Redistricting could add red ink to congressional maps
Census data and state government majorities favor the GOP
Now that the U.S. Census Bureau has released its official headcount, politicians can begin their decennial chess match of redrawing congressional districts. Republicans look to have the advantage this time.
“Essentially, it’s open season now for the states to gerrymander their districts in such a way to protect their party and hurt the other party,” said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of politics at Eastern Illinois University. Gerrymandering is when the leading party in a state draws congressional district boundaries to encompass the voters they want and isolate supporters of the opposing party.
The census determines how many of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives each state gets. That number affects how many Electoral College votes the state has, which could determine the outcome of a close presidential election. Despite projections that as many as 10 House seats would shift after the 2020 census, only seven seats moved—primarily from states with slower-growing populations in the Northeast and Midwest toward faster-expanding states in the South and West.
In most states, legislatures draw or approve redistricting maps, and governors must sign them into law. Republicans have control of both houses of the state legislature and the governorship—known as a state government trifecta—in 23 states, according to Ballotpedia. Democrats have 15 trifectas, and control is divided in 12 states.
“Given how dominant Republicans are in many state legislatures and given increases [in states] that lean slightly Republican … in general this is going to favor them in the House,” said Adam Carrington, an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
Six states are losing House seats this year: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Even though California’s overall population grew, it rose more slowly compared to other states, resulting in its first-ever loss of a representative. While the state technically has a nonpartisan redistricting process, Democrats in the past have successfully influenced the results to their advantage.
Republicans have a trifecta in Texas, the only state to gain two seats this year. The GOP will likely try to draw its two new districts in ways that will bulk up the party’s wins, but it will face the challenge of growing blocs of Democratic voters in the suburbs. Currently, Republicans hold 23 seats to Democrats’ 13 in the Lone Star State. In Florida, Republicans are also in charge of the process and will seek to redraw their maps to add to the 16 seats they already hold out of a total of 27.
Disputes over gerrymandering have often landed in court. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some forms of gerrymandering, specifically those that disenfranchise racial minorities, violate the Constitution. Federal judges threw out maps in 2016 of two majority-black congressional districts in North Carolina over such concerns, saying the layout sought to entrench Republican control by disenfranchising Democratic voters.
But in 2019, the high court ruled that federal courts should not weigh in on the issue of partisan bias in redistricting. Voters in North Carolina and Maryland alleged unfairness in the process. The justices said in a 5-4 ruling that it rests on the states and Congress to police gerrymandering. North Carolina, historically one of the most gerrymandered states, is also gaining a seat this year. Recent changes passed by the Republican legislature mean Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, cannot push back on the redistricting process.
Colorado and Montana, which both gained seats, will use independent commissions for drawing their maps. In Oregon, Democrats recently moved to give Republicans equal representation on the state house’s redistricting committees. Democrats still have a trifecta, so they still have the final say over the map.
Whether they gained, lost, or kept the same number of seats, states must still redraw nearly every congressional district to reflect internal population shifts. Republicans will control the process in 187 districts, compared with Democrats’ 75, according to FiveThirtyEight. In 167 districts, control is either split between the parties or in the hands of an independent commission. Only six districts do not need to be redrawn at all. The Census Bureau will give the states more specific data later in the year, with a deadline of Sept. 30. Most states must finalize maps before November 2021.
The way the parties draw their maps will provide clues about where they believe their political future resides.
“If Republicans start bunching the suburbs into already Democratic districts, that says they’ve given up on the suburbs,” Carrington said. “If Democrats put heavy working-class communities into already Republican majority districts, that says they don’t think their future is with those voters.”
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