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It’s a strange time to be a Democrat in Florida.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed an aggressively partisan redrawing of the state’s congressional boundaries that will likely help his party pick up four seats in the US House of Representatives this November.
CNN’s Steve Contorno reports: “Like previous maps submitted by DeSantis’ office, the latest offering would likely reduce the number of districts where Black voters are a plurality and would make it difficult for Democrats to win anywhere north of Orlando or outside major cities.”
State lawmakers are set to meet for a special session next week that will likely see the map’s final approval.
A quick refresher. Politicians have been using gerrymandering for hundreds of years to manipulate election map boundaries in favor of one party over another.
Regardless of the approach, gerrymandering is all about elected officials trying to keep their power by manipulating the makeup of the population that they represent, thereby making it easier for their party to win.
The consequences for the country are severe. Lawmakers in both parties speaking candidly admit that gerrymandering House districts is one of the big reasons that the chamber has become more partisan over the last several decades.
Florida is unique, but everyone should pay attention. DeSantis took the unusual step of proposing his own congressional map, which was far more partisan than the ones moving through the state House and Senate – which are controlled by his party – at the time.
Though the state Constitution puts lawmakers in charge of redistricting, GOP legislative leaders announced this week that they would cede those duties to DeSantis, ending a power struggle between the two branches of government that has lasted for months.
This is highly unusual, but it does raise the possibility that other governors will be emboldened to do the same under the right circumstances in the future.
This isn’t the win Florida Republicans think it is. Gerrymandering is bad for everyone. Full stop.
The practice “really harms all of us. It harms Americans from both parties, and I think it’s really, really destructive for a democracy,” Christopher Warshaw, a political science professor at The George Washington University, told What Matters.
“I think that regardless of whether you normally support Democrats or Republicans, gerrymandering is bad. And it’s bad when Republicans do it in Florida, it’s bad when Democrats do it in other states. I think that in a world where it’s hard to come to agreement about things that we should all sort of say are out of bounds, I think that egregious gerrymandering is just one of the things that is so destructive for democracy,” Warshaw said.
“I hope Americans can come together and say: ‘We need to figure out a way to not do this.’ “
The big picture. For more on this, we went to Sam Wang, a professor at Princeton University and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, to explain what’s happening right now and what it will mean for US politics in the coming years. Our conversation, conducted over the phone and edited for length and clarity, is below.
WHAT MATTERS: How unusual is it for a sitting governor to draw his state’s congressional map himself?
WANG: Highly unusual. The job of legislation belongs to the legislature, and for the legislature to break its impasse with the governor by throwing it in his lap goes against almost every tradition of redistricting in any state.
I’ve followed redistricting pretty closely for two decades, and I cannot think of any state where this happened in this way.
WHAT MATTERS: If DeSantis gets his way, how extreme will the gerrymandering in Florida be compared with other states?
WANG: It will be one of the most extreme gerrymanders in the country. It will be on par with another Republican gerrymander in Texas, or with Democratic gerrymanders in Illinois or New York.
It’ll be every bit as bad as the slew of Republican gerrymanders that took place in 2012, which I think of as “the great gerrymander of 2012.” It was a high-water mark for partisan gerrymandering that decade.
WHAT MATTERS: Are you concerned at all that this sets a new precedent wherein governors everywhere will brazenly draw their congressional map as they see fit?
WANG: As bizarre as the circumstance was, it might be hard to repeat. One important point is that Florida has so many congressional seats. It was an unusual circumstance.
It’s an unusually high-profile situation, and one in which both parties are aware of the stakes. And so I think it’s an extreme set of circumstances, and DeSantis has been engaged in a protracted dispute with the legislature. It would be more common in such a situation for such a dispute to be thrown into state or federal court.
WHAT MATTERS: How do you convince both parties that the short-term gains that come with gerrymandering are eclipsed by the long-term damage to democracy?
WANG: I would say that one should probably appeal to legislators through their self-interest.
What I mean by that is that at this point, redistricting across the United States at a congressional level has reached a stalemate in which both political parties are gerrymandering to the max. And so in terms of gaining power, I think there’s less and less to be gained from pushing partisan gerrymandering.
In terms of other motivations, other incentives one could give legislators, gerrymandering creates fewer and fewer competitive seats. And the few seats that are competitive will end up being expensive races in which more and more resources are put into a very small number of states. And it may be that legislators will perhaps have enough of that.
I think a more real realistic route is to look at the fact that several dozen states have an initiative process where they can form independent commissions – as has been done in the last decade in Michigan, in Colorado and in Virginia. That’s a route where the people have taken the power from the legislators, as opposed to the legislators doing it voluntarily.
Another route might be to do what happened in Virginia, where the majority actually shifted because of demographic changes in Virginia. In that case, the Republican majority became concerned that they would lose the majority – putting Democrats in control and possibly putting them at risk of being gerrymandered the way that they committed to gerrymandering in the past decade.
And in that case, I think that fear of being gerrymandered led them to a good government reform. And so I think in that case, just self-preservation led to reform. So I would say that legislators are, in many ways, not any different from anyone else.
They of course have a duty to serve the people, but they also have incentives to take care of themselves, and all these ways that I’ve described take that into account.
WHAT MATTERS: Have any states found success in regulating gerrymandering to the satisfaction of both parties? It sounds like the independent commissions could be key.
WANG: Yeah, I think that the two major routes are basically an independent commission or, rather, a commission that’s (as) independent as possible. And the other route is action in state court.
Both of those can lead to better outcomes that are more fair from a partisan standpoint, giving both parties equitable opportunities, and also leading to more competition than you see when legislators are left in charge.
WHAT MATTERS: Anything you’d like to add?
WANG: Well, honestly I think there’s been a lot of coverage in the last month about how there’s less competition. And that’s a big story, but I think that in fact, in some ways, things are not as bad as they’ve been made out to be.
It is true that there are partisan gerrymanders, but it’s also true that there’s an awful lot of press coverage. The analytics that we’ve done and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project show that, overall, competition has actually increased slightly from 2012. I’d say there’s a moderate increase in competition compared with 10 years ago.
I think the big story is that competition is still low, but that’s because of both redistricting and because of partisan polarization.
So I think the next challenge really is to find ways to increase competition in congressional seats, and also in state legislative seats. And the same reformers who have been working so hard on redistricting reform may be turning their sights onto the next wave of reforms: things like ranked choice voting, which can take a noncompetitive district and make it more competitive by giving voters more options.