Following the 2020 election, many Democrats feared that the once-in-a-decade redistricting process would deepen the Republican advantage in House elections. Recent history had not been kind to Democrats: the maps drawn in the wake of the 2010 election were so effectively gerrymandered by Republican state officials that the party won 33 more House seats than Democrats in 2012, despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes.
But the last few months have painted a far rosier picture for Democrats than previously anticipated. In late January, an aggressive gerrymander by New York’s Democratic state legislature gave the Democrats an estimated three additional seats. Perhaps more surprisingly, a trio of states that put redistricting in the hands of independent commissions — California, New Jersey, and Michigan — drew new maps that were more favorable to Democrats than existing ones.
Last Wednesday, state courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania gave the Democrats two more key victories. In North Carolina, a three-judge panel rejected a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 14 congressional districts, and replaced it with a map that gives Democrats a chance to achieve an even seven-to-seven split. (An earlier decision by the state Supreme Court struck down the Republicans’ initial proposal, which would have given them an 11-to-three advantage.)
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court selected a map drawn by a Stanford political scientist that would give the Democrats a nine-to-eight advantage, a favorable outcome in a state where most liberal voters are packed into Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the two largest cities.
“Democrats have caught almost all the breaks,” said Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House Editor for the Cook Political Report and one of the nation’s foremost experts on redistricting (his Twitter handle is literally @Redistrict).
“We knew heading into [the cycle] that state Supreme Courts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina would strike down Republican proposals. We weren’t sure that Democrats would run the table on those proposals, and so far they have,” Wasserman said. “And what really turned the tide for Democrats came in late December, which is when commission states finalized maps that were a bit better for Democrats than our expectations.”
Taken together, Wasserman expects that the new maps — many of which are still being challenged in court — could swing four to five House seats in the Democrats’ favor.
Ryan Quinn, the Campaigns Director at Swing Left, a progressive political organization, said that Democratic doubts were largely the result of trauma left over from the 2010 cycle. The landscape is different this time around. While Republicans were in charge of drawing five times as many districts as Democrats in 2010, that number is closer to two-to-one this cycle, Quinn said.
“There was a lot of pessimism going into this redistricting cycle that was not very well-founded, considering how much control has changed from 2010 to 2020,” he said. “The number of districts that Republicans are in charge of drawing is significantly smaller this year, and a lot of that responsibility has been shifted to independent commissions and states with split governments.”
Still, Republicans hold a deep structural advantage from previous redistricting cycles, and despite modest gains by Democrats, redistricting experts don’t expect Democrats to fully even the playing field this year.
“It’s important to note that we’re operating from a baseline here that was already pretty heavily biased in the Republicans’ favor,” said Nick Seabrook, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Florida and the author of One Person, One Vote, a forthcoming book on the history of gerrymandering in the United States. “So while the Democrats have done surprisingly well, we’re still probably looking at a House map that has a small GOP bias, depending on how things shake out in states like Florida and Ohio that haven’t quite finished the process yet.”
Republicans also continue to hold an advantage in state legislative elections, even as Democrats seem poised to claw back congressional seats. “One thing that all this attention on the national level conceals is that the GOP is still doing really well when it comes to state legislatures,” Seabrook said, “and the advantage that they locked in a decade ago has not gone away in all but a couple of places.”
That advantage makes the Democrats’ recent redistricting success precarious. So, too, does their reliance on fragile state Supreme Court majorities in swing states. In North Carolina, for example, two Democratic state Supreme Court justices are up for election this November, giving Republicans a chance to claim a five-to-two majority. Under North Carolina state law, a court-ordered map is valid for just one cycle, so an ascendant Republican state Supreme Court majority could gerrymander the state as early as 2024.
State courts have played an increasingly large role in redistricting battles since 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering was a “political question” beyond the reach of the federal courts.
For all the maneuvering around congressional maps, voters still have a say. Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, said that he doesn’t expect redistricting alone to determine the outcome of the congressional midterm election in November.
“Let’s say that President Biden’s approval rating being at 41% would generate a political environment that would ordinarily net Republicans 25 seats. Because of redistricting, that gain might only be 20,” he said.
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