The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Christmas, Republicans are giving themselves congressional seats for life

The U.S. Capitol in D.C. on Nov. 30, 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
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Republican lawmakers this holiday season are unwrapping a rare and valuable gift: congressional seats for life.

Thanks to a breathtaking abuse of redistricting in GOP-controlled states, all but an unlucky handful of members of Congress will henceforth be exempt from listening to those god-awful whiners called “voters,” spared those bothersome contests known as “elections” and protected from other disagreeable requirements of “democracy.”

This year Republicans have managed to take fully 40 percent of competitive House seats out of play. All but about 25 seats of the 435 in the entire country will be insulated from the will of voters even during wave elections — not just for 2022, but for a decade.

The move might limit Republicans’ upside in next year’s midterms (they had to toss Democrats a few more safe seats to shore up their own), but it could also keep them in the majority for years, even if the national popular vote goes consistently against them. Already, Republicans could lose the popular vote by two or three percentage points and still control the House.

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The changes guarantee more extremism in Congress (the only competitive elections will be primaries, which on the GOP side favor the far right), and whichever party is in control will have a slim, ungovernable majority.

The worst offender is Texas, where President Biden got nearly 47 percent of the vote in 2020 and Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke got more than 48 percent in 2018. Republicans redrew maps to give themselves both of Texas’s new congressional seats (even though most of the population growth was in Democratic-leaning communities of color), and they reduced the number of competitive House seats from six to one.

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Democrats get nearly half the popular vote in Texas, but they can expect just a third of the House seats (13 of the 38). In order to get above 37 percent of the seats (that is, more than 14 seats), they would have to win an inconceivable 58 percent of the statewide popular vote. Republicans “have rendered elections meaningless, basically,” Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group, tells me. And “it’s all at the expense of communities of color.”

Dave Wasserman, redistricting maven with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, forecasts a 30 percent to 40 percent decline in competitive House races from the 51 there were in 2020. Using slightly different measures, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), formed by former attorney general Eric Holder, calculates that 15 of 38 competitive seats from the 2020 election (meaning those decided by 5 percentage points or fewer) have already been redrawn as safe seats.

In addition to Texas, other redistricting abusers include North Carolina, where Biden got 48.6 percent of the vote but Republicans are attempting to control 11 of the state’s 14 House seats; and Ohio, where Biden got 45.2 percent of the vote but Republicans aim to control 13 of 15 congressional seats. Red states are similarly using redistricting to achieve supermajorities in state legislatures.

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Democratic states have abuses, too (Donald Trump got 32 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, which has no Republicans in its 9-member House delegation), but Democrat-run states generally leave redistricting to bipartisan commissions, to produce fairer results.

“That has left Democrats playing with one hand tied behind their back,” Wasserman tells me. He calculates that such commissions cost Democrats 10 House seats they could have had if Democratic partisans instead seized the map-drawing in California, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado and Virginia. Were Democrats to practice the extreme measures Republicans have used, they could conceivably eliminate all but three GOP House seats in California (from the current 11) and all but three in New York (from the current eight).

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Marc Elias, a Democratic elections lawyer who is fighting several of the new maps, says the bipartisan commissions were sabotaged by pro-Trump Republicans who refused to negotiate. “Never entrust democracy to any process that requires Republicans to act in good faith,” he has concluded, noting that such commissions in Virginia and Connecticut couldn’t even produce maps.

Democrats might be tempted to imitate the Republicans’ extreme methods — but that would only confirm democracy’s demise. Kelly Burton, president of the NDRC, says it is “taking every tool in our toolbox to prevent them from annihilating the battlefield.”

But will it be enough? The Senate, formed when the nation’s urban population was 5 percent (now it’s over 80 percent), inherently gives lopsided power to rural, Republican states. The ferociously partisan Roberts Court has blessed gerrymandering and gutted enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, setting up a House Republican majority immune from the vicissitudes of the voters.

January’s coup failed. Twelve months later, democracy’s death spiral continues.