The political upheaval caused by the rise of former President Donald Trump has forced party operatives and elected officials tasked with laying out the nation’s congressional districts for the next decade to determine whether those shifts were aberrations or signs of more lasting changes.
Trump’s tenure saw dramatic shifts for both parties. Appalled by the then-President’s caustic politics, voters in suburbs across America fled the Republican Party, backing Democrats in the 2018 midterms and Joe Biden two years later. Democrats also saw gains with more highly educated Americans. And Trump’s time in office saw rural voters consolidating behind Republicans, as well as the GOP making significant inroads with Latinos in South Florida and South Texas.
Republicans and Democrats charged with overseeing the redistricting process in states across the country now have to evaluate these changes as they embark on making once-in-a-decade adjustments to the districts that go a long way to determining the makeup – and control – of the House of Representatives.
“It’s the million-dollar question,” Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice whose work focuses on redistricting and voting rights, said of whether the changes during Trump’s tenure will be permanent. “Map makers tend to be nothing if not cautious and the cautious thing to do is to assume that the changes that work against you or your party are permanent, while the changes that work in your favor are temporary.”
Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years, using the latest Census data – along with data points ranging from education levels, wealth and historic voting patterns – to draw congressional seats. Republicans, because of their control of a majority of state legislatures, have been far more successful in drawing maps that favor their party.
Democrats have responded with a two-pronged approach with vastly different levels of success. First, operatives and lawyers have filed a number of successful lawsuits alleging that the other party is illegally engaging in gerrymandering, particularly along racial lines. Secondly, Democrats have looked to turn the redistricting process into a political issue, committing more millions to try to win back state legislatures ahead of the redistricting process. Those efforts have been far less successful.
In the majority of states, maps are redrawn and accepted by state legislatures, with many giving authority to the state’s governor to either approve or deny the new districts. Only a handful of states, including Arizona, Colorado and Michigan, rely on relatively independent commissions to determine new maps.
For those tasked with redistricting, especially in states with some political control, the pressure to get these calculations right is immense, given that the process could determine control of the House of Representatives for years to come. Adding pressure to these calculations are dramatic demographic shifts across the country, with states in the upper Midwest and northeast likely to lose seats in Congress, while states like Georgia, Texas, Florida and North Carolina are set to add seats because of growth largely fueled by minority voters.
“It is the question when it comes to redistricting this cycle,” Adam Kincaid, the head of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said of how lasting the changes seen during the Trump administration may be. And it has forced people to ask themselves whether this is “the beginning of a new long term normal or at these temporary fluxes that we are feeling right now.”
“I don’t think anyone has the answer to that,” he said.
The states that lose, and those that win
Experts believe that a slate of upper Midwest and northeastern states, like Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Ohio, are likely to lose some seats once delayed census data is released later this year. That puts pressure on politicians in each state to ensure the seat that is lost does not come from their side of the aisle. While some of these states are guided by independent commissions, a state like Ohio is under Republican control, meaning conservatives in the state can work to ensure the district being lost hurts Democrats.
States in the so-called Sun Belt, including Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Carolina, are expected to gain the seats being lost by their counterparts to the North. While an independent commission determines Arizona’s districts, the process in Texas, Florida and North Carolina are all guided by their respective state legislature – which are all controlled by Republicans.
The impact of these changes will be felt across the country, in both major metropolitan areas and rural communities.
In New Mexico, where Democrats control both the state legislature and governor’s mansion, the party is expected to redraw the state’s 2nd Congressional District, a district that is currently Republican leaning and represented by Republican Yvette Herrell.
In Texas, Republicans are in total control of the process but confronting the reality that the explosive growth in the state is coming from the more competitive and diversifying suburbs around cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston, and not in the reliably Republican West Texas, whose population growth has not kept apace.
And in places like Ohio, a state that demographers expect will lose a congressional seat, Republicans are expected to use their near total control of the redistricting process to ensure that the congressional district does not come from their column.
According to Kelly Ward Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the issue facing Republicans in growing states is that much of that growth, especially in the suburbs, have come from minority populations. If Republicans embark on cutting up these populations and combining them with more reliably Republican voters in exurbs and rural areas, the party will be opening themselves up to racial gerrymandering claims.
“The presumption that Republicans should get all of those new seats simply because they control the process is a presumption of gerrymandering,” Ward Burton said. “And that is illegal.”
For Republicans, said Li with the Brennan Center, the problem area is the South. The party has the most control of the process in states like Georgia, Texas and Florida, he said, but it is more difficult to gerrymander in those states without exposing the state to race based claims.
“(In the South) the problem with white Democrats is they tend to live near white Republicans, sometimes in the same house, so unless you’re gerrymandering down somebody’s bed … it’s really hard to gerrymander white Democrats when there aren’t that many of them,” said Li. “It’s much more efficient because of residential segregation to target communities of color. And so you really can’t politically gerrymander in the South without targeting communities of color, which gets you right into race-based claims.”
The nation’s suburbs figure to be the key battleground in these states, considering the bulk of changes in these areas have come from the diversifying suburbs around some of the nation’s biggest cities. In these Republican-controlled states, past redistricting fights have divided up metropolitan areas and joined them with more Republican exurban and rural areas, thereby diluting the Democratic advantage in these areas.
Each party would be working to spread out their supporters in different districts with or without the Trump era political changes. But those shifts have added yet another level of uncertainty to the process.
“For people who did this stuff a decade ago, if they had known that Donald Trump was going to come along in 2016 and shift the American electorate, there’s at least a couple dozen seats around the country that would have been drawn differently than they were,” said Kincaid. “And that is the challenge for the next few years is trying to forecast out how much this realignment is permanent versus temporary.”
Democrats over the last decade have grown more focused on redistricting and gerrymandering and this year they are most focused on states where Republicans are not only in control but are gaining the power that come with redrawing another seat.
More aggressive actions by Democrats, along with changes in states to make the redistricting process less partisan, have made it harder for Republicans to protect their past redistricting work in some states. That’s why people like Ward Burton and other Democrats focused on redistricting believe the party will try to do whatever they can in places like Florida, Georgia and Texas to gain seats.
The latest redistricting process is also playing out at a time where Democrats are drawing considerably more attention to gerrymandering, making it an important political issue, especially to minority communities who are often the most hurt by partisan redistricting.
Jasmine Burney-Clark, who runs the Equal Ground Education Fund in Florida, recently began preparing activists to lobby on the redistricting process, teaching a range of community and faith leaders about what role they could play in advocating for fair redistricting in a state where the process is controlled by Republicans. The effort comes years after a drawn-out process in 2010 led to numerous lawsuits and a drawn-out process.
“We’re definitely preparing for what could possibly come, because we’ve seen this before,” Burney-Clark said. “Our hope is that they’ve learned a lesson and attempt to do that this time around with black and Brown folks, but we know that they will try to squeeze anything they can out to it as advantageous as possible.”
This story has been updated to include Kelly Ward Burton’s full married name.