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Here’s the first of a number of stories we’ll write between now and the end of the year on the most important element of US politics that most Americans don’t spend too much time worrying about: redistricting.
It’s a leveling factor in the partisanship of the country. It doesn’t matter quite so much that there are more Democrats than Republicans in this country since Republicans control more state legislatures and, as a result, a lot more of the redistricting process.
Pay attention to the drawing of the maps. Now – between the release of the once-a-decade Census and the next midterms, in 2022 – is when states redraw their congressional maps and there will be warring proposals, standoffs and court battles across the country before the final lines are drawn.
Redistricting. Both parties have a history of drawing maps to improve their standing in Congress and protect incumbents. Republicans have been much more successful at it in recent decades.
Gerrymandering. Since the 1800s, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry was accused of drawing a district to look like a salamander – get it? Gerrymander? – it’s been a political process. Gerry is also interesting as one of just three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution. He pushed for the Bill of Rights and was later vice president.
There’s art and science in creatively drawing lines to cram people of similar views and party registrations together. The outcome very much affect who controls Congress. That’s especially true this year when Democrats have a 5-seat majority and are heading into a congressional election cycle when the president’s party almost always loses seats.
Trivia! Name two of the four times since 1862 when the president’s party DID NOT lose seats in the midterm.
Voters don’t generally like overt partisanship in the drawing of these maps. Given the opportunity in statewide elections, they’ve taken authority from state legislatures and handed it to nonpartisan, bipartisan or independent commissions.
But as David Daley of FairVote writes in The New York Times, partisan legislature often try to influence the process anyway. He takes the examples of Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Colorado. In Arizona, he points out, the independent commission member is hardly independent.
Republicans have an advantage. Most of the states where the process is wholly or mostly controlled by one party are in the South and Midwest, according to a review of by the Cook Political Report.
Cook’s analysis of the current state of the process in all 50 states suggests that after Republicans will gain perhaps one or two seats (they say 1.5 seats) when the dust settles from the redistricting process.
Reapportionment. Redistricting is the redrawing of lines. Reapportionment is the allocation of seats to each state. When the Census bureau reapportioned seats this year, it gave a net gain to seats controlled by Republicans; that’s where the population grew.
However, that does not mean the growth in people equaled a growth in Republicans.
“At the heart of any attempted forecast is a paradox. Republican states picked up the most congressional seats and Republican legislatures control the process in the most states, but Republican counties lost population while Democratic counties gained,” writes Elaine Kamarck at Brookings.
Among the states that gained seats after the 2020 Census
- 4 went for Donald Trump in 2020 (Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Texas)
- 2 went for Joe Biden (Oregon and Colorado)
Among states losing seats after the 2020 Census
- 5 went for Biden (Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, and New York) voted for Biden.
- 2 went for Trump (West Virginia and Ohio)
The Texas example. This year Texas is a good case study to learn about reapportionment and redistricting. It gained more seats through reapportionment – two – than any other state after the Census.
Republicans control the redistricting process. Much of shift in the state’s demographics is toward Democrats, but as the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s analysis argues, the first proposed map protects GOP incumbents and it makes most districts more Republican than the state as a whole. They give the map an “F” on their report card.
State districts are also on the table. It’s not just congressional districts being redrawn. The Texas Tribune’s review of the state legislative district proposal dissects it from both a racial and partisan standpoint.
On the racial makeup of state legislative districts, the Tribune writes that 95% of the state’s population growth captured in the 2020 Census was fueled by people of color.
“But, the new map creates fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Black and Hispanic Texans make up two racial groups that along with Asian Texans outpaced the growth of white residents in the state over the last decade.”
INTERACTIVE Race and ethnicity across the nation
It’s against the constitution to draw congressional lines by race, but Texas Republicans say they were “race blind” in proposing these maps. The Supreme Court has also recently taken a hands off approach to gerrymandering for partisan reasons.
On partisan leanings, the Tribune writes that the old map includes 76 districts that went for Trump in 2020. The new proposal has 86 that would have gone for Trump.
The commission model. Princeton’s Gerrymandering project gives Colorado’s commission-approved map, which is now before the state’s Supreme Court an A for partisan fairness, although it gets lower marks for competitiveness. The map has three seats that lean toward Republicans and four that lean toward Democrats.
In Michigan, where neither party completely controls the process and an independent commission made up of citizens draws and enacts the lines, there have been numerous proposed maps that include various combinations of safe and competitive seats that, according to 538, could end up benefiting either Republicans or Democrats.
Democrats in charge. In Oregon, where Democrats control the process, it is already completed after the state approved its new map. Nebraska and Maine have also completed their maps. Oregon gained one seat in reapportionment, but emerges from the redistricting process with fewer competitive seats, just one, according to 538. Republicans have accused Democrats of gerrymandering.
There are proposals to end gerrymandering. The creation of independent commissions is not the only idea to do away with gerrymandering. Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia has proposed a new law to neuter the redistricting process. He wants much larger congressional districts that elect multiple lawmakers, forcing candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters.
It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t have much traction at the moment.
*** TRIVIA ANSWER: There are exactly four midterms in the 40 since 1862 when the President’s party didn’t lose seats, according to Brookings.
- 1902. Republicans gained 9 seats. But this is a flawed example since Democrats gained more, 25, thanks to the Census and the booming country.
- 1934. It was the height of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s Democrats were rolling.
- 1998. It was a month after Bill Clinton had been impeached by the House and just before his impeachment trial. Voters went with Democrats anyway.
- 2002. It was the run-up to the Iraq war and in the aftermath of 9/11.