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Early Lessons from the Current Redistricting Round

Here are five takeaways from new voting maps around the country.

November 30, 2021

The redraw­ing of congres­sional and legis­lat­ive maps around the coun­try has still yet to reach its midway point, but there already are some clear trends. These initial takeaways give some clues to what to look out for as the process contin­ues.

Most of these early trends, unfor­tu­nately, do not bode well for fair maps, and they provide more evid­ence of the need for state-level reforms and federal ones like the Free­dom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act.

Gerry­man­der­ing is alive and well — with some differ­ences.

Last decade saw some of the most extreme gerry­man­der­ing in U.S. history. But early signs are that this decade’s gerry­man­der­ing could in some ways be even worse. Last decade, Repub­lic­ans were respons­ible for most of the extreme gerry­manders. This time round, both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans appear ready to be aggress­ive, though Demo­crats will have far fewer oppor­tun­it­ies than Repub­lic­ans to draw skewed maps.

For Repub­lic­ans, this decade’s gerry­manders so far have been a mixture of defense and offense. This contrasts with last decade, when Repub­lic­ans aggress­ively targeted Demo­cratic seats, taking advant­age of the land­slide major­it­ies they won in the 2010 Tea Party midterms.

For example, Texas’s new congres­sional map is aimed largely at preserving the lopsided advant­ages Repub­lic­ans already hold due to last cycle’s gerry­man­der­ing, a recog­ni­tion perhaps of rapidly chan­ging demo­graph­ics and shift­ing polit­ical tides in the suburbs.

But not all Repub­lican gerry­manders are defens­ive. In North Caro­lina, for example, Repub­lic­ans are on offense, passing a congres­sional map that would elim­in­ate 2 of 5 Demo­cratic seats and that could give Repub­lic­ans an 11 to 3 seat advant­age in a strong GOP elec­tion cycle. And Repub­lic­ans’ offens­ive posture this cycle could extend to smal­ler and medium-sized states — like Tennessee and Missouri — which did not see extreme gerry­man­der­ing last decade but where new maps could elim­in­ate long­time Demo­cratic seats in cities like Nashville and Kansas City.

By contrast, Demo­crats are more singu­larly in offens­ive mode this decade. In Illinois, for example, they passed a wildly contor­ted new congres­sional map that gives Demo­crats a 14 to 3 advant­age in the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion. And there is wide expect­a­tion that Demo­crats will be equally if not more aggress­ive in New York when the legis­lature takes up redis­trict­ing in early 2022.

But Demo­crats’ abil­ity to level the play­ing field through gerry­man­der­ing is limited. That’s because the party controls the draw­ing of just 75 congres­sional districts this cycle compared to the 187 that Repub­lic­ans control, and many of the seats that Demo­crats will draw are in states like Massachu­setts or Rhode Island where Demo­crats already hold all the seats.

Communit­ies of color are bear­ing the brunt of aggress­ive map draw­ing.

Unsur­pris­ingly, communit­ies of color are emer­ging as prin­cipal targets in this decade’s redis­trict­ing. But some of this decade’s maps are espe­cially brazen in their treat­ment of communit­ies of color.

In Texas, for example, communit­ies of color accoun­ted for 95 percent of the state’s popu­la­tion growth last decade. Yet, not only did Texas Repub­lic­ans create no new elect­oral oppor­tun­it­ies for minor­ity community communit­ies, their maps often went back­wards. In the Dallas-Fort Worth region, for instance, the most Latino congres­sional district in the region saw its Latino citizen voting age popu­la­tion reduced from 48 percent to 42 percent due to the move of a large block of Latino voters in suburban Dallas into a mostly rural district. Simil­arly, in North Caro­lina, the state’s new Repub­lican-drawn congres­sional map signi­fic­antly under­mines the district of one of two Black members of the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion.

And Repub­lic­ans are not alone in target­ing minor­ity voters. In Illinois, Black voters have filed suit contend­ing that Black voters were split among multiple districts in order to shore up white Demo­cratic incum­bents.

