It will take nothing short of an electoral wave for Democrats to retake the House in 2018, and that’s exactly the problem.
A new report from the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law underscores the devastating effect of gerrymandering on recent House elections: The researchers found that over the past decade, not only have Republicans stepped up their gerrymandering efforts, they have become more aggressive in drawing maps to benefit GOP candidates.
Of the 26 states that account for 85 percent of congressional districts, only a handful are responsible for the largest imbalances—and Republicans had sole control of the redistricting process in those states.
“It’s easier than ever to create skewed maps. There’s much more robust data and sophisticated technology than there used to be,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert and a coauthor of the new report. “Gerrymandering was once an art. Now, it’s a science.”
Republicans derived a net benefit of at least 16 congressional seats from gerrymandering in the 2016 election, according to the report. That’s eight less than the 24 currently needed by Democrats to take back the House.
The report found that Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia were all under single-party control when state lawmakers created new congressional districts in 2011. It’s no surprise that all of these states, with the exception of Texas, are tightly contested. The most gerrymandered states are usually battleground states, where the slightest advantage can make a difference.
Democratic and Republican state lawmakers have always tried to redraw districts to their own party’s advantage. But since the last census, Republicans have done it more often and more aggressively. Why? Because they can.
“One of the reasons Republicans are doing it more is because you need sole control of a state to aggressively gerrymander,” says Li. “Republicans have sole control over far more states than Democrats.”
California is a rare exception. Democrats control the Golden State legislature, yet the state has mostly avoided unfair maps thanks to an independent redistricting commission. The report found that maps drawn by independent or bipartisan commissions consistently exhibited far less partisan bias than those drawn solely by Republicans or Democrats. Maps drawn by the courts following a legislative deadlock were also markedly fairer than those drawn by a single party.
For voters in the dozens of states without redistricting commissions, taking unfair maps to court is often the only option. Lawsuits challenging those maps have been filed in 38 states since the 2010 census—and most have failed.
Without any standard for gauging when state lawmakers have gone too far in a partisan direction when they create new districts, judges have preferred to stay out of the political thicket unless absolutely necessary. The authors of the report aim to equip courts with better ways of assessing partisan manipulation. “Courts have had a hard time deciding where the line is drawn,” Li says. “But when three formulas point in the same direction, it gives [courts] comfort.”
Despite promising initiatives to redraw maps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it’s unlikely that the electoral landscape will change much before the midterm elections.
Overcoming a 24-seat deficit isn’t impossible—Democrats took back control of the House after a 31-seat swing in 2006— but it won’t be easy. Despite President Trump’s low approval ratings and a radioactive Republican health care bill, Democrats face an uphill battle in 2018.
“If your only hope of winning a majority is through a huge, ‘500-year flood’ voting wave, that’s not exactly encouraging for your party,” says Li.
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