As states begin to cement their congressional maps for the next decade, Democrats have a choice.
They can take the high road, operate as if their gerrymandering reforms had passed Congress, and try to draw fair lines that would accurately represent a state’s political composition. Or, with Republicans aiming to draw the most aggressively GOP-favorable maps possible in order to take back the House of Representatives, Democrats can play the same game.
While Republicans have far more opportunities to gerrymander congressional districts and pick up seats, Democrats could temper those gains by wringing out as much of an advantage as possible in the states where they control the process—like in New York and Illinois.
On Capitol Hill, the window for Democrats to avoid this dilemma by passing a proposed anti-gerrymandering reform package has nearly closed. With few expecting a breakthrough, lawmakers are anxiously awaiting how state officials will set their battle lines for a hotly contested 2022 midterm election. Now, the question of how to navigate this question is a divisive one.
“I don’t support any form of what I would call political gerrymandering that’s used to split up communities,” said Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX), who was a voting rights lawyer—as well as an NFL linebacker—before being elected to Congress. “I certainly understand that we can’t just unilaterally disarm, but I’m not going to say I support it,” he said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The Daily Beast he doesn’t believe in “unilateral disarmament” either. “I do believe in, across the country, taking this out of the political fray and [having] it done by nonpartisan commissions,” he said.
But Connolly’s final recommendation was much different. “Until and unless that happens,” he said, “where we have an advantage, we need to counter theirs.”
That echoes what many party operatives, and even outside anti-gerrymandering advocates, think, too.
“You want fair rules, but ultimately, you have to play the game with the rules that you have,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Democrats often agonize over the conflict between their good-government ambitions and the realpolitik of winning the power needed to fulfill those ambitions. That tension has played out more recently with campaign finance reform, as Democrats pledge to end the influence of unlimited “dark money” while still accepting its benefits in order to win crucial races.
The stakes of redistricting are narrower, but arguably just as consequential. Whatever Democrats’ map-drawing strategy is state by state, they’ll have to live with the results until 2032, when the 2030 Census will inform a new set of district lines.
And more immediately, in 2022, Democrats’ narrow majority in the U.S. House is on the line.
Historical trends favor the GOP to flip the chamber, but in a close contest, redistricting could have a potentially decisive impact on whether Democrats get another two years to enact President Joe Biden’s agenda or whether Republicans get veto power over their plans.
The party’s national arm to spearhead redistricting strategy, the National Democratic Redistricting Council, did not weigh in on the question of “unilateral disarmament.” But the group’s president, Kelly Burton, expressed optimism that reforms could pass in time to affect the 2022 election and the next decade.
“This legislation sets a standard against partisan gerrymandering under which states would be held accountable, and it would provide the federal courts with the ability to enforce those standards, even when an election is imminent,” Burton said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
Burton also suggested that Democrats’ public push for competitive House elections is a statement of their fundamental values on the subject. “By fighting for fair maps, Democrats are saying that we’re not afraid of voters, we’re not afraid of a fair process, and we don’t need to cheat to win,” she said.
There is little doubt among Democrats that Republicans will maximize their advantages where they can. The GOP also has that option in many more states. According to the NDRC, over 37 percent of House districts will be drawn in states where the GOP has full control of the mapmaking process, while just 17 percent are in states where Democrats have that same power. (The remainder are in divided-government states, or ones with independent redistricting commissions.)
What worries Democrats in particular is the control that Republicans have in battleground states where they routinely win or compete closely, such as North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida.
Republicans in these places have moved quickly to shore up power. In North Carolina, for example, some of the GOP’s map proposals could result in two to three-seat gains for the party, if enacted. And in Georgia, Democrats are on track to lose a seat in the Atlanta area, which helped deliver the state in 2020 for Biden and Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Meanwhile, in many of their strongholds, Democrats have implemented reforms that seek to remove partisan concerns from redistricting. California, New Jersey, Washington, and Virginia all have independent commissions that control the process. And in Virginia and Colorado, Democrats fear the process may produce a map that gives the GOP more seats than their recent vote share would suggest.
There are two states where Democrats haven’t relinquished control of the maps, and they could give the GOP serious trouble: Illinois and New York. Both are losing a seat due to population loss, but they still offer avenues for Democrats to blunt expected GOP redistricting pickups elsewhere.
In Illinois, Democrats have proposed maps that could leave the GOP with just two or three of 17 districts, compared to five of 18 now. In New York, meanwhile, Democrats are reportedly considering slashing the GOP’s share of seats from eight out of 27 to just three out of 26. In either state, the GOP’s share of the House delegation is poised to be far less than the roughly 40 percent of the vote Donald Trump pulled.
Some Democrats look at that math and argue the potential gains aren’t worth it—even if it means ceding an advantage to the GOP.
“Our democratic system should be a reflection of the views of the people,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), a member of House leadership. “We should be the party of adherence to democratic principles, and if that ends up being costly in some ways, I get it, but I just don’t believe we justify our bad behavior based on theirs.”
Allred suggested there should also be other considerations for Democrats, besides seats won and lost. In particular, he argued that gerrymandering by both parties only fuels further polarization, dysfunction, and gridlock in a body where there are fewer members in the middle than ever.
“The House in particular was designed to be a responsive body,” said Allred. “We’re the ones that should be able to respond to the people, and you can’t do that when you lock in safe seats.”
The Democrats who are wariest of gerrymandering—and even those who are not—do share a belief that redistricting is not shaping up as the devastating, majority-annihilating event many feared it might be. Demographic trends mean that the party is set to pick up seats in unfriendly places, like Texas, where the GOP controls the entire process but cannot maneuver around population growth in cities like Austin.
Republicans had also already done their best to gerrymander Texas so that only 13 of 36 seats belong to Democrats in a state that Trump won in 2020 by six points. That dynamic is playing out elsewhere.
Far more seats will be drawn by independent commissions this cycle than the last, including in populous states like Michigan, where the GOP-run legislature would have controlled the process.
“They’re running up against their own progress in drawing maps, and against demographic reality, so their gains are unlikely to guarantee them the majority in 2022,” said Jesse Ferguson, who led messaging efforts at House Democrats’ campaign arm during the last redistricting cycle, in 2012.
Universally, however, Democrats are livid that they have been unable to use their majorities in Congress to pass federal gerrymandering reform. The window has not completely shut—in most states, the process will be fully complete by spring 2022—and some still believe it’s possible to enact reforms before it’s too late.
But much would have to quickly change in the Senate. Biden and all 50 Senate Democrats need to unanimously agree to end or suspend the chamber’s 60-vote threshold to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which contains redistricting reforms. At least two senators, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), are opposed to filibuster changes. And Biden has only recently cracked the door open for an election reform carve-out.
The question for Democrats, said the Brennan Center’s Li, should be why senators have put their state-level counterparts in this position. “Are they going to use the nuclear weapon because they feel like they have to?” he said. “If there’s any blame, it’s on why Senate Democrats are putting Democrats in the states in this untenable position.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats, whose political fates are up in the air with new district lines, have no choice but to shrug—and to simply hope they can do in the next decade what has eluded them in the last one.
“It’s frustrating,” said Kildee, “because, you know, you have to wait another decade and hope that in the years leading up to the next census, somehow, a majority is in a position to do something about it.”