Republican successes in last month’s state legislative elections reinforced the party’s upper hand in drawing congressional district lines, but both parties are preparing for a long fight on the ground and in the courts.
A decade of legal battles stemmed from the congressional maps that followed the 2010 census. After largely coordinating the state-by-state effort through their national campaign committees, Democrats and Republicans launched organizations in 2017 focused exclusively on handling what’s expected to be a more aggressive round of redistricting — and its aftermath.
The National Republican Redistricting Trust has compiled data on all 50 states and is prepared to challenge maps in states with Democratic control, said Adam Kincaid, the group’s executive director.
“We have every intention of going on offense this time and not just being on defense like we did in the last decade,” he said, adding that he expects future legal challenges to be better funded and targeted.
Democrats are fostering a “grassroots army,” training and educating volunteers on how they can get involved in the redistricting process, said Patrick Rodenbush, the spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
“We’re not going to let politicians go to a smoke-filed backroom, draw a map in secret, and then force it though the legislature like they did a decade ago,” he said. “This will be the most transparent redistricting process in history, and we’re going to have people fighting for that all over the country.”
Despite not flipping any of the chambers they targeted in last month’s elections, Rodenbush said Democrats are better positioned now than they were a decade ago following catastrophic state legislative losses in the first midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Fewer congressional districts will be drawn under complete Republican control. That’s thanks in part to more states creating nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions, such as in Michigan and Virginia, and new court-imposed fairness standards being set during the past decade in states including Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. There’s also a few states, including Wisconsin, where a Democratic governor can serve as a check on a Republican-held legislature.
Altogether, about 240 seats won’t be drawn without some kind of check on the majority party, according to a tally from the Cook Political Report.
Still, it’s unknown to what extent partisanship can be blocked in the inherently political process, said Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
“There are a lot of untested redistricting systems, and that will be part of the challenge,” Rudensky said. “There’s a lot riding on how various commissions and other systems actually play out in practice, and whether the designs and the various safeguards built in actually operate as intended — or whether there are loopholes and ways to exploit the system.”
He pointed to Arizona’s redistricting commission, where the independent chair was ousted by the Republican-controlled state Senate before being reinstated by the courts in 2011.
Republicans will challenge maps drawn by nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions, said Kincaid, adding the party was “asleep at the wheel” a decade ago and got its “clocks cleaned” in California and Arizona.
Rodenbush said he expects many of the maps to eventually be settled in the courts. But for him, that’s better than having the Republican-led legislatures have the final word.
“You’re not going to see these hyper-partisan gerrymanders in a lot of these states because we’ve shifted who has power there,” he said.
“We’re not totally screwed,” Rodenbush added, with a laugh.
Legal battles surrounding redistricting have already begun, focusing on how the census was conducted. The next two years will bring initial lawsuits on the drawing of the lines, followed by — if the past decade is a guide — lawsuits on partisan and racial-based gerrymandering that could last until the next redistricting in 2031.
There are a few changes this go-around. In 2013, the Supreme Court ended a provision requiring certain jurisdictions to prove changes, including redistricting, didn’t discriminate. Disputes over partisan gerrymandering will need to take place on a state-by-state basis after the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the topic was beyond the reach of federal courts.
“The litigation phase never stops anymore,” Kincaid said. “We live in a new world now, where redistricting litigation is something that just happens.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org