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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.