Politics

Democrats Will Make Fairer Districts, Democrats Say

But historically, gerrymandering isn’t just a Republican issue

People demonstrate against partisan gerrymandering outside the Supreme Court last October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats say there’s one easy way to create more equitable and fair districts throughout the country: Elect more Democrats.

“More Democrats in office will give us fairer lines,” Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview before the Supreme Court kicked back two cases on partisan gerrymandering to the lower courts on procedural grounds. 

Singh said having Democrat-drawn districts would mean more proportional representation, though she did not say how Democrats would ensure those districts would be fairer than those drawn by Republican legislatures.

“Democrats will continue to hold Republicans accountable as we fight to protect the one right that preserves all others — the right to vote,” she said.

Democrats have accused Republican map-drawers across the country of partisan gerrymandering that has weakened the voting power of Democratic voters, including in minority communities. That happens in any of two forms: either by spreading one party’s voters across many districts in a way that dilutes their votes (a process known as cracking), or by concentrating as many of a party’s voters in a single district to reduce their effectiveness elesewhere (known as packing).

Many researchers have attributed some of House Republicans’ wins over the past few election cycles to gains made in 2010 that helped the party control the redistricting process in many key states. 

Democrats lost more than 900 seats at the state level over the eight years of the Obama administration. Republicans now control 67 of 99 state legislative chambers and 33 of 50 governorships. By focusing on getting control of legislative seats in 2010, Republicans were then able to dictate the congressional maps for the decade to come.

“Republicans have definitely been beating us at this game for a while, but we’re working on changing that,” Singh said.

The DNC is not the only group that thinks Democrats will draw fairer lines than Republicans: the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee also says the best way to get less gerrymandered maps is by getting Democrats in office. 

“Democrats were absolutely left out of the process in the 2010 cycle,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the DLCC. “And now we have the most gerrymandered districts in decades.”

There is an alternative to having the parties control the map-making: independent redistricting. Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington have established independent commissions over the past few years to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Regulations in these states limit direct participation by elected officials, thus hindering partisan map-drawing, even if the practice doesn’t yet have federal rules against it.

None of the Democratic groups questioned had an official stance on independent commissions. And their calls for changing the process don’t mean all Democrats are opposed to partisan redistricting.

However, Democrats have been driving the push for independent redistricting groups in many states. Post said the DLCC assisted lawmakers in Idaho to make their independent commission less partisan, and the group would assist other Democratic lawmakers with creating independent commission propositions.

“Commissions are difficult to put in states in many cases,” Post said, citing the example of North Carolina, where Democrats tried to propose independent redistricting but got shut down by Republicans. “But we will provide resources to any Democrats that want to pursue commissions.”

While a North Carolina Democrat did propose an independent redistricting commission, state Democrats did not always support such as move.

In fact, when Democrats controlled North Carolina’s General Assembly, they ignored Republican proposals for independent commissions. GOP state legislators filed more than a dozen bills since 2000 that proposed creating an independent redistricting commission, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.

North Carolina Republicans are now blocking nearly identical legislation to what they introduced a decade ago.

Republican groups, such as the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee, did not respond to requests for comment on the party’s official stances on gerrymandering and independent commissions.

Watch: The Many Ways to Draw a Gerrymander

It wasn’t just Republicans who got to draw the maps after 2010. The partisan gerrymandering case recently kicked back to Maryland district court by the Supreme Court involved lines drawn by Democrats in the Old Line State.  

The case centers around an incumbent Republican in the 6th District who had a 99.7 to 100 percent chance of winning re-election in 2010, but redistricting made it 92.5 to 94 percent likely that a Democrat would win his seat two years later, according to metrics presented in a court briefing.

As mapping and demographic-tracking technologies advance, partisan gerrymandering poses higher risks than ever in future redistricting cycles, researchers say. Until there are limits, legal opposition to unfair redistricting can only be challenged along racial lines, said Michael Li, a researcher at the Brennan Center, who studies gerrymandering and redistricting practices.

But Li said the current uncertainty over the midterms and the 2020 elections could result in more bipartisan action now than in recent history.

“We’re in an interesting landscape because of the legal uncertainty combined with political uncertainty,” he said. “You don’t know who’s going to be in charge of 2021, and when you have the potential for extreme gerrymandering, you don’t want to put yourself in an all-or-nothing scenario for districting.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.