The lead from The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein last Thursday was dire: “Democrats face a daunting future of severe Republican gerrymandering that could flip control of the House in 2022 and suppress diverse younger generations’ political influence for years to come.”
Brownstein’s assessment is drawn from a new Brennan Center for Justice report, which found that Republican state legislatures will fully control the U.S. House redistricting process in 18 states, while Democrats will control only seven. The redistricting process will begin soon, following the completion of the census, which will determine whether states gain or lose House seats. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ For the People Act includes a provision requiring states to use independent commissions, not state legislatures, to draw congressional district lines. As Republicans could create enough favorable districts to overcome the Democrats’ narrow House majority in the 2022 midterm elections, Brownstein counsels Democrats to urgently abolish the filibuster, pass their sweeping voting rights legislation, and stop gerrymandering for good.
It’s hard to defend the practice of a single political party drawing congressional district lines to tilt elections in their favor. But does gerrymandering pose such an existential threat to Democrats that they must abolish filibuster in order to defuse it? The premise is based on a series of commonly held but flawed assumptions.
The first is that, in the years following the aggressive gerrymandering of 2011 and 2012, Republicans won an outsized number of House seats disproportionate to their share of the vote.
That was initially true. In the 2012 House elections, the first after last decade’s redistricting, Democrats won a 48.8% plurality of votes nationwide, yet Republicans took 53.8% of the seats. In 2014 and 2016, Republican won the most votes but their share of House seats remained disproportionately higher.
However, the tide turned in 2018. Democrats not only took the House majority, but their share of seats was roughly equal to their share of the vote. The same held true in 2020. Thanks to court rulings throwing out Republican gerrymanders, Democrats netted one Virginia seat in 2016, three Pennsylvania seats in 2018, and two North Carolina seats in 2020. But otherwise, Democratic gains — a net of 47 seats in the 2016 and 2018 elections — were earned on the same maps of the prior three elections.
The second wrongly held assumption is the gerrymandering was the primary reason Republicans did so well in the first half of the last decade. In 2013, political scientists John Sides and Eric McGhee simulated the 2012 House election using 2008 maps, and found that the intervening redistricting appeared to give Republicans seven more House seats. (Republicans won a 17-seat majority that year.) But then they factored in the advantage of incumbency, as incumbents ran five points better than non-incumbents that year. They concluded in a Washington Post column that, “once we took incumbency into account, the apparent effect of gerrymandering vanished. That is, the ability of Republicans to retain the House majority may have been due to incumbency advantage, not new and more favorable districts.”
Remember, Republicans had a lot of incumbents in 2012 because they flipped 63 House seats in 2010 to take control the House — before that decade’s round of redistricting.
A third assumption is that to the extent that gerrymanders work as intended, the impact is long-lasting. But our experience of the past decade calls that into question.
The 2012 election was christened “The Great Gerrymander” by Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium in a New York Times op-ed. He identified 10 states where a political party won more House seats than if the state had district lines that were “not contorted to protect a political party or an incumbent.” Seven of those states had district lines drawn by Republicans — Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. An eighth, Texas, had lines drawn by Republicans and the federal courts.
How did those lines hold up? As noted above, courts recently forced Pennsylvania and North Carolina to redraw those lines. Today, Pennsylvania has an evenly divided House delegation that is reflective of the House popular vote. North Carolina still has a Republican skew; eight of the 13 seats are Republican while the popular vote was roughly even.
Ohio as well retains a big Republican skew, grabbing 75% of the state’s 16 seats with 56.5% of the vote.
Smaller Republican skews can be found in Florida (59.3% of the seats, 52.3% of the vote) Texas (63.9% of the seats, 53.4% of the vote), and Wisconsin (62.5% of the seats, 51.4% of the vote.) But in 2010, before redistricting, the Republican seat share/vote share disparity in Florida was more than double the size of today. The skews in Texas and Wisconsin were slightly wider yet roughly similar to today; also, the partisan composition of the Texas delegation is slightly more Democratic than 10 years ago, with no change in the Wisconsin delegation.
And Republican-drawn lines did not protect their House delegation majorities in Michigan and Virginia. In Michigan after 2010, Republicans flipped control of the delegation and held nine of 15 seats. Michigan lost a seat in redistricting, and Republicans held nine of 14 seats after 2012. But Democrats picked off two seats in 2018 and held them in 2020, evening out the delegation.
In Virginia after 2010, Republicans also flipped control of the delegation, claiming eight of 11 seats. That held until 2016, when Democrats picked up a seat after a court ruling forced a redraw of one racially gerrymandered district. Then in 2018, Democrats flipped three seats and took control of the delegation, retaining it in 2020. Most notably, in 2020, Virginia Democrats won 63.6% of the seats with only 52% of the vote.
Of course specific gerrymanders can work for one political party and undoing them can help the other; the examples of court-ordered redraws cited above prove that. But lines drawn in one year can’t anticipate demographic shifts and reversed political winds in future years. They may end up as just the proverbial finger in the dyke.
Having said that, Republicans may well be poised for a significant short-term gain in 2022. RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende estimated that with only modest gerrymandering, combined with expected changes in the size of state congressional delegations following the census, Republicans could net a gain of six House seats. This sends Democrats in a panic, since Republicans only need five to win back the chamber.
Meanwhile, some Republican strategists are trying to lower expectations. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker recently reported that the continued “bluing of formerly ruby-red suburbs” and “the uncertain outcome of expected Democratic legal challenges to new congressional maps” could blunt Republican gains from new lines.
So, would a nationwide requirement for independent commissions, as proposed in the For the People Act, help Democrats? Maybe, so long as such commissions undid past aggressive Republican gerrymanders. But what if such commissions also sought to redraw lines that have produced partisan skews without aggressive gerrymanders?
For example, Democrats hold all the congressional seats in Massachusetts and Connecticut, all but one in Maryland, Nevada, and Oregon, and all but two in New Jersey. With the exception of Maryland, these are not considered gerrymandered states. And while they are mostly deep blue states, Democrats there are still enjoying a seat share/vote share discrepancy. Independent commissions could try to help Republicans overcome their inefficient blue-state distribution and gain more representation.
None of this is to say that independent commissions are a bad idea. But do Democrats have to move heaven, earth and the filibuster to impose them nationwide, or face obliteration in the House elections?
It’s probably a moot question; if Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to rule out eliminating the filibuster, Democrats won’t be passing their voting rights bill as is on a party-line vote.
Democrats need not fret. Gerrymandering never was the reason they lost the House in 2010, since that was before redistricting. A midterm election is inherently treacherous for the party in power, wherever the lines are drawn.
But if Democrats can retain their popularity in the suburbs with a good performance in office, and can successfully battle any particularly egregious gerrymandering in the state courthouses, they’ll do just fine.
Most importantly, if Democrats do lose in the House in 2022, they can still win it back in a subsequent election, as they did in 2018. Gerrymandering doesn’t last forever.