One of the many big surprises in this month’s surprising election was the Democrats’ failure to overturn Republican majorities in state legislatures. Various Democratic committees budgeted $88 million to flip majorities in big states such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina. Total gains: zero.
That’s a bad return on lavish investments in money and psychic energy. Liberals have been bemoaning partisan redistricting as a betrayal of democracy, as politicians removing choice from the people.
Such rhetoric is overheated and ahistorical. Those who have followed redistricting since the Supreme Court’s equal population decisions in 1964, as I have, know that redistricting can give a party a marginal and temporary advantage — but that the voters have the final say.
I remember few lamentations about the evils of redistricting in the cycles following the 1960, 1970 and 1980 censuses, when Democrats mostly controlled state legislatures and when Phillip Burton, who held what is now Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco seat, was crafting clever plans.
Partisan redistricting, plus skillful young politicians first elected in the Watergate years and crafty conservatives from the South, enabled Democrats to control the House for 40 straight years. High-minded liberals had no problems with redistricting then.
That started to change in the ’90s, as Watergate babies and Dixiecrats retired, died or were defeated and Newt Gingrich’s Republicans won a House majority in 1994. Redistricting was a partisan wash after the 1990 census, and Republicans had a clear advantage in the 2000 and 2010 census cycles. That helped them hold House majorities for 20 of the past 26 years and control 59 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers.
Hence the denunciations of partisan redistricting as the death of democracy.
Yet the GOP’s partisan advantage isn’t as overwhelming as it seems. Some eight states give some role in redistricting to supposedly nonpartisan independent commissions. Democrats have proved adept at gaming their proceedings. Voters have imposed restrictions on redistricters, and in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Democratic governors can veto Republican legislatures’ plans.
Technically, after this month’s elections, Republicans control redistricting in states with 188 congressional districts, and Democrats control it in states with only 47. But redistricters’ leverage is limited in the 35 states with fewer than 10 congressional districts.
The most important thing to understand about redistricting is that the equal-population standard set by the Supreme Court in 1964 limits the advantage any party or faction can gain over the 10-year period between censuses.
If you create too many 53 percent districts, you may end up losing most of them if your party’s percentage of the population there falls five points. That happened to Michigan Republicans in the 2010s, just as it did to California Democrats in the 1960s.
The other problem for partisan redistricters is that political alignments can change over a decade. As parties gain among one segment of the electorate (as Democrats have with high-credential voters and Republicans among blue-collar whites), districts that favored one party at the beginning of a decade swing toward the other before it ends. The affluent Houston and Dallas seats, which were the most Republican congressional districts in the nation in the 1980s, elected Democrats in 2018 and 2020.
Such changes are the rule rather than the exception. Neither party has won House majorities in all five congressional elections following the censuses of 1990, 2000 or 2010.
Next month, the Census Bureau will release the 2020 census totals that trigger the statutory formula reapportioning the 435 House seats among the states. Texas and Florida, which account for about one-third of the nation’s population growth since 2010, are expected to gain multiple seats, and five other states are expected to gain one each. New York, Illinois and (for the first time ever) California are among the 10 states expected to lose one each.
Then redistricters get to work in the states. RealClearPolitics analyst Sean Trende writes that with “non-aggressive” redistricting, Republicans could gain six seats, and Democrats could lose six seats — a small number though enough to cost the Democrats their apparent 222-213 majority.
Partisan redistricters may get more aggressive, as Republicans did in the 2010 cycle after Illinois Democrats created multiple “bacon strip” districts extending from Chicago wards out through suburbs and into the countryside.
That could raise Republican net gains up to a dozen. But that’s about as many as they gained in this nonredistricting year.
One factor helping Republicans over the past two decades has been demography. Democratic voters — blacks, Hispanics, gentry liberals — tend to be clustered geographically, in central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns. Republican voters are spread around more evenly.
But maybe this is changing. This year, Donald Trump ran better than previous Republicans among Hispanics and blacks, and Joe Biden ran better than previous Democrats in affluent highly educated suburbs. Partisan redistricters will want to take these trends into account, but how long will the trends last, and how far will they extend? The perfect partisan redistricter requires a knowledge of the future, as well as the past.
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