The redistricting maps are drawn, state and federal courts have had their say, and the playing field for the U.S. House and state legislatures nationwide is largely intact for the next decade. Both parties have claimed victory and can point to real gains.
Democratic strategists believe much of the Republican advantage over the past decade has been erased, leaving them in a much stronger position than in 2012, and that the national map comes close to parity. Republicans, meanwhile, strengthened districts for incumbents and gained seats in rapidly diversifying states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona, and strong-armed state courts in Ohio and Wisconsin to preserve gerrymandered advantages that have lasted 10 years.
But while Team Red and Team Blue debate which side’s lawyers and creative cartographers did a better job of potentially tilting elections their way, the biggest loser is clear: Those of us who longed for fair maps, competitive districts and meaningful elections — and who hoped this redistricting cycle might deliver them.
Not all the news is bleak. Independent commissions in Michigan and Colorado delivered as promised. State courts protected reforms demanded by voters in Virginia and New York, and unraveled an aggressive GOP gerrymander in North Carolina. Divided political control in Pennsylvania forced a fairer outcome than a decade ago, when Republicans held both the legislature and the governor’s office.
Such bright spots, however, proved rare. And while a better-balanced national map is certainly something to celebrate, a stalemate was produced by gerrymandering on steroids in nearly every state under one-party control. That, in turn, will under-represent minority voters, render Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states all but voiceless, and drive the number of competitive seats nationwide to dreary modern lows.
Take Texas, for example, which gained two seats in Congress because of population growth. Latinos and other communities of color drove 95 percent of those gains — but actually lost political power under new maps that reduce the number of majority Latino and Black seats, while solidifying GOP incumbents. Texas had nine competitive congressional districts in 2020; it will have one in 2022. The eight that disappeared are now safely red.
In Alabama, meanwhile, where Blacks make up as much as one-third of the population but can win only one of seven congressional seats (14 percent), Black voters brought litigation under the Voting Rights Act, arguing that they had sufficient numbers to create a second majority-minority seat. A panel of three federal judges agreed, and demanded a new map — but the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court prevented it from happening this year.
The high court cited the “Purcell principle” and ruled that it was too close to the election to revise the map now, a curious ruling since it was still winter, and experts can create a map in days. It means that this fall’s election will be conducted on a map that has been determined to be a racial gerrymander. It also creates the likelihood that, after full arguments this fall, the court will weaken Voting Rights Act protections against racially discriminatory districting. (A federal judge in Louisiana this week found its congressional map was created the same way — packing most Black voters into one district and then diluting the rest over several other districts — yet it likely will face the same fate on appeal.)
Alabama isn’t the only state where the 2022 midterms will be held on an effectively unconstitutional map. In Ohio — where more than 70 percent of voters approved a 2015 constitutional amendment requiring fair maps that neither favor nor disfavor either party — the Republicans who dominate the state’s redistricting commission have flouted the state constitution, strong-armed a state supreme court that has declared its maps unconstitutional time and again, and even threatened the Republican chief justice with impeachment for requiring that the process work as voters demanded.
Yet they got away with it. A federal court said that it would impose one of the maps that the state court found unconstitutional if the commission couldn’t produce another map before then. Given such a backwards incentive, the Republicans simply delayed, refused to meet and ran out the clock — ensuring themselves 12 of 15 congressional seats, or 80 percent, in a state that broke 54-46 for Donald Trump in 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ran roughshod over his state constitution as well, which forbids drawing maps that are designed to give any party political advantage. DeSantis vetoed maps approved by the legislature and demanded a map engineered to provide his Republican Party with an additional four seats and to eliminate two historic majority-minority seats. Florida’s state supreme court, itself packed with GOP justices, said this month that it would not review the maps before the 2022 election.
Democrats were no angels, either, but state courts — controlled by Democratic jurists who would not countenance this behavior — undid the worst Democratic chicanery in New York and Maryland. That leaves Illinois, Oregon and New Mexico as the most prominent Democratic gerrymanders. The Illinois and New Mexico maps wipe several competitive seats, well, off the map.
According to the new FairVote Monopoly Politics report, only about 9 percent of districts nationwide will be competitive this fall. Republicans wiped several of those away as well, by cracking blue cities in red states, such as Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Little Rock, Ark., Oklahoma City and Nashville, Tenn.
That a coast-to-coast, maximally gerrymandered national map is an improvement over the past decade’s signals just how unrepresentative these maps have become. Like so much else in our democracy, redistricting is broken — entrusted to partisans who abuse the process and entrench themselves in office. The courts apparently have abandoned voters, insisting that voters fix it themselves, either by ousting politicians who can’t lose or passing constitutional amendments that politicians hijack or ignore.
Think it can’t get worse? It can — if the U.S. Supreme Court adopts an extreme theory known as the “Independent State Legislature Doctrine” during its next session. It could eliminate the ability of governors and state courts to review maps, and perhaps put an end to independent commissions, as well. We are drowning and cannot see land.
David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.