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Here’s how politicians game the system: The same group of people can vote on the same Election Day with very different results.
The gaming happens by drawing congressional and state legislative maps to politicians’ advantage. Republicans have benefited more in recent elections, and they’re off to a solid start this year as states draw new congressional district boundaries to account for the 2020 Census.
Some estimates suggest Republicans at large will pick up the five seats needed for a House majority in 2022 simply by redrawing state congressional maps.
I’m going to spend more time looking at this issue in the newsletter since gerrymandering, along with restricting access to the ballot box, have emerged as the major challenges to the US form of democracy.
I went to Sam Wang, a professor at Princeton University and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, for more on what’s happening right now and what it will mean for US politics in the coming years. Our conversation, conducted by email and edited for length, is below.
How exactly does gerrymandering work?
WHAT MATTERS: Help people understand. If states like Texas and North Carolina have seen growth predominantly in urban areas and with minority communities, how can the maps be drawn to help Republicans?
WANG: More and more in recent years, neighboring voters have similar opinions. Voters have also become more consistent in their political loyalty, independent of the candidate. That reliability makes it easy to predict how they will vote in the next election.
To disempower Democratic-leaning voters in urban and minority areas, Republican legislators can split them down the middle so they can’t win a race – or pack them into districts so they win very few races. Either way, it’s possible to use Census and voting data to predetermine the partisan outcome.
A Republican-favoring statewide map can be drawn by building lots of efficient Republican wins with 55%-60% of the vote. Then give Democrats very few wins with 65% or more of the vote – or split them up to stick them with Republican majorities.
Using Texas as an example, the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth areas have been cracked to split up Democratic voters as well as Black, Hispanic and Asian communities. Odd-shaped districts radiating out of the metro areas pair urban voters with rural majorities.
This year, gerrymandering offenses are quickly exposed to the light of day, thanks to software, citizen engagement and expert organizations like the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Casting a harsh light on the process can moderate some of the worst acts and document the offenses in real time.
The resulting trail of evidence can help courts undo some of the most extreme maps.
Are Democrats just as bad?
WHAT MATTERS: What’s the inverse? How do Democrats draw their own friendly maps in places like Illinois?
WANG: Note that even without gerrymandering, there is a basic cause of low competition in US politics: geographic clustering of voters, which makes it hard to draw competitive districts in most places.
Redistricting could repair this, but legislators don’t prioritize competition. Instead, they draw the lines to take away the ability of voters of either party to influence election outcomes.
Relying on dependable voter habits and armed with mapping technology, both Republicans in Texas and Democrats in Illinois were able to eliminate competition in their new maps, both Congressional and legislative.
Democrats have a slightly harder time gerrymandering, because rural and white voters are slightly less lopsided in their voting habits. But rural voters still can be put into districts that snake out from city centers. Or, they can be packed together in an artfully spread-out district.
Such Democratic gerrymanders can have lots of county splits and unnatural boundaries.
Who are the worst offenders?
WHAT MATTERS: You give letter grades to states for their maps. Which states have the worst grades and why?
WANG: We’ve given out a number of F grades so far, including Congressional maps in Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and Texas. A fifth gerrymander may occur in New York.
That might be it for big-state extreme gerrymanders, since Florida’s legislative and Congressional drafts look better than expected and a Virginia state court appears to be focused on meeting fair-districting criteria.
The “F” states’ legislatures – and it was always a legislature that got an F – put partisan control ahead of other aims such as competition, minority representation and keeping counties whole and districts compact.
In all cases, the common factor was that one political party controlled both the legislature and the governorship. The exception was North Carolina, where the state constitution excluded the governor from the process.
Can Republicans guarantee a House majority before the 2022 election occurs?
WHAT MATTERS: Republicans control more state legislatures and so they have more control over this process nationwide. Do you think they’ll get the five seats they need for a House majority simply through redistricting?
WANG: We may not find out in 2022, since midterm elections are usually bad for the President’s party, and Congressional control is so closely divided.
Even without gerrymandering, the effect may be dozens of seats. It may take until 2024 to get clarity where redistricting is the key deciding factor.
In the meantime, here is what we do know: in 2021, combining the large states that have gotten F grades with single-seat shifts in Utah, Oregon, and Arkansas, we estimate a net shift of five seats to Republicans so far.
We still have to see what will happen in Tennessee, Maryland, Missouri and New York, as well as other states.
Is it enough by itself to matter in 2022? It’s right on the edge.
But don’t forget the big picture: partisan gerrymandering was far worse in 2011, when Republicans got an immediate advantage of at least 15 seats.
Since that time, commissions have taken the redistricting power away from legislatures in Michigan, Colorado and Virginia. Divided control in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania should make redistricting more fair. In most of these states, the law requires public input and consideration of communities of interest.
One consolation is that even where legislators are in control, state legislative maps are sometimes gerrymandered a little less than congressional maps, perhaps because some state laws require counties and other structures to be preserved. These are mostly under the radar of national reporters, but they are very important for local governance.
Is there a solution?
WHAT MATTERS: Numerous states have enacted changes to end gerrymandering. Do these nonpartisan commissions work? Is there a better way to solve the problem of gerrymandering?
WANG: Redistricting outcomes tend to be better if the process is decided by independent commissions and courts, or on a bipartisan basis.
Overall, there’s been a lot of progress: commissions in Michigan, California, Colorado and Virginia, and divided government in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
These add to reforms already in place in California, Arizona and other states.
Finally, public pushback may have prevented worse outcomes in Arizona, where the commission received public suspicion beforehand but ended up doing fine. Continued pressure in Georgia and Florida will be important.
A second way to address gerrymandering is to sue in court. Lawsuits will challenge maps on racial grounds in Texas and other states, and on partisan grounds in North Carolina and Ohio.
North Carolina and Ohio state supreme courts may each have a slim majority to strike down excessively partisan maps, because of specific conservative-leaning justices who appear likely to adhere to nonpartisan ideals. However, lawsuits can take years to resolve.
All of these solutions rely on state-by-state solutions, which are available in some but not all states. Addressing these problems on a national level requires passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Congressional action on these bills is currently blocked by the current version of the filibuster rule in the Senate.