Statewide redistricting battles could give Democrats an edge in House races

Yahoo! News

Statewide redistricting battles could give Democrats an edge in House races

Christopher Wilson, Senior Writer – February 10, 2022

The newest round of congressional map-drawing may turn out not to be the doomsday some predicted for Democrats, but the legislators who do end up in Washington this decade could be more partisan than their predecessors.

With Republicans holding on to a number of state governments, some analysts believed the decennial process of creating congressional maps could result in the GOP taking control of the House of Representatives through the process of gerrymandering — the term used to define partisan redistricting — alone. The centuries-old process of drawing maps that either contained or split apart certain groups of voters was employed in many states by Republicans after their success in the 2010 midterms.

With Republican control over the redistricting process in a number of key states, the sense was the maps might get even more tilted.

That hasn’t turned out to be the case. While a number of court battles are still pending, some projections have shown that Democrats may end up with a narrow advantage in likely House seats when all the maps are final.

The potential shift comes from a number of factors, including Republican strategies in map drawing, court decisions, maps drawn by nonpartisan commissions, Democrats becoming more aggressive in larger states where they have control and the GOP already maximizing its advantages in some areas.

Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told Yahoo News that one of the key factors was Republicans choosing to play defense with established districts.

In Texas, for example, the old map had 11 districts that Donald Trump won by 15 or more points. The new map has 24 such districts out of 27 total seats projected to go Republican, in many instances combining suburban areas with nearby rural areas that are more conservative. In exchange, some Democrats who were in swing seats now find themselves representing districts that Joe Biden won comfortably.

“Republicans, by and large, have chosen to shore up existing gerrymanders and make districts ultra-safe,” Li said. ”They didn’t go out and target Democrats, they didn’t try to take out Democratic incumbents. They said, ‘We’re going to keep the seats that we have, but we’re going to make them safer.’”

Voters cast ballots in a school gym.
Troy Desole votes at Carstens Elementary Middle School in Detroit. (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP)

In Michigan, where voters approved an independent redistricting commission via ballot initiative in 2018, the previous gerrymander was unwound under the new process. The Ohio Supreme Court, meanwhile, rejected a GOP-drawn gerrymander, citing the wishes of voters who had also approved changes in the process via ballot initiative.

Courts also intervened in states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where the GOP had less room to add seats due to previous gerrymanders that had already given them advantageous maps. In most states without a nonpartisan redistricting commission, new maps are drawn after the census every 10 years by the state legislature.

“There was such an extreme advantage for Republicans in 2010, which is actually the reason I got interested in redistricting in the first place, learning what an extreme distortion could happen back then,” said Sam Wang, who runs the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and predicted last May that Democrats would likely fare well in the redistricting process.

“Just statistically, it couldn’t be as bad as [2010], because that was such an extreme.”

Attempting to go through the judicial system has not been a complete success for those seeking less partisan line-drawing. Earlier this week, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ruling that would have forced Alabama Republicans to draw a second majority Black district in the state.

The court’s new 6-3 conservative makeup makes it likely similar protections could be eliminated there, even with Chief Justice John Roberts — who was among the majority that ruled to begin gutting the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — siding with the three remaining liberals on the Alabama case. The other five conservative justices, however, all sided against forcing the state to draw a second Black-majority district.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Sen. Bernie Sanders attend a joint session of Congress In April 2021. (Melina Mara/AFP via Getty Images)

Another major reason for the swing toward Democrats is their aggressive gerrymandering in the two largest states where the party controls the process: New York and Illinois. (California, with its 52 seats, Is among the states where redistricting is conducted by an independent commission.) Unlike a decade ago, New York Democrats have unified control of the state legislature in Albany, leading to a map that gives them an edge in 22 of the state’s 26 districts, versus 19 of 27 under the old map after the state lost a seat in the census. The map is currently being challenged in court.

Although the GOP is usually much more in favor of partisan gerrymandering over independent commissions, former President Trump decried the Democrats’ New York map.

“Republicans are getting absolutely creamed with the phony redistricting going on all over the Country,” Trump said in a statement last week. “Even the Fake New York Times is having a hard time believing how ridiculous things have gotten. We were expecting to do well in New York and now, we’ll lose 4 seats and the Old Broken-Down Crow, Mitch McConnell, sits back and does nothing to help the Party.”

