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Race and Redistricting: What the Print Media Conveys to the Public about the Role of Race


  • Damla Ergun, Grace Deason, and Eugene Borgida are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and Guy-Uriel Charles is in the School of Law. We would like to thank Joe Rausch for his statistical advice, Ludwin Molina for his astute comments on an earlier version of this article, and our coders (Erin Steva, Lauren Christiansen, Emily Hicks, and Mary Schafter) who provided valuable research assistance. Portions of this article were presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the International Society for Political Psychology, Portland, Oregon.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Damla Ergun, Department of Psychology, 75 East River Road, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455 [e-mail:].


In a series of voting rights cases, the U.S. Supreme Court held that race-based redistricting, particularly the intentional formation of majority–minority districts (districts in which voters of color constitute a majority of eligible voters) may be unconstitutional if race was the predominant factor in the formation of the district. The Court stated that “redistricting legislation that is so bizarre on its face that it is unexplainable on grounds other than race” may violate the Constitution because of the messages such districts send to the public (Shaw v. Reno, 1993). Yet neither the Court nor social scientists have examined whether the existence of race-conscious majority–minority districts sends messages to voters and what the nature of these messages may be. This research begins to address this scientific issue. In a quantitative content analysis, we examined messages about racial redistricting conveyed to citizens via the print media. Our sample consisted of 355 newspaper articles about redistricting included in the Lexis–Nexis database between 1990 and 2005. We found that newspaper coverage of racial districting contains messages to citizens about the motives involved in redistricting, the individuals and groups who are responsible for it, and its actual and expected effects. This finding is consistent with the Supreme Court's assumption that districts, particularly bizarrely shaped ones, convey distinct messages to voters. The specific messages communicated varied in important ways across the articles. Newspapers in states subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of their history of discrimination against voters of color covered racial redistricting differently than states not subject to Section 5. We discuss the legal and theoretical implications of these findings for understanding the role of race in legislative redistricting efforts.

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