Skip Navigation
Analysis

How Gerrymandering Kept Democrats from Winning Even More Seats Tuesday

In North Carolina, they won 50 percent of the House votes and 23 percent of the House seats.

Cross-posted from The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Demo­crats will pick up at least 26 seats and take a major­ity in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives if the prelim­in­ary results from Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions hold. But partisan gerry­man­der­ing is still a major issue. Our analysis of one state’s results shows that the party would almost certainly have won more if Repub­lic­ans hadn’t delib­er­ately drawn districts to limit Demo­cratic chances.

North Caro­lin­a’s congres­sional district lines are already the subject of federal litig­a­tion claim­ing that they give Repub­lic­ans a system­atic, uncon­sti­tu­tional advant­age in winning seats. Tues­day’s results bear those claims out. Demo­crats won roughly 50 percent of the vote in North Caro­lina, their best perform­ance in almost a decade. But despite an extraordin­ary year, they netted just three of the state’s 13 congres­sional seats — the same as in 2014 and 2016. That happened because a prom­ising Demo­cratic wave crashed against one of the coun­try’s most extreme gerry­manders, a congres­sional map that Repub­lican legis­lat­ors brazenly stated on the record that they care­fully craf­ted “to give a partisan advant­age to 10 Repub­lic­ans and 3 Demo­crats.”

To engin­eer this advant­age, the lead­ers of the Repub­lican caucus worked in secret with a consult­ant to pack likely Demo­crats into three super-blue districts. In each of these districts, Demo­crats would win by very large margins. The Repub­lican mapmakers then spread the rest of the state’s Demo­crats more thinly across the remain­ing 10 districts, ensur­ing that Repub­lican candid­ates would win by small, but safe, margins. They made many of these districts safe for the GOP by giving each one just enough Repub­lican voters to win elec­tions in normal years.

With this scientific slicing and dicing of voters, it didn’t matter if Demo­crats got 30 percent of the statewide vote or 50 percent, as they did this year. The figure below shows the share of the statewide vote at which the Demo­crats would be expec­ted to win each of the districts. They are guar­an­teed wins in three districts but then face a tremend­ously steep climb to win any addi­tional seats. In fact, they didn’t stand a chance of pick­ing up a fourth seat unless they could net 52.5 percent of the statewide vote, some­thing they achieved only once since 2000, in the 2008 elec­tion.

In 2016, the Repub­lic­ans’ map handed 10 seats to the GOP despite a strong Demo­cratic year that saw Roy Cooper win the governor’s mansion and Demo­crats sweep to other statewide wins.

At first, the 2018 midterms looked as though they could have been a more formid­able test to the gerry­mander, with as many as four Repub­lican-held districts in play head­ing into Elec­tion Day. In the end, however, the gerry­mander held.

Increased Demo­cratic votes were mostly wasted in the state’s three reli­ably blue districts. Indeed, the Demo­crats’ aver­age margin of victory in these three districts rose from 18 percent­age points in 2016 to an aston­ish­ing 23 points in 2018. Still, running up the vote in those districts didn’t send any more Demo­crats from North Caro­lina to Congress. The Repub­lic­ans’ pack­ing strategy worked just as they’d planned.

Mean­while, in the state’s Repub­lican districts, Demo­crats were spread too thin for even a robust increase in support to help. All in all, Repub­lic­ans won their districts with an aver­age margin of six points, show­ing the Repub­lic­ans’ crack­ing strategy also play­ing out as inten­ded. The map below shows the aver­age vote share won by Demo­crats in North Caro­lina districts in the past two congres­sional elec­tions.

All of this has contin­ued to leave North Caro­lina Demo­crats with only 23 percent of the congres­sional deleg­a­tion even though they won roughly half of the state’s votes in House races. Indeed, despite North Caro­lin­a’s well-estab­lished purple-state status — with hotly contested elec­tions for statewide offices and a vibrant, diverse collec­tion of voices and interests — its congres­sional deleg­a­tion remains over­whelm­ingly Repub­lican. And that goes back to the basic design of the map.

The only way to put a stop to this is to remake North Caro­lin­a’s map and the state’s redis­trict­ing process. The Supreme Court can help do both this spring by strik­ing down the map as an uncon­sti­tu­tional partisan gerry­mander and putting some laws in place to limit the worst redis­trict­ing abuses. A strong ruling from the court would not only require the legis­lature to draw a new, fairer map for 2020 but also set the ground rules for the next round of redis­trict­ing in 2021. If the Supreme Court refuses to rule, the North Caro­lina Supreme Court might.

And while North Carolini­ans don’t have access to the kind of ballot initi­at­ives that put inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions in place in Cali­for­nia and Michigan, there might be some hope for legis­lat­ive reforms ahead of 2021, if Repub­lic­ans become suffi­ciently scared that a blue tsunami in 2020 could sweep away their long-stand­ing major­ity in the state legis­lature and, with it, their control over the state’s next redis­trict­ing process. The threat of a Demo­cratic gerry­mander in 2021 might be enough to put the state’s Repub­lic­ans in a bargain­ing mood. Certainly in the long run, the demo­graph­ics of this fast-chan­ging state don’t favor Repub­lic­ans.

However, until courts or civic-minded legis­lat­ors step in to fix a broken redis­trict­ing process, the gerry­mander is still very much threat­en­ing Amer­ican demo­cracy.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty; chart & map: Bren­nan Center)