augmented electoral commission gains the maximum benefit from their views, and so that the participants can be satisfied that they have received a proper hearing. As a result, argument over the substance of a particular redistribution has tended to be talked out within the framework of the redistribution process, rather than forming the basis for ongoing questioning of the legitimacy of a particular redistribution.

It is also notable that notwithstanding the extensive provision made for public input, the redistribution process is one that can be undertaken relatively expeditiously.


Criteria Governing the Drawing of Boundaries

The criteria governing how boundaries are to be drawn by the redistribution committees and augmented electoral commissions are fully spelled out in the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, and are as follows:

(a) The State or Territory must be distributed into a number of electoral divisions equal to its representation entitlement in the House of Representatives as most recently determined.

(b) A quota is determined by dividing the State or Territory's total electoral enrolment as at the end of the period for the lodging of comments by its representation entitlement in the House of Representatives. An electoral division which deviates in enrolment from the quota by more than 10 percent cannot be proposed.

(c) Subject to rules (a) and (b), the Redistribution Committee or augmented Electoral Commission must, as far as practicable, endeavour to ensure that the boundaries of the electoral divisions are such that the number of electors enrolled in each division will not, at the point three-and-a-half years after the redistribution has come into effect, be less than 98 percent nor more than 102 percent of the average divisional enrolment for the State or Territory at that time.

(d) Subject to rules (a), (b) and (c), due consideration must be given, in relation to each proposed division, to:

(i) community of interests within the proposed division, including economic, social and regional interests;

(ii) means of communication and travel within the proposed division;

(iii) the physical features and area of the proposed division; and

(iv) the boundaries of existing divisions.


These criteria are heavily numerical and to a considerable extent objective. The relative importance of the main criteria is clearly defined in the legislation, and is not a matter in which the bodies conducting redistributions have any significant discretion.

It should be noted that those bodies are not required to take any account of the possible partisan implications of redistributions, and in fact they have not done so.


Automatic Implementation of Redistributions

Under current provisions, the determination made by an augmented electoral commission is final and cannot be vetoed at the political level. It is also not subject to judicial review, except on very limited constitutional grounds.


Concluding Comments

The emphasis in the current scheme is very much on the legitimacy of processes rather than specific outcomes. It is generally believed that if the mechanisms leading to a specific redistribution are acceptable, then the redistribution itself will be accepted, even by participants in the electoral process who see themselves as being disadvantaged by it. The history of the last ten years has tended to bear out that point of view.

Federal redistributions have largely ceased to be subject of partisan debate. The Australian approach can be contrasted with that which is adopted in the United States. In the United States, the concept of the apolitical civil servant is not always regarded as credible, and redistributions have tended to be conducted on an overtly partisan basis. The legitimacy of redistributions in the United States has, therefore, been analysed by reference to postulated outcomes much more than by reference to processes.

In addition, the legal provisions governing redistributions are precisely drafted, are detailed, and give relatively little scope for discretion in their implementation. Some might see this as a disadvantage; but a contrary argument can be made, to wit, the current provisions represent a political and community consensus reached after painstaking consideration some fourteen years ago. Particular outcomes can be seen to be the product of the application of enduring principles rather than less well-defined ad hoc considerations. These factors have arguably enhanced community acceptance of the process.