Despite Trump’s statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no formal role in determining how state-level congressional districts are drawn, although he could in theory push for legislation that would ban partisan gerrymandering. The new maps do not affect U.S. Senate seats.

While Republicans have vented their frustrations about the New York map, they have not worked with Democrats on federal legislation that would prevent such practices.

“All the Republicans complaining about these maps in Congress, they voted against the Freedom to Vote: John Lewis Act which would have banned partisan gerrymandering and struck down the New York map almost instantly,” Li said.

People gather, holding banners, on the steps of the Capitol building.
Faith leaders and students stage a sit-in on the steps of the Capitol in January to urge the Senate to pass the Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis Act. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

While Democrats’ baseline of seats may be higher than anticipated, their potential for growth is limited in many areas. Li noted that Democrats are essentially locked into 37 percent of the seats in Texas, up from just 36 percent in the last map. This is despite President Biden winning 46 percent of Texas voters in 2020 and Democrat Beto O’Rourke winning 48 percent in his 2018 Senate campaign.

Li added that some of the districts drawn by Democrats where Biden won by six or seven points are reliant on the current coalition of voters staying together. In other words, Republicans have a shot at these seats if they earn back suburban votes or make strides with minority communities, especially in a “wave year” in which the GOP racks up wins outside traditionally red areas like in 2010.

“There are a bunch of Biden districts in Virginia that Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin won in 2021,” Li said.

“If every election in the future plays out like Trump-Biden 2020, this is not so bad for Democrats, but Democrats are playing a big bet that there won’t be changes in the electorate. … They may be right, but as we saw from Virginia that coalition may not hang together.”

Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and author of The Long Red Thread, agreed that Democrats have perhaps spread themselves too thin for some states in 2022, pointing to Nevada as a key state to watch.

“The thing about the maps this year is that in all likelihood because of the challenging political environment for Democrats and the history for the president’s party in midterms the democratic maps are going to be stress-tested right away, whereas Republican maps are going to be stress-tested later in the decade if they have a challenging political environment,” Kondik said.

A projection of a state districts map.
A state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al. in Raleigh, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP Photo)

Regardless of who ends up controlling Congress in the terms to come, the likelihood of representatives holding more radical views is rising as general elections become safer and safer. When many districts are drawn so incumbents of both parties can expect to win by big margins, and partisan primaries are the only truly competitive contests, candidates tend to be less moderate because they’re looking to win over more extreme voters.

“Sometimes people tend to think about gerrymanders as being, ‘Oh, we’re dating a bunch of seats,’ which certainly does happen,” Li said. “But another form of gerrymandering is just taking competition off the table. You have these really wild suburban rural districts, which could very well produce a more extreme Republican caucus.”

Kondik noted that seats that might not be competitive in 2022 could move into that category later in the decade.

“There have always been a lot of pretty uncompetitive seats, and certainly we’ve seen some big swings in the House in recent years. I don’t think these maps are going to preclude those sorts of big swings when you have a political environment that is changing and can be pretty strongly in favor of one side or the other in a given election year,” Kondik said.

Americans seeking reform that could lead to a more representative Congress are more likely to see success come at the state level. While extending the Voting Rights Act used to be a perfunctory bipartisan tradition, that has faded in recent years amid Republican opposition.

Sen. Joe Manchin.
Sen. Joe Manchin. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Last year, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., failed almost immediately in his attempt for a new voting rights bill that could earn 10 Republican votes. The problem is further exacerbated by the current conservative composition of the Supreme Court, which in 2019 ruled that partisan gerrymandering was beyond the court’s purview.

“For all the talk from people like Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., about wanting to compromise, that will be increasingly hard in the House,” Li said. “I don’t think this is going to be a House eager to find common ground.”

Ballot initiatives approved by voters like the ones in Colorado and Michigan can lead to fairer lines being drawn in other states, creating more competitive districts. Some states are also experimenting with ranked-choice voting, in which voters list their candidates in order of preference, a process meant to encourage candidates to try to win over more moderates.

Maine and New York City have used the system in recent races, and this year Alaska will employ a version of it for the first time, potentially altering Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection strategy as she faces a challenge from the right.

“Most questions of reform of democracy, at this point, have been out at the state level because the Supreme Court has basically abdicated its responsibility to level playing fields,” Wang said.

“It’s just basically state-by-state. Anybody who wants to better democracy is gonna have to get down there in the mud and sign their petition and all that stuff. Until we get a different Supreme Court, it’s the only route.”

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.