This is the first in a two-part series examining how the political landscape has been affected by partisan gerrymandering and changes to voting rights.
Election prognosticators have been predicting a Republican wave in November, based on historical trends, the decennial redrawing of House district lines and President Biden’s low approval ratings. While recent polling and primary results indicate Democrats may do better than expected this fall, redistricting likely has cemented GOP advantages for the next decade.
Every 10 years, following the census, states redraw district lines to account for population shifts, as required by the Constitution. But over the course of American history, the process has taken on another name, one that refers to the politicization of redistricting: gerrymandering,
In states where lawmakers or other partisans control redistricting, those in power have drawn congressional and state legislative maps to benefit their own party and limit competition. An entire industry of activism has evolved at the state and national level to combat partisan gerrymandering, fearing the ongoing practice has done significant damage to American democracy.
There’s plenty of evidence that gerrymandering is alive and well in 2022.
According to an analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight, only 40 of the 435 House seats can be considered highly competitive, with 187 leaning toward Democrats and 208 leaning Republican. That’s six fewer competitive seats than under the previous maps.
Thanks to the Campaign Legal Center, which compiled 50 years of congressional maps, we can see how states have shifted political leanings through the years based on partisan gerrymandering. CLC’s findings show states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana and Texas had largely Democratic delegations for two decades starting in the 1970s before veering toward the middle in the mid-1990s. However, by 2012, all four states had skewed red.
This pattern has continued to develop especially after the 2020 Census, despite disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a report conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, Across the South, Republicans were able to create seven additional GOP-leaning districts resulting in a 70 percent majority in the region’s 155 seats. This was a 4 percent increase from the period before the maps were reconfigured.
Those safe seats, coupled with Republican-drawn maps in the Midwest and Plains give Republicans the upperhand in the House after the 2022 general election. The GOP would have an even easier path to the majority, but Democrats engaged in aggressive gerrymandering of their own in states such as California and Illinois. Democrats had attempted to improve their stances in New York, but the map they approved was thrown out by the courts and had to be re-drawn and ended up improving the Republican position. And an effort to eliminate the one Republican district in Maryland was erased by a court.
The courts have looked more favorably on Republican-drawn maps that were challenged by Democrats, like in Ohio.
While Republicans hope to leverage their advantages in the South, Plains and Midwest, Democrats are leaning on the Northeast and the West Coast in an effort to hang on to their House majority.
To be sure, control of every state isn’t subject to partisan gamesmanship.
After the 2010 census, Republicans drew the maps in Michigan and secured a steady advantage in the congressional delegation. For example, in 2014 Republicans won a 9-5 edge in the delegation despite earning less than half of the votes across the state. But in 2018, a grassroots initiative led by Voters Not Politicians led to adoption of a ballot initiative establishing an independent redistricting commission in the state. The commission’s work following the 2020 census began a rebalancing of the state. Michigan lost one seat due to population shifts and one of the Republican leaning seats is now competitive.
Fewer than a dozen states use such independent commissions.
The early consensus on the midterms held that Republicans would ride a wave to majorities in the House and Senate. But bipartisan legislative successes, renewed interest on the left following the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights and the results of recent primaries may indicate the battle for control of the House will be more competitive than previously thought.
Although the GOP still seems likely to take control of the House this year, Democrats may be able to win it back even under the current maps. If Democrats can win a chunk of 30 districts Donald Trump won by fewer than 8 percentage points in 2020 — while holding on to their “safe” districts — or if they win most of the 30 districts that Biden marginally won, there could be another shift in power.
These two options will be very difficult for Democrats. Due to the new redistricting, previous Biden districts are all extremely competitive making it very possible for Democrats to come up short on votes. Republican districts, on the other hand, are virtually all assured of supporting the GOP or on the verge of becoming noncompetitive with gerrymandering in play. Although gerrymandering has heavily influenced the political environment, it is still very difficult to predict what the future of elections will be.
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