The House of Representatives is increasingly partisan because the districts lawmakers represent are increasingly partisan.
Political scientists think there are a few reasons for this polarization, but one that tops many of their lists -- though not all -- is congressional districts often drawn weirdly to help one party or another, a.k.a. "gerrymandering." And if gerrymandering can make districts less competitive, it stands to reason that non-politicians redrawing the same lines can make districts more competitive.
And that's what appears to be happening in the 2016 election cycle, a year with very few truly competitive districts. While redistricting expert Tim Storey with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures points out there likely won't be any historic shifts in the partisan makeup of congressional districts this election cycle, it's notable that of the top 10 districts most likely to flip parties (as ranked by Politico on Monday), at least three of them are districts that had to be redrawn thanks to the courts, depending on whom you ask.
And in a moment when much of America's political system is focused on the separation (or lack thereof) between the judicial branch and Congress, it's also notable that the courts are playing the biggest role in changing which party is more likely to win in these congressional districts.
Three recently redrawn and newly competitive districts -- two in Florida and one in Virginia -- come after the courts threw out the states' congressional maps, which were drawn by GOP-controlled legislatures. (Other nonpartisan rankings of competitive House seats include even more recently redrawn Florida districts.)
In Virginia, a three-judge federal court panel determined the legislature violated the Constitution by packing the state's 3rd congressional district with black voters. (The Supreme Court agreed in November to hear the case.) In Florida, the state Supreme Court said political operatives had undue influence on the process and invalidated the maps used to elect 27 lawmakers to Congress in 2012 and 2014.
Both GOP legislatures had to try to scramble to redraw the districts in question (Virginia's failed to, leaving the map-drawing to the courts). Both new maps ended up affecting many other districts in the process.
And we could be adding some more seats to this list soon, too: Earlier this month, a three-judge federal court panel ordered two of North Carolina's majority-black congressional districts be redrawn, ruling that the districts are an example of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to essentially wait to redraw the districts after the state's March 15 primary. The decision forces the GOP-controlled state legislature to push the primaries for the state's 13 House districts back to June while it tries to agree to new lines.
A few seats here and there suddenly becoming more competitive might not sound like a big deal, but it becomes one when you realize just how few House seats are up for grabs in November. There are only about 33 competitive House races out of 435, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Democrats, who desperately want to take back control of the House after being in the minority since 2011, are buoyed by the fact 27 of those 33 competitive seats are held by Republicans. A handful of those wouldn't have been competitive were it not for court-ordered redrawn maps.
But as we noted recently, it's still a tall order for Democrats to take back the House anytime this decade; even if they won all 33 of those seats, they would come up short of a majority -- a reflection of a House map that favors the GOP and will for years to come.
Democrats will take all they can get at this point. Republicans invested heavily in 2010 to win the state houses that control the congressional maps. (All but seven state legislatures have the power to draw the maps every decade based on new Census data, although seven more states only have one congressional district.) It paid off big time: Congress and state legislatures are about as red as they've ever been (not to mention governors' mansions and states' politically leanings as a whole).
Democrats are trying to play catch up for 2020. The multimillion-dollar 2020 redistricting war is already on.
And this summer, supporters of trying to take politics out of redistricting ostensibly got a win when the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's independent commission and paved the way for more state legislatures to get out of the line-drawing business altogether. (Although as Storey noted, some of these so-called independent commissions, which more states are considering, can be just as partisan as the most-partisan statehouse.)
For better or for worse, we live in an era in which every slightly competitive district counts, and where certain elections can change the political landscape for a decade to come. Which is why it's worth paying attention to a few redrawn House seats.