As the midterms approach, the Republican Party is facing a tougher than expected fight from the Democrats for control of the House of Representatives despite having had a rare opportunity to redraw the political map in their favor.
“People thought, ‘Well, Democrats are going to get shellacked in redistricting, and, you know, they more or less managed to fight to a draw,'” says Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Though Republicans are still likely to win control of the House, he said.
Every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect population changes and ensure that each House lawmaker represents roughly the same number of people. But how the new boundaries are drawn and the communities the new districts encompass can benefit one political party or the other.
State legislatures are often in charge of the process, meaning that the party that controls a state capital can bend redistricting to its advantage. That process is called gerrymandering.
In 2020, Republicans controlled the drawing of 187 of 435 congressional districts in the House of Representatives, while Democrats redrew 75. The rest were done by commissions or other bodies.
“The maps aren’t great. There’s not a lot of competition,” says Li, who focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections. “They’re still skewed in a number of states — in particular, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Ohio — but, despite that, they [the maps] ended up in a kind of neutral place.”
So neutral that, while it remains unlikely that Democrats will keep their House majority next year due to factors not related to redistricting, it’s not out of the question, according to Li.
Lack of competition
The 2020 redistricting appears to have yielded fewer competitive districts than ever. Only about 60 are seen as truly up for grabs, with the rest viewed as “safe” for Democrats or Republicans.
“Over the last several decades, with each decennial redistricting process, we have seen fewer and fewer competitive districts. Now, some of that has to do with redistricting,” says Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University in Virginia. “A lot of that change in competitiveness also has to do with geographic sorting. People just choosing to vote with their feet and live in places where people are more like them.”
That’s a concern because democracies require some level of competitiveness, she says.
“The more and more Americans who live in places where they feel like their political identity doesn’t match the majority, or doesn’t match the trends in their area, the more disconnected they feel from their government, the more unrepresented they feel, and that can be one component of destabilization in a democracy,” Victor says.
Playing it safe
In the recently completed redistricting, Republicans appear to have opted to ensure safer districts, rather than aspire to control more districts. In fact, President Joe Biden would have won more districts under the new maps than he did under the old maps two years ago, Li says.
“What you want to do, if you’re trying to maximize seats, is spread your voters out among as many districts as possible so that you win a bunch of districts by like 52, 53, 54% – narrow wins,” Li says. “But that strategy almost backfired on Republicans last decade in states like Texas, because districts got more diverse, and key blocks of voters, particularly white suburban women, shifted toward Democrats.”
The result was that some of those districts got much more competitive than Republicans anticipated, and Democrats even won some of them.
“I still think Republicans are favored to win the House, but I think with these maps, if they win a majority, it’ll be a narrow majority,” Li says, “and Democrats have a chance to retake the majority in 2024, 2026, assuming that these maps remain unchanged.”
Among the biggest losers in redistricting are communities of color, he adds.
“Political discrimination is actually racial discrimination that comes at the expense of communities of color,” Li says. “Because we still have residential segregation, it’s easy to pack together or break apart communities of color, in order to change the partisan valence of maps.”
Cure for gerrymandering?
Another key reason both Democrats and Republicans have realistic hopes of winning a majority in the House in coming years is the fairer maps drawn by nonpartisan commissions or courts rather than politicians looking to gain or consolidate power.
State legislatures have traditionally been responsible for redrawing boundaries for both state and congressional districts. Fourteen states now use commissions but only four of those — California, Arizona, Colorado and Michigan — use truly independent commissions to redraw congressional boundaries, and Li says they’ve all done a good job drawing representative districts.
“The U.S. is an outlier in the way that it draws its political districts. In almost every other modern democracy, a neutral body or neutral actor draws the maps, and the U.S. is an outlier in that it largely leaves control of drawing maps in the hands of people who benefit from the maps and partisan actors,” Li says. “There’s a lot of putting your thumb on the scale that occurs in the U.S. system which I think skews democracy in any number of ways.”
In addition to using independent commissions, Victor says gerrymandering could be stopped by eliminating districts and having regions represented by multiple members of Congress based on percentage of votes. In that scenario, states would have a multiple representation system rather than one member of Congress from every district.
“Not only does it fix the gerrymandering problem, it improves the sense of representation and political efficacy,” Victor says. “It would also create the incentives for third political parties to operate and actually have a real probability of winning in some places. And so we would see the United States slowly move towards multi-partyism, which would be a much better fit for our population than the two-party system that we have.”
The move could be made without amending the Constitution but the elected officials who currently hold power would have to sign onto changes that could potentially take their power away.
And even though legislative maps are supposed to only be redrawn each decade, this round of redistricting might be far from over.
“In America, we draw maps and then we fight about them in court,” Li says. “What has happened so far in redistricting may just be act one of a multi-act play and there could be a lot more fights over maps to come and a lot more redrawing of maps and a lot more litigation about maps down the road and the near- and even medium-term future.”