A combin­a­tion of racially polar­ized voting and resid­en­tial segreg­a­tion have long made target­ing the polit­ical power of communit­ies of color an easy and ruth­lessly effect­ive way to change the partisan valiance of maps — regard­less of whether map draw­ers are Demo­crats or Repub­lic­ans. But this decade, the Supreme Court’s green­light­ing of partisan gerry­man­der­ing and its decision to gut key provi­sions of the Voting Rights Act have made the target­ing of communit­ies of color easier than ever. Racially discrim­in­at­ory maps now are likely to be defen­ded on the basis of polit­ics and, with no need to get federal approval under the Voting Rights Act, states no longer have any need to be cautious in draw­ing maps.

Maps may ulti­mately be struck down, but litig­a­tion will take years in many cases. All the while, states like Texas will continue to use discrim­in­at­ory maps.

There will be fewer compet­it­ive seats when all is said and done.

Another victim of this decade’s maps will almost certainly be compet­i­tion. If current maps are a harbinger of the rest of the redis­trict­ing cycle, the 2022 midterms will feature far fewer compet­it­ive districts.

Take Texas, for example. Last decade’s Texas map featured five to six seats that were compet­it­ive in a good Demo­cratic year. Under the newly enacted map, no Repub­lican-held seats are compet­it­ive. In fact, Demo­crats are not favored to win more than one addi­tional seat unless they win close to 60 percent of the statewide vote — some­thing that in the near term seems like a remote possib­il­ity.

Repub­lic­ans are afraid of the suburbs.

For many decades, suburbs in states like Texas were a solid Repub­lican heart­land. No more. With half of all people of color in metro areas now living in the suburbs, and with white suburban voters trend­ing Demo­cratic in recent years, suburban voters now increas­ingly threaten GOP hege­mony.

The result has been new maps like Texas’s that divide suburban communit­ies and join them to heav­ily rural, and more reli­ably Repub­lican, districts — a tactic that used to be used with Demo­cratic cities like Austin but now is a tool for neut­ral­iz­ing suburban voters. The newly redrawn Texas 13th congres­sional district, for example, places parts of suburban Denton County (north of Dallas) in a sprawl­ing district that stretches all the way to the Texas Panhandle.

Screenshot of Texas legislative map zoomed into District 13 Texas Legis­lat­ive Coun­cil

Some redis­trict­ing reforms are doing well, but others aren’t.

Last decade saw states enact a record number of redis­trict­ing reforms. But evid­ence from this redis­trict­ing cycle suggests that not every reform is equally robust.

On the one hand, new inde­pend­ent commis­sions in Color­ado and Michigan have done well in meet­ing the goals of reformers and produ­cing fairer maps. In Color­ado, maps passed by the commis­sion and approved by the state supreme court have low rates of partisan bias as well as increase the number of compet­it­ive seats. In Michigan, the process is ongo­ing, but maps put out by the commis­sion for public comment simil­arly all have negli­gible partisan bias (in sharp contrast to the gerry­mandered maps drawn by Repub­lic­ans in 2011).

On the other hand, reforms that give a signi­fic­ant role in the process to partisan elec­ted offi­cials have struggled. In Ohio, for example, where all members of the state’s redis­trict­ing commis­sion are elec­ted offi­cials and Repub­lic­ans hold 5 of 7 seats, the commis­sion approved new legis­lat­ive maps on a party-line basis that give Repub­lic­ans a durable super­ma­jor­ity (several lawsuits are now chal­len­ging those maps). Like­wise, in Virginia, where legis­lat­ors make up half of the bipar­tisan commis­sion, the process has broken down in acri­mony and dead­lock, send­ing respons­ib­il­ity for map draw­ing to the state supreme court (though the court process so far is play­ing out fairer).

There also are signs that new advis­ory bodies that draw maps for legis­lat­ive consid­er­a­tion could end up being largely shunted to the side by partisan legis­latures determ­ined to gerry­mander. In Utah, for example, the state legis­lature ignored a commis­sion-recom­men­ded congres­sional map that would have created a compet­it­ive seat in Salt Lake City, and instead legis­lat­ors passed one that aggress­ively divides the city among four districts in order to make all four districts safely Repub­lican. Some­thing similar could play out in New York.

A full assess­ment of reforms will have to wait until the cycle is complete, but one clear, early lesson seems to be that, in a deeply polar­ized age, the degree to which partisan elec­ted offi­cials are allowed to continue to be involved in redis­trict­ing will play a key role in whether a reform deliv­ers the inten­ded results.