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The GOP Roots of Redistricting Reform

Thirty years ago, Republicans thought ending gerrymandering was a good idea. They were right.

October 20, 2021

Listen­ing to congres­sional Repub­lic­ans today, Demo­crats’ demo­cracy reform bills are “a brazen power grab” and “the single most danger­ous piece of legis­la­tion pending in the United States Congress.” Yet, one of the most import­ant reforms being advanced by Demo­crats today — the redis­trict­ing provi­sions in the Free­dom to Vote Act — isn’t a Demo­cratic idea at all but a Repub­lican one. 

The year was 1989. The next round of congres­sional redis­trict­ing would­n’t be for another two years, but Repub­lic­ans were already worried. With the Demo­cratic Party in control of key state legis­latures and governor­ships, Demo­crats would have free rein to gerry­mander maps to guar­an­tee them­selves a comfort­able major­ity in the House for the coming decade. For Repub­lic­ans, that meant continu­ing to be consigned to the same perpetual minor­ity they had been in since 1957 — even though they regu­larly won half the nation­wide congres­sional vote and in many parts of the coun­try were becom­ing increas­ingly compet­it­ive. 

But Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush, Sen. Mitch McCon­nell (R-KY), and other Repub­lic­ans had a bold idea: pass federal legis­la­tion to make the map-draw­ing process fairer.

In June 1989, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion told report­ers that it would push for passage of “legis­la­tion aimed at outlaw­ing gerry­man­der­ing.” The core of the proposal would be “‘neut­ral criter­ia’ to be used in draw­ing the nation’s congres­sional districts after the 1990 census.” If states refused to follow these criteria when draw­ing districts, voters would have the abil­ity to take states to court to force a redraw of maps.

To be sure, Repub­lic­ans conceded that redis­trict­ing reforms faced an uphill fight in a Congress domin­ated by Demo­crats. But they strongly pushed back against Demo­cratic accus­a­tions that the legis­la­tion was merely a GOP power grab. At a press confer­ence in late June 1989, Bush told report­ers that he was “outraged by a sugges­tion of that nature” and that he was “look­ing [at the matter] as object­ively as I can.”

Sen. McCon­nell and congres­sional Repub­lic­ans would go on to include redis­trict­ing reform in not one, but three separ­ate demo­cracy reform bills they would propose over the next two years. (In a reverse echo of the fights today, not a single Demo­crat would co-spon­sor any of the bills.)

A gener­a­tion on, the parties’ posi­tions have flipped 180 degrees. It is now congres­sional Demo­crats who are the ones vocally advoc­at­ing for redis­trict­ing reforms, while Repub­lic­ans stand off to the side in oppos­i­tion. Yet despite the parties’ complete switch in posture over time, the reforms pushed by Repub­lic­ans 30 years ago and by Demo­crats today are so uncan­nily similar that it can be hard to tell them apart. Indeed, McCon­nell’s 1990 propos­als are in many ways the grand­par­ents of today’s propos­als.

At the heart of both the 1990 McCon­nell proposal and today’s Free­dom to Vote Act is a straight­for­ward, no-nonsense ban on partisan gerry­man­der­ing. While the language of the propos­als differs in the details, the gist is the same: if a congres­sional redis­trict­ing plan has either the “intent or effect” of dilut­ing the votes of any polit­ical party, it is out of bounds and can be struck down by a court.

Like the Free­dom to Vote Act, the McCon­nell proposal also would have stand­ard­ized the rules for draw­ing congres­sional districts, creat­ing uniform, national rules to replace a messy, ad hoc system where the proced­ures for draw­ing congres­sional districts are left substan­tially to states (and often changed by states from decade to decade to suit polit­ical ends). Both meas­ures, moreover, would give exclus­ive juris­dic­tion over most redis­trict­ing cases to federal courts, require redis­trict­ing cases to be exped­ited by courts, and give courts expan­ded powers to redraw illegal maps.

But the simil­ar­it­ies between the two propos­als don’t end with the substant­ive rules for redis­trict­ing. Both propos­als also place stress on trans­par­ency and public parti­cip­a­tion, recog­niz­ing, in the words of the McCon­nell bill, that congres­sional districts should “be subject to reas­on­able public scru­tiny and comment prior to their estab­lish­ment.” Both propos­als require, for instance, that the data and other inform­a­tion used to draw and analyze maps be made easily avail­able to the public.

Thirty years ago, it was Repub­lic­ans who were at the fore­front of the fight to end gerry­man­der­ing. While today’s Repub­lic­ans have largely aban­doned that commit­ment, their propos­als are now the core of the redis­trict­ing reforms in the Free­dom to Vote Act. These ideas for fixing a broken redis­trict­ing process were smart three decades ago when Repub­lic­ans were the ones propos­ing them. They are no less smart today.