Tuesday offered a heavy blow to Democrats across the United States: Riding in on Donald Trump’s coat tails, the Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives for the next two years while also retaining control of the Senate. By 2018, the next mid-term election, it’ll have been eight years of Republican control of the House, and four years of the Senate. In the wake of the Election Day blowout, pundits and academics have re-upped their emphasis on the role GOP-controlled redistricting has played in extending the party’s grip on Congress in spite of Democrats’ national popular vote victories in three straight presidential elections.
Congressional and state redistricting is “one of the fundamental bases of our elections,” says Jonathan Winburn, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi. It influences who gets to run for office, who we vote for, and, ultimately, who wins in local, state, and congressional elections. Despite being an integral part of the political system, redistricting is often left out of conversations on the government’s role as a mirror to its citizen’s values and demographics. That’s because redistricting is a pretty complicated rabbit-hole to venture down and understand.
Here’s a quick (simplified) rundown: Every 10 years after the national census takes place, state legislatures (or independent commissions or individuals — we’ll get to that later) are required to redraw state district lines. The idea is to create districts that are roughly equal in population, in order to maintain the spirit of “one person, one vote.”
The concept gets much more complicated when the politicians shaping the process try to create districts whose populations will vote for their party; that’s where gerrymandering comes into play. The party controlling the state legislature tasked with drawing the redistricting maps can easily manipulate the processto favor their party. They can also create “safe” districts for their incumbents: as time goes on, instead of rearranging the lines to introduce more competition to an incumbent, drawing more insular districts can diminishing the likelihood a potential challenger from the opposing party may win.
In this way, one party can gain and maintain control of a state legislature for a long, long time — much like what we’re seeing in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the past, gerrymandering made for districts that looked like long, and skinny lines snaking through the state. Now, it isn’t always so obvious; technology has made it much easier for parties to covertly draw their partisan maps. “The folks who are doing this are smart, they’re strategic,” Winburn says. “They’re good at what they’re doing so they’re able to do it in a way that doesn’t just jump out at most people.”
Gerrymandering is how states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin ended up with more Republican representatives in 2012. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats received half of the majority votes, yet Republicans took almost 75 percent of House seats in the 2012 elections. Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan saw similar disparities.
“The folks who are doing this are smart, they’re strategic.”
The GOP’s success as a result of the redistricting process — and the rabidly conservative representatives it helped produced — could explain why it was recently reported President Barack Obama would be devoting energy to the issue during his post-presidency.
Obama enjoyed Democratic control of the Senate and House during his first two years of office. But the Democratic party’s 40-year-reign in the House of Representatives came to a swift end in the 2010 mid-term elections. In 2012, Democratic candidates for the House received around 51 percent of the votes cast, yet still fell 15 seats short of reclaiming the majority.
“In 2010, after Obama won the presidency in 2008 and passed health care, the Tea Party arose in response to [health care] and fueled Republicans taking control of state legislatures all over the country,” says Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “Those state legislatures then controlled redistricting as soon as the 2010 census numbers became available, and stomped hard on democratic minorities within their states [in 2011].”
In his pursuit to end the Republican gerrymander, Obama has created the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, the group’s mission is to reform redistricting through ballot initiatives, and improve Democrat campaign strategies in key gerrymandered districts. Meanwhile, Republicans’ built-in advantage in controlling the House of Representatives looks secure at least until the next redistricting cycle after the 2020 election.
The Democrats only gained six seats in the House and one seat in the Senate on Tuesday, leaving them behind the Republican majority in both chambers. It’s hard to say how many of the seats they lost to Republicans as a result of gerrymandering. Sure, a Republican could’ve won a district because gerrymandering created a safe-district for them. But maybe they were just the better candidate. Or perhaps voters were just fed up with Hillary Clinton and voted straight-ticket for Trump. “This is the hard part with gerrymandering,” Winburn says. “There’s no real easy test to say ‘that’s because of gerrymandering.’”
Ambiguity aside, Winburn maintains that gerrymandering does affect elections, and plenty of academics agree. For that reason, the clamor for redistricting reform has been a topic heavily supported by many scholars and political experts. Given how Democratic voters are clustered in small geographic areas — mainly big cities and college towns — reforming redistricting may be key to their hopes of retaking Congress.
Several states have turned to independent redistricting commissions as a viable reform option, placing the responsibility on non-partisan, unelected civilians. Those drawing the maps (presumably) have no legislative conflict of interest. With no conflict of interest, there shouldn’t be any incentive to create gerrymandered maps, and, thus, the maps they draw should be the truest representation of the states’ political and geographical make-up.
This reform option is a more extreme version of simply having a separate redistricting commission, an option already adopted by several states. (Though the degree of independence from the state legislature varies. You can get full details of the different redistricting commission models here.)
“There’s no real easy test to say ‘that’s because of gerrymandering.’”
