Campaigns

Gerrymandering in mind, parties target state legislative races

Redistricting fears spur 2020 urgency

A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled in June that federal courts can’t interfere with state lawmakers who draw political maps to entrench a partisan advantage — a decision that’s driving priorities in both parties ahead of 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling green-lighting partisan gerrymandering, groups on both sides of the aisle are looking at the 2020 elections as crucial to drawing what they describe as fair maps.

Democratic groups learned lessons from the last decennial cycle, when the 2010 GOP wave allowed Republicans in statehouses across the country to redraw congressional and state legislative lines in their favor, and they are paying attention to down-ballot races this time in an attempt to counteract it.

“Everything is on the line,” said Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s arm for supporting candidates for state legislatures.

Post was a junior staffer at the organization in 2010 when Democrats lost nearly 700 state legislative seats, and control over the redistricting process undertaken the next year. She said Republicans vastly outspent her group and had a clearer focus on the importance of state legislative races.

Partisan gerrymandering, the process of drawing congressional and state legislative lines to benefit one party, has been used by both parties for decades. But Democrats and other critics say Republicans used their 2010 landslide to take the practice further, pointing to examples in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

In the 2018 elections for the Wisconsin and North Carolina state assemblies, Democrats won a majority of the statewide popular vote but are far outnumbered in legislative seats because Republicans drew district lines to favor their candidates.

This cycle, Democrats and their allies have used examples like those to condemn the entire practice. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, or NDRC, a party organization headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has asked candidates to support “fair redistricting that ends map manipulation and creates truly representative districts.”

18REDISTRICTING

“Overall, we think partisan gerrymandering is bad and neither party should do it,” Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the group, said. The NDRC supports moving away from state legislatures drawing district lines, which is the process in 38 states for congressional or state legislative districts or both, and favors having independent commissions. But that’s not possible under some states’ constitutions.

‘Fair lines’

In those cases, Rodenbush argues Democrats should be trusted to draw fair lines. Post struck a similar note, saying her goal is to “unrig these maps” by putting Democrats in control, even as she acknowledged the group’s first goal is partisan.

“Look, our goal is to win back Democratic majorities,” she said. “We’re not a [single-issue] advocacy organization. But I think the inclination of Democratic legislators is to draw fair lines.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Andrew Karch, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said the reality of switching to a nonpartisan process might not seem as attractive if and when Democrats have the opportunity to draw their own favorable lines, especially if Republican-led states make no effort to change their process.

“Once you get down to the state level, Democrats I think would be very reluctant to effectively unilaterally disarm,” he said. “There will be that tension between policy goals and the partisan goals, and I suspect the partisan goals will probably win out.”

John Findlay, the executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, put it more bluntly.

“That’s a bunch of BS,” he said. “You can put that on the record that I said that’s a bunch of BS. Every party out of power says that and then nobody actually does it.”

Virginia, which holds its legislative elections this year, is one of the most fiercely contested states this cycle with Republicans holding advantages of only two seats in both chambers and state politics shifting toward Democrats. Still, while 53 percent of Virginians voted for Democrats in the 2017 election for the state’s 100-member House of Delegates, Republicans won 51 of the seats.

Findlay declined to discuss the specifics of campaign strategy, but said the party was aware of how important the elections are. With a Democratic governor in place until 2024, there would be no check on Democrats’ map-drawing power if the GOP was unable to control either chamber.

“If the Democrats win the House and Senate this cycle, we have no seat at the table at all. We’re totally at their mercy,” he said. “This for us is an existential election.”

Focus on states

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last month ruling that federal courts can’t interfere with state lawmakers who draw political maps to entrench a partisan advantage lent urgency to state-level efforts, anti-gerrymandering advocates said.

“The impetus is on the states now,” Post said. “We knew that our mission was important, to switch state legislatures from red to blue, but the Supreme Court told us that this was the only way.”

Hope Johnson, a data scientist with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan group working against political redistricting, said the group hadn’t wanted to focus on state-level action, but the Supreme Court decision made it the best choice.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the GOP counterpart to the DLCC, praised the court’s decision as a defense of fairly drawn lines that Democrats had sought to overturn for partisan purposes.

David Abrams, the group’s communications director criticized national Democratic efforts to affect state elections, alluding to the NDRC with references to Holder and former President Barack Obama, who has endorsed the group but isn’t actively involved.

“The stakes don’t get much higher than when liberal groups led by President Obama and Eric Holder are funneling unprecedented sums of money to rig our country’s legislative districts in support of a socialist future,” Abrams wrote in an email.

Not a top issue

Even as party operators and activists on the issue are placing a higher priority on the 2020 elections because of redistricting, it hasn’t broken through with voters, Karch said. Especially in a presidential election year, ordinary voters are more interested in other causes.

Even in North Carolina, a state where redistricting controversies have raged for years and voters have a better understanding of the issue, other causes are more important, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant in the state.

“Do they think it should end? Yeah,” Mills said. “Would they rather have good schools than gerrymandering [changes]? Hell yeah.”

Still, at least two states have passed bills this year to address the redistricting process, according to Wendy Underhill, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Hampshire’s Democrat-controlled legislature sent GOP Gov. Chris Sununu a bill to create an independent redistricting commission. It’s unclear if he’ll sign it. Virginia’s legislature passed a bill to do the same, but it requires a constitutional amendment, which means it must be passed again in next year’s legislative session and approved by voters in a ballot measure.

The progress is unusual for such proposals, likely sparked by the deadline to make changes before redistricting begins in 2021, Underhill said.

“To have two states use legislative action to move things along this far is significant.”

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