Despite the massive redistricting advantage, Republicans are playing it safe

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With the midterm elections approaching, the Republican Party faces a tougher-than-expected battle from the Democrats for control of the House of Representatives despite getting a rare opportunity to redraw the political map in their favour.

“People thought, ‘Well, the Democrats are going to get bombed in redistricting,’ says Michael Lee, senior advisor to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, he said.

Every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect demographic changes and ensure that every legislator in the House represents roughly the same number of people. But how the new boundaries are drawn and which communities are included in the new constituencies can benefit one political party or another.

State legislatures are often in charge of the process, which means that the party that controls the state capital can bend redistricting in their favour. This process is called gerrymandering.

Missouri Rep. Doug Ritchie points out elements of a proposed congressional redistricting map during a House debate on May 9, 2022 in Jefferson City, Missouri.

In 2020, Republicans controlled the redistricting of 187 of the 435 congressional districts in the House of Representatives, while Democrats redistricted 75 districts. The rest was done by committees or other bodies.

“The maps aren’t great. There’s not a lot of competition,” says Lee, who focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections. “They are still skewed in a number of states – in particular, Texas, Georgia, Florida and Ohio – but even so, they are [the maps] He ended up in a neutral place.”

So impartial that while Democrats are unlikely to retain the House majority next year due to factors not related to redistricting, that is not out of the question, according to Lee.

Lack of competition

The 2020 redistricting appears to have resulted in fewer competitive districts than ever before. Only 60 are seen as truly within reach, while the rest are seen as “safe” for Democrats or Republicans.

Jennifer Victor, associate professor of political science at George Mason University in Virginia. “A lot of this change in competitiveness also has to do with geographic sorting. People are just choosing to vote with their feet and live in places where people are more like them.”

The Ohio Senate Committee on Government Oversight hears testimony about a new map of the state's congressional districts, November 16, 2021, at the Ohio State House in Columbus, Ohio.

The Ohio Senate Committee on Government Oversight hears testimony about a new map of the state’s congressional districts, November 16, 2021, at the Ohio State House in Columbus, Ohio.

And that’s a concern because democracies require a certain level of competitiveness, she says.

“The more Americans live in places where they feel that their political identity does not match that of the majority, or that it does not match the prevailing trends in their area, the more they will feel disconnected from their government, the more they will feel unrepresented, and this can be one of the destabilizing elements of democracy.” says Victor.

Play it safe

In the recently completed redistricting process, Republicans appear to have chosen to ensure safer districts, rather than aspire to capture more districts. In fact, President Joe Biden could have won more counties under the new maps than he would have won under the old maps two years ago, Lee says.

“What you want to do, if you’re trying to increase the number of seats,” Lee says, “is spread your voters across as many districts as possible so that you win a handful of districts by 52, 53, 54% — narrow wins.” “But this strategy has almost backfired on Republicans in the past decade in states like Texas, because districts have become more diverse, and key blocs of voters, especially white suburban women, have shifted toward Democrats.”

The result was that some of these counties became more competitive than Republicans expected, with Democrats even winning some of them.

“I still think Republicans are favored to win the House, but I think with these maps, if they win a majority, it will be a narrow majority,” Lee tells me, “and the Democrats will have a chance to regain the majority in 2024, 2026, assuming those maps remain unchanged.”

Florida Representatives protest the state legislature during a debate on creating new congressional districts, April 21, 2022, in Tallahassee.

Florida Representatives protest the state legislature during a debate on creating new congressional districts, April 21, 2022, in Tallahassee.

He adds that communities of color are among the biggest losers in redistricting.

“Political discrimination is actually racial discrimination that comes at the expense of communities of colour,” Lee tells me. “Because we still have residential segregation, it’s easy to group communities of color together, or take them apart, in order to change the partisan parity of the maps.”

A cure for manipulation?

The other major reason Democrats and Republicans have realistic hopes of winning a majority in the House of Representatives in the coming years is fairer maps drawn by nonpartisan committees or courts rather than by politicians looking to gain or consolidate power.

State legislatures have traditionally been responsible for redrawing boundaries for both state and congressional districts. Fourteen states now use the commissions, but only four of them—California, Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan—use truly independent commissions to redraw congressional boundaries, and Lee says they’ve all done a good job of drawing representative districts.

“The United States is an anomaly in the way it maps its political districts. In almost every other modern democracy a neutral body or actor draws the maps, and the United States is an anomaly because it leaves control of mapping so much in the hands of the people who profit from it.” Maps and party representatives,” he tells me. “There’s a lot of putting your thumbs on the scale that’s going on in the American system that I think distorts democracy in any number of ways.”

Protesters rally against new congressional maps at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, October 28, 2021.

Protesters rally against new congressional maps at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, October 28, 2021.

In addition to using independent commissions, Victor says gerrymandering can be stopped by eliminating districts and having districts represented by multiple members of Congress based on percentage of the vote. In this scenario, the states would have a multiple representation system instead of one member of Congress from each district.

“Not only does it solve the problem of gerrymandering, it improves the sense of representation and political effectiveness,” says Victor. “It would also create incentives for third political parties to work and actually have a real prospect of winning in some places. And so we will see the United States slowly move toward multi-partyism, which will be more favorable to our people than the two-party system that we have.”

This step can be done without amending the constitution but the elected officials currently in power must sign off on changes that would potentially take away their power.

And while legislative redrawing is only supposed to take place every decade, this round of redistricting may be far from over.

“In America, we draw maps and then fight about them in court,” he tells me. “What’s happened so far in the redistricting may just be a multi-action play and there could be a lot of fights about upcoming maps, more redraws and more litigation about maps down the road and in the near and medium term.”

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