Democrats Face a Redistricting Disaster

The main curb on Republican gerrymandering now is the rise of independent commissions. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Of the many disappointments Democrats suffered in this election, the most bitter could be the failure to flip control of the Senate. But we’ll have to wait until January’s two Georgia runoffs to see if that in fact happens. The most long-lasting flub, however, is already certain: Poor Democratic performance in state legislative contests has left Republicans with another decennial redistricting advantage, which will give the GOP undeserved gains in congressional and state legislative contests throughout the 2020s. FiveThirtyEight explains the postelection landscape, which is very different from what Democrats expected:

Both parties went into the election with a chance to draw more congressional districts than the other, but the end result was just about the best-case scenario for Republicans … Republicans are set to control the redistricting of 188 congressional seats — or 43 percent of the entire House of Representatives. By contrast, Democrats will control the redistricting of, at most, 73 seats, or 17 percent.

Democrats went into the cycle thinking they had a chance to flip legislative chambers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and even Texas. They struck out in all of them, while losing control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature. These are all states where the legislatures have their traditional map-drawing powers, sometimes (as in North Carolina) without Democratic governors having a veto over them. And with the exception of New Hampshire, these are all states with relatively large congressional delegations that could be reshaped with some imaginative partisan efforts. And preliminary estimates suggest that Pennsylvania could lose a House seat, while Arizona and North Carolina will probably gain one, while Florida and Texas gain more than one. These add and subtract scenarios often provide the most fertile ground for partisan gerrymandering.

Because most state legislatures draw their own district maps as well, partisan strength at the state level tends to be self-perpetuating.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court officially took itself and other federal courts out of any policing of partisan gerrymandering last year, about the only curb to the practice is the gradually rising use of independent commissions to draw maps, often created by citizen ballot initiatives. A few states also have their own restrictions on gerrymandering. Here’s the overall picture according to FiveThirtyEight:

[T]he [U.S.] House map overall might still be less biased in the 2020s than it was in the 2010s. While it’s true that Republicans are set to draw many more congressional districts than Democrats, they will still draw fewer than they did in 2011. In addition, at least 167 districts, or 38 percent of the House, will be drawn by independent commissions or by both parties sharing power. That’s up from 145 (33 percent) in 2011, in part because states such as ColoradoMichigan and Virginia passed redistricting-related ballot measures in recent years. These reforms should translate into fewer gerrymandered seats overall — by either party.

Furthermore, some redistricting processes still controlled by one party — think Ohio’s or Utah’s — have new rules in place designed to encourage more neutral maps.

One newly installed independent commission, in Virginia, will rob Democrats, who finally regained a trifecta there, of a chance to retaliate for past Republican gerrymanders. But they will mostly affect Republicans who would otherwise ride herd on the congressional and state legislative maps.

Barring legal challenges, the new lines will be in place by 2022 everywhere. And once again, Democrats may face a tougher uphill climb to power than their overall public support would suggest.

Democrats Face a Redistricting Disaster