Arizona and California have been held up as models for a successful transition to the independent commission model. Arizona, which adopted an alternative approach in the 2001 cycle, requires a citizen commission with two Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent chairperson (state legislators appoint the Democrats and Republicans, who in turn select the chairperson) to redraw state district lines from scratch every redistricting cycle. The map they create doesn’t need to be approved by the state legislature.
California’s independent commission, first put to use in the 2011 cycle, is also entirely made up of citizens. After an intensive application and vetting process (which amazingly mirrors a college admissions processes: part of the application process includes writing four 500-word essays, obtaining three recommendation letters, and extensive interviews to ensure you have no direct political background or involvement), 14 civilians are chosen to serve on the commission where they draw the lines, all under public transparency. (Meetings are publicly broadcast and anyone can submit a map to be considered.) The commission then decides which maps are used for the next 10 years through a majority vote (there must be nine “yes” votes).
But new problems might crop up with these alternatives. In an op-ed published last year in the Yale Law Journal, Stanford University professor Bruce Cain argues that independent commissions may create more problems than they would solve. Trying to find non-partisan, and politically uninvested citizens to serve on these commissions is going to be increasingly difficult (if not impossible), he argues, in a country that’s becoming more politicized and polarized. Commissions also don’t address the root of the gerrymandering problem: Partisan tension, and the fact that “Democrats prefer to draw lines that favor Democrats and Republicans prefer to draw lines that favor Republicans.”
It’s as if any party—Republican, Democrat, or otherwise—holding control over the states legislature just can’t help but create gerrymandered maps. In addition, it just doesn’t seem very smart to have a group of politically uninvested citizens to draw state lines.
“By the time you sort of purge all the people who have political knowledge or expertise, you’re going to get a bunch of people that are pretty damn naive,” Cain says. And, it turns out these commissions can still create political — or at least controversial — maps.
For example, Arizona’s redistricting 2011 cycle was “a disaster from start to finish,” according to Cain.After familiarizing themselves with the process from the previous cycle, the parties and political players were able to game the system. The supposedly independent chairperson was accused of having ties to the Democrats. The Republicans accused the commission of giving Democrats an edge in the new map. Four lawsuits were filed, and a case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately declared the map to be constitutional, and not gerrymandered. But millions of dollars were spent during the fiasco, and state legislators are no doubt skeptical of the process now — who knows how 2021 redistricting will fare.
So, big costs with little gain. But that’s not to say that redistricting commissions shouldn’t be pursued. Other states using different types of commissions (those with some state legislature interference), like New Jersey, have found a way to create maps that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
New Jersey’s Redistricting Commission is composed of 13 members — 12 appointed by state legislators and leaders by each political party, and one independent member who is chosen by the appointed 12. The 13th member serves as chairperson, a mediator of sorts. As Cain describes it, the chairperson pushes the 12 appointees to agree on a compromised map, acting as a negotiator.
“I think that [this method is] a different way to operate that might potentially be a better solution than trying to get a commission to get its own plan and put it out there,” Cain says.
Of course, this option doesn’t come without its own problems: There’s no guarantee that it’ll work every cycle because much of the process weighs on the effectiveness of the chairperson. And the maps that are drawn won’t be without political bias. But at least the map will be created through compromise.
Then there’s the approach taken by Iowa, wherein the state legislature draws the district lines every redistricting cycle, but not without substantial input from an independent advisory group, the Legislative Services Agency. The LSA is made up of civil servants committed to non-partisanship, and they are the ones that draft up district maps for the state’s legislature to approve. The legislature is allowed to reject the LSA plans up to three times, and then they are allowed to draw their own map. Iowa has never had to resort to this option, however, since the inception of this procedure in 1980.
While Iowa’s redistricting method is definitely one to be admired, it’s also difficult to replicate in other states. “[Iowa] is a pretty homogenous state in terms of population and then on the map, you’ve got these nice little square counties,” Winbur says. “And with the way the population is distributed, it’s fairly easy to [redistrict] so I don’t know how that model would work everywhere but a lot of people often point to Iowa as a good example.”
Ultimately, Cain and Winbur agree that any solution to redistricting will have to come from the states themselves. There’s no one-method-fits-all, and perhaps that’s for the best. “All 50 states have their own process, own history, own political geography and issues going on so I don’t know if there’s one best way to do it for all 50 states,” Winbur says. “You can have some of the same goals in mind, but I’m not sure if there’s simply a simplified one-size-fits-all cure.”
Cain adds that, though you can’t implement a nation-wide method, there are general recommendations states can work toward to minimize instances of gerrymandering, including expanding the size of redistricting commissions (“It’s too much pressure on one individual to be non-partisan,” Cain says) and creating more of a bargaining model where “commissions invite different groups to make submissions and you try to negotiate between the different submissions.”
Cain hopes that redistricting will eventually be understood to be an inherently political act that operates as “a negotiation. And if you lose at one level—say, a city gets split at the congressional level—then it ought not to get split at the assembly or state senate level,” he says. “There’s no permanent winners or losers.”