One of the concerns that has fed Democratic support for the sweeping voting-rights bill known as the For the People Act (S. 1) has been the imminence of a decennial redistricting process in which many Republican-controlled states are expected to pursue aggressive partisan gerrymandering at both the congressional and state legislative levels. Unsurprisingly, hostility to S. 1’s anti-gerrymandering provisions is one reason for the near-universal GOP opposition to that legislation.
Assuming there is no miraculous congressional breakthrough on voting rights this year, there will be some serious gerrymandering going on in states that have not adopted independent redistricting commissions or at least limits on hyperpartisan maps. Many progressives fear the worst, as Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman explains:
Republicans could pick up anywhere from six to 13 seats in the House of Representatives — enough to retake the House in 2022 — through its control of the redistricting process in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas alone, according to a new analysis by the Democratic data firm TargetSmart that was shared exclusively with Mother Jones. Republicans need to gain just five seats to regain control of the House.
Yes, there will be states like Illinois, New York, and Maryland where Democrats could utilize gerrymandering to wipe out or endanger Republican incumbents. But in part because Democratic-controlled states are more likely to have adopted nonpartisan redistricting mechanisms, the GOP has a sizable overall advantage, controlling “187 congressional districts, compared to 75 for Democrats,” Berman calculates.
The limited good news for Democrats is that Republicans may not produce the maximum number of GOP districts. For one thing, despite the 2019 Supreme Court decision limiting federal judicial interference with partisan gerrymandering, there are some court-based inhibitions, particularly in those southern states where minority voting rights are at stake (racial, as opposed to partisan, gerrymandering remains open to federal judicial monitoring, in theory at least). For another, gerrymanders need to retain their effectiveness for a decade, which means too-cute or too-greedy partisan maps can backfire.
Kyle Kondik notes there have been plenty of overreaching “dummymanders” that failed their partisan purposes:
In 1981, Indiana Republicans enacted a partisan gerrymander of the Hoosier State designed to help Republicans net several seats. “Even the Democrats here concede that the newly drawn congressional district lines are a political masterpiece and that they face a much tougher task now in retaining their one-vote majority in Indiana’s congressional delegation,” reported the Washington Post.
But that following year, Republicans failed to make significant inroads in Indiana — the delegation went from 6-5 Democratic to a 5-5 split after the state lost a district because of reapportionment. By the end of the decade, Democrats held an 8-2 edge in Indiana, despite the Republican gerrymander.
Another problem for would-be mapmaking wizards is demographic change; sometimes safely partisan “maps” unravel between redistricting cycles. A good example, in fact, is provided by Georgia’s Sixth and Seventh Congressional Districts, now occupied by Democrats Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, respectively, and now prime targets for Georgia Republican gerrymandering. In the last round of redistricting, these two North Atlanta suburban enclaves looked safely Republican. Both were carried by Republican congressional candidates from 2012 through 2018 by over 60 percent, and both were won by Mitt Romney with 60 percent in 2012.
But then a rise in Black and immigrant populations and lagging Republican strength among college-educated white voters changed everything quickly. The Sixth hosted a red-hot special election in 2017 in which veteran Republican Karen Handel edged future U.S. senator Jon Ossoff. The next year, McBath unseated Handel. Similarly, in the Seventh, incumbent Republican Rob Woodall took 60 percent in 2016 but then won over Bourdeaux by 419 votes in 2018. Woodall retired and Bourdeaux took the seat in 2020.
Effective gerrymanders must take into account both short-term and long-term partisan needs, which isn’t easy. And ruthless partisan redistricting must also sometimes yield right-of-way to the congressional ambitions of individual pols, many of them state legislators who are involved in the map-drawing process. Plenty of past gerrymanders have run afoul of back-scratching incumbent-protection schemes wherein House members from both parties utilize their influence to stop major revisions in district lines.
None of this is to say that Republicans won’t succeed in gerrymandering their way to a House majority. As a party, they have become very attuned to the use of institutional power to thwart popular majorities, and one way to do that is to maximize the representation they can secure in legislative bodies at home and in Washington. With a possible wind at their backs thanks to the historical pattern of White House parties losing House seats in most midterm elections, augmented by the damage they are currently doing to voting rights, the GOP may not have to do too much additional election-rigging to regain the House gavel.