Sometime this week, the Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass the “For the People Act,” a sweeping set of electoral reforms that would, among others things, seek to increase voting and election security and aim to stem the flow of special interest money from unknown sources into campaigns.
The most important thing the legislation, which garnered the support of President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday, would do, however, is this: It would remove (or greatly lessen) the influence of partisanship in the drawing of the congressional lines every 10 years.
The “For the People Act” would require that every state establish a 15-person independent commission – comprised of five Republicans, five Democrats and five independents or members of other smaller parties – to redraw the district lines following the decennial census and the reapportionment of the 435 congressional seats that follows. (For much more on redistricting and reapportionment, watch this.)
That would be an absolutely massive change in not just how districts across the country look but in what a candidate would need to do in order to get elected. Massive.
At the moment, the vast majority of states – 31 – rely on the state legislature to draw congressional lines following the Census. (Independent or bipartisan line-drawing commissions are on the rise in recent years, but are still in the minority.) What that has meant, particularly over the last two decades, are maps that tend to protect incumbents of both parties.
The strategy of both sides has been simple: Pack as many of the opposition party’s voters into as few districts in the state as possible while spreading out their own voters to make as many districts winnable for their side as they can. Innovations in redistricting software have made this slicing and dicing of people based on their party registration or past voting history an art form – allowing the line-drawers to literally go street by street when it comes to crafting new districts.
What that approach has produced is a whole lot of seats in which the only possibility of competitiveness is in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Consider this: In 1956, less than 6 in 10 House incumbents won with 60% of the vote or more, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. By 2002, the first election after the 2001 nationwide redistricting, 85% of all House incumbents seeking reelection won with 60% or higher. In 2014 and 2016, that number hovered in the mid-to-high 70s before dipping to just 63% in the tumultuous 2018 midterm elections.
The lack of competitiveness in general election has been reflected in the makeup of Congress. More and more candidates on the extremes of both parties have been coming to Washington in recent years. And, once they got to the nation’s capital, they had zero incentive to work with the other party. Quite the opposite, actually – working across the partisan aisle was seen, especially among Republican base voters, as apostasy. Capitulation disguised as compromise.
And so, the 116th Congress was one of the least productive ever. Because the way districts were drawn – primarily by state legislators – ensured it.
Want to see how the impact of an independent commission on a state and its competitiveness? Look no further than Iowa where, since 1980, nonpartisan staff have drawn the legislative and congressional lines.
The state’s congressional districts have regularly changed hands between the parties, with Republicans winning two previously-held Democratic seats in the 2020 election. And generally speaking, three of the four districts in the state – the exception being the Republican-friendly 4th in western Iowa – are extremely competitive every two years. Check out the winning percentages for four incoming members of Congress in the state: 62%, 49%, 50% and 51.3%. In the election in the state’s 2nd District, the Republican candidate leads the Democrat candidate by six – SIX! – votes.
Logic follows that if you, as a member of Congress, know that you represent a district evenly split along party lines, you are much more likely to try to find ways to appeal to voters of both parties through your actions in the House. Right? Right!
Now, a reality check: It’s not at all clear that the “For the People Act” is going to become law. In order to pass the Senate, it will need 60 votes – meaning that 10 Republicans would need to support it as well as every one of the 50 Senate Democrats. Which, at the moment, seems unlikely.
And, even if the legislation did make it through the Senate – and Biden signed it – the redistricting reforms wouldn’t kick in until the 2030 Census. Which is a very good thing for Republicans.
According to redistricting guru David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report, Republicans will have the final line-drawing say in 188 House seats, while Democrats will be in total control of the lines in just 73 seats. (Another 45 seats will be under divided control between the two parties and 122 will see their lines drawn by independent or bipartisan commissions.) He adds that Republicans could gain as many as 10 seats solely from the number of map-drawing processes in key states they will control over the next 18 months. (They need six seats to retake the majority they lost in 2018.)
All of which is to say is that the status quo will reign – at least for the foreseeable future. But, for anyone who truly wants Congress to be incentivized to work together and find bipartisan solutions, the independent commissions in the “For the People Act” are the way to do it.