It’s a process known as redistricting. States do it every decade based on new census data, which just got released Thursday. The data showed that, nationally, White people are declining as a portion of the population for the first time in centuries. That can help boost Democrats’ strength in suburban swing districts because voters of color lean blue.
But most states hand the redistricting process to legislatures, and Republicans have spent the past decade engineering themselves into power in state legislatures across the country precisely for this purpose.
That means they get to carve up the 2020 Census’s population data in many battlegrounds to create new state legislative and congressional districts. And that means Republicans have an opportunity to gerrymander their way back into power at a national level and find ways to keep a hold of their power in states.
It’s possible that if Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives in next year’s elections, they could be locked out of power for another decade because Republicans successfully drew maps making it hard for Democrats to win in swing districts.
The whole process starts as soon as next week in some states and could be done in many by the end of the year.
“There is real urgency on redistricting,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute that advocates for fairer maps and voting rights. “There is real urgency on the voting laws. Some people say we can out-organize the voter suppression. You cannot out-organize a well-done gerrymander.”
What can Democrats do?
Well, they knew this was coming and tried to preempt some of it by regaining state legislatures and governorships in 2020. But they failed at that.
They’re fighting back in courts, which in many states is their only recourse to stop these maps from becoming law. They’ve already filed lawsuits in key states before the map-drawing has even begun, The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported.
But that’s a slow battle that may come too late for the 2022 midterms, when Democrats are trying to hang on to their slim majority. Republicans can conceivably win back the majority just by redrawing enough districts that make it difficult for a Democrat to stay in power.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has warned states that the Justice Department will challenge voting laws that it thinks run afoul of federal discrimination laws. But that’s also reactionary.
There’s one big swing Congress could take at this that would solve a lot of Democrats’ problems. And one major hurdle: It would require Senate Democrats and President Biden to all agree to get rid of the filibuster, and right now they don’t.
A voting rights bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House would ban redistricting to benefit one party over another.
It would make it illegal — and easier to challenge in court — the long-held practice of drawing maps for partisan gain. Lawmakers would have to make a good-faith effort at fair maps. And they’d have do it in a more open process rather than behind closed doors.
When put to the voters, such changes to the redistricting process have generally been popular. In 2020, Virginia voters approved an independent redistricting commission over the objection of Democrats in power. (Both sides gerrymander, though Democrats have become slightly more vocal in recent years about supporting independent commissions to draw fairer lines.)
But there is zero chance Republicans in Congress will change this, and other voting laws. They argue that states should get to set their own policies. Beneath the surface, of course, is a realization that ending partisan gerrymandering would take away much of the GOP’s power in key swing states.
For example: Before Pennsylvania was carved up in 2010 by Republican lawmakers, Democrats won 56 percent of the vote in a midterm election and 11 congressional seats. Today, they’d only win six in such a scenario, Michael Li with the Brennan Center wrote. That could get even worse in 2022 with a GOP legislature in charge of maps.
Ending the filibuster is probably Democrats’ best option to ending partisan gerrymandering before it’s too late for their party.
Democrats need to find a way to convince Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to end the filibuster. And they’re working on that, but it takes time.
“These things are hard,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the New York Times’s Ezra Klein in an April interview, speaking about voting rights and other Democratic priorities. “Passing big comprehensive legislation … is difficult. And, so, there’s no set path. But what’s key, in getting this done, is Democratic unity, us sticking together.”