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Partisan Gerrymandering Is Rampant this Cycle. Congress Needs to Act.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would prevent extreme partisan gerrymandering and strengthen protections against racial discrimination.

Last Updated: January 12, 2022
Published: January 11, 2022
Man examines a map while sitting.
Jeffrey Collins/AP

This piece was origin­ally published in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

With redis­trict­ing now finished in just over half the states, a mislead­ing narrat­ive has emerged that the gerry­man­der­ing hasn’t been all that bad. By focus­ing on one narrow fact — that the over­all distri­bu­tion of seats between the parties might not change much — this story misses the full, much grim­mer picture.

To be sure, new maps might not signi­fic­antly increase seats in the near term for Repub­lic­ans (who already enjoy a large advant­age as a result of aggress­ive gerry­manders of the 2010 maps). But the maps remain deeply perni­cious gerry­manders — and, in many ways, are even worse than before. By shor­ing up last decade’s gerry­manders, line draw­ers have breathed new life into distor­ted maps and ensured that elec­tions in 2022 and beyond will be skewed, uncom­pet­it­ive and deeply biased against voters of color.

With a show­down on the Free­dom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act coming this month, it has never been more urgent that Congress act. Just ask voters in North Caro­lina and Texas. Under the congres­sional map passed by North Caro­lin­a’s Repub­lican-controlled legis­lature, Repub­lic­ans could win 71 percent of the state’s congres­sional seats with only 48 percent of the statewide vote. Repub­lic­ans in Texas have engin­eered similar advant­ages. Texas Demo­crats would have to win 58 percent of the vote to be favored to carry more than 37 percent of the state’s congres­sional seats. In other words, Texas could turn a dark shade of blue and Repub­lic­ans would still have a two-to-one seat advant­age. That hardly looks “not so bad” for Demo­crats.

It’s import­ant to remem­ber that gerry­man­der­ing isn’t just about gain­ing new seats — it can also be about insu­lat­ing the seats you already have from compet­i­tion. And one of the biggest redis­trict­ing stor­ies this decade is how compet­i­tion is being sucked out of our elec­tions, espe­cially in Repub­lican-controlled states.

Again, consider Texas. Under the old Texas congres­sional map, there were 11 districts that Donald Trump won by 15 points or more in 2020. Under the new map, 21 of 24 Repub­lican districts will be such super-Trump districts. Over­all, in four of the most gerry­mandered Repub­lican states (Ohio, Texas, North Caro­lina and Geor­gia), the number of heav­ily pro-Trump districts will go from 27 to 39 after redis­trict­ing, an increase of 44 percent. (The number of super-safe Biden districts also goes up by three in these states as a result of Repub­lican pack­ing of Demo­cratic voters.)

The “not so bad” narrat­ive also, exas­per­at­ingly, turns a blind eye to the impact of the redis­trict­ing cycle on communit­ies of color, who account for nearly all the popu­la­tion growth in places such as Texas. In state after state in this round of redis­trict­ing, Repub­lican map draw­ers, in partic­u­lar, are not only refus­ing to create new elect­oral oppor­tun­it­ies for minor­ity communit­ies, in many cases they are actively dismant­ling them.

Take, for example, the redraw­ing of maps in Texas’s Fort Bend County, outside Hous­ton. Histor­ic­ally, almost all of the suburban county had been included in the 22nd congres­sional district. But the county, which was 62.6 percent White in 1990 became just 32 percent White by the end of last decade, and its polit­ics had become increas­ingly multiracial. In 2018 and 2020 in the district, Indian Amer­ican Demo­crat Sri Preston Kulkarni ran strongly in defeat at the head of a diverse coali­tion. To make the seat safe for Repub­lic­ans, the Texas legis­lature carved up the 22nd, shov­ing heav­ily Asian communit­ies into an adja­cent district and bring­ing in largely White, rural communit­ies. Rather than compet­ing for the votes of a multiracial Amer­ica, Repub­lic­ans are under­min­ing it with an attack on the power of suburban communit­ies of color.

Demo­crats, of course, are not above gerry­man­der­ing. In Illinois, and possibly in New York, Demo­crats are moving to entrench their own power, though, nation­ally, Demo­crats control line draw­ing for only 75 seats compared to the 187 that Repub­lic­ans control. Happily, a hand­ful of states have moved away from extreme gerry­man­der­ing. In Michigan and Cali­for­nia, inde­pend­ent commis­sions produced fair and compet­it­ive maps that repres­ent the chan­ging coun­try. These wins brighten the national picture, but we should­n’t let them obscure the gerry­man­der­ing that contin­ues to threaten demo­cracy in many states.

The Free­dom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act would prevent extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing and strengthen protec­tions against racial discrim­in­a­tion. Both have passed the House and command major­ity support in the Senate. Pres­id­ent Biden stands ready to sign them into law. The only obstacle is the fili­buster — a legis­lat­ive tool that has been used too often to thwart civil rights and racial equity legis­la­tion. It is crit­ical that the Senate not let this Jim Crow relic stop needed reforms.

Sure, the cycle could have been worse. But Amer­ic­ans deserve better than an “it could have been worse” demo­cracy.