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The intensely political process of redrawing congressional lines is complete for more than 60% of the 435 House seats, and neither party has amassed a clear advantage in redistricting ahead of the November election.
Republican cartographers have sought to boost politically at-risk incumbents and shrink the playing field of competitive districts over the next decade. Democrats have taken more calculated risks where they control redistricting. In states yet to finalize maps, the biggest suspense is how aggressively partisan Democrats in New York and Republicans in Florida will be.
The stakes are especially high because the narrowly divided U.S. House could shift to a Republican majority that would end unified Democratic control of the federal government and thwart President Joe Biden’s agenda.
At the moment, Republicans are favored to win the House , which Democrats control by just five seats. Biden’s approval rating, now in the low 40s, may be more of a boon to Republicans than redrawing more congressional districts than Democrats.
“Redistricting has an important part to play in setting the battlefield for the decade,” said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “But at the same time, political climate and candidate and campaign quality matter too.”
Republicans had an even bigger advantage over Democrats in redistricting in 2011-12, yet Democrats won control of the House in 2018 in a national political environment that more than offset the map advantage.
Kelly Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said her side has “stymied” Republicans in redistricting partly through effective litigation, public engagement, and winning key governors’ elections in states where Republicans controlled redistricting last decade.
“The Republicans started this redistricting process with the goal of manipulating the maps so that they could hold the House for the decade, and they are not going to be successful in that goal,” Burton said.
‘Aggressive Defensive Gerrymanders’
Republican and Democratic mapmakers have pursued different approaches in the states where they control the redistricting process.
Republicans generally are circling the wagons, shoring up their House members in districts that are politically competitive or where they project demographic and political shifts could erode Republican margins over the next decade. Kincaid said he’s advised Republican legislatures to draw durable “10-year maps” that follow the law and don’t overreach.
In Texas, the most populous state where the GOP has unfettered control over redistricting, all 11 Republicans who won in 2020 or 2021 with less than 56% of the vote received more favorable districts. Overall, Republican-controlled states have created 70 districts that Trump would have won by more than 15 percentage points, up from 54 under current lines, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“Republicans are drawing aggressive gerrymanders, but they’re aggressive defensive gerrymanders,” said Michael Li, Brennan Center senior counsel.
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Democrats, by contrast, have been more politically aggressive where they control the line-drawing process.
In Nevada, for example, Democrats boosted vulnerable Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford by shifting Democrats out of the district of Rep. Dina Titus, who had been politically safe. All three districts may be highly competitive in a pro-Republican midterm election year.
“Democrats seem to be redistricting with the assumption that they’ve already lost the House next year,” Kincaid said. He cited the three marginally pro-Biden districts in Nevada as examples of Democrats “building a low dam” that Republicans could breach in a 2022 election year that should be more favorable to the GOP than 2020.
“A lot of these districts will get washed away in a wave election and Republicans will pick them up,” Kincaid said. “They expect to lose in 2022. They see the writing on the wall, and they’re drawing districts where they hope that, in a better political environment for them that may or may not come in some future election, they can get them back.”
“We’re not scared of competitive seats,” Burton said. She said Democratic-drawn districts “reflect the voters” and that Democrats “want to win seats on the merits, and we don’t want to win seats through manipulation of the maps.”
Democrats have scored some victories in redistricting, including a favorable map in California that was implemented by a commission.
States to Watch
Of the 18 states that haven’t completed redistricting, analysts are most closely watching Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania in the coming weeks.
“A lot of eyes are on New York,” Li said. Along with Illinois, New York “is one of the two big states where Democrats control redistricting, and one of the few states where Democrats could eke out more seats,” he said.
In New York, the Democratic-dominated legislature likely will implement its own 26-district map — perhaps an aggressive gerrymander targeting Republicans — in lieu of lines proposed by the state’s advisory redistricting commission. With the House Democratic majority at risk, the big question in New York is how many districts the Democratic map will try to secure for the party.
The biggest Republican-led state yet to finish redistricting is Florida, where the GOP holds 16 of 27 districts and will draw a new 28-district map that reflects the mildly Republican-leaning state’s gain of one seat in reapportionment.
It’s not clear how far Florida Republicans will try to press their advantage, but Republicans don’t want to run afoul of a Florida constitutional mandate that no congressional map or district shall be drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”
Pennsylvania’s 17-district map probably will be drawn by the courts instead of by a state government split between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature.
Using the Courts
Another wild card that could change the outcome in an already volatile political environment: Litigation.
Lawsuits in several states allege new maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act’s Section 2, which bans voting practices and redistricting plans that discriminate against people of color, or are extreme partisan gerrymanders. While the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that claims of excessive partisanship in redistricting present “political questions” that are not justiciable in federal courts, such suits may be brought in state courts.
Legal battles in Texas, North Carolina, and Alabama are among those that bear watching. In Texas, Democrats say a Republican map doesn’t reflect that people of color accounted for 95% of the state’s net population growth during the 2010s.
To be sure, there are always surprises with line-drawing, some of which put the state’s voters front and center. The Ohio Supreme Court on Jan. 14 invalidated a map under which Republicans could have won up to 13 of 15 districts on the grounds it violated a state constitutional provision, approved by Ohio voters in 2018, that bars redistricting that “unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.”
The Republican-led legislature, the court said, “did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering.”
- BGOV Redistricting Webinar: Watch, listen, download slides
- Princeton Gerrymandering Project
- Election Litigation Trackers: Loyola Law School Brennan Center
- Redistricting Trackers: fivethirtyeight.com, The Washington Post
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To contact the reporter on this story: Katherine Rizzo in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org