Gerrymandering is a time-honored tradition in American politics. Every ten years, in the states that have sufficient power, Democrats or Republicans figure out how to draw lines to lock in their legislative power as comprehensively and permanently as they can. Gerrymandering works by drawing lines in a certain way to maximize the number of seats a party wins, either in the House of Representatives or in the State House and State Senate.
In Ohio, for example, although Republicans earned about 53% of the statewide vote in 2020 and 52% in 2016, Republican state lawmakers have just drawn a map that makes them the favorite in 13 of the 15, or 87%, of the congressional seats. They accomplished this by combining large amounts of Democratic voters into two districts Democrats will easily win. This strategy was made easier by the fact that Democrats are already concentrated in the two biggest cities in the state, Columbus and Cleveland, as they are in many states. Those two districts, the 11th and 3rd, are each expected to vote for Democrats by over 40 points. With these two districts containing such a large number of the Democratic voters, they were able to draw many districts that are likely to vote for Republicans by approximately 10-25%. Importantly for Republicans, a win by 10% is as good as a win by 40%, so overall Republicans will gain the advantage even if Democrats consistently earn about 45% of the statewide vote. Although some of the districts Republicans drew could be competitive for Democrats under the right political conditions, it’s likely that for most of the next ten years, Ohio will be represented by 13 Republicans.
Of course, Republicans are not only the ones who gerrymander. However, due to holding less power in state legislatures and having given up significant amounts of power to non-partisan independent redistricting commissions, Democrats are at a distinct disadvantage as they have been for the last ten years. California, Virginia, Washington, Colorado and New Jersey all redistrict through non-partisan commissions, which are supposed to draw fair lines that accurately reflect each party’s political strength. Few Republican states follow the same guidelines, putting Democrats at a distinct advantage. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Democrats have the power to gerrymander only 73 seats after the 2020 election, whereas Republicans have a similar power for 188 seats, only losing this power to a non-partisan commission in Arizona. Through 93 congressional seats in the five states mentioned earlier, which are controlled by Democrats but have opted for non-partisan redistricting commissions, one analysis estimated that Democrats could likely add 10-15 congressional seats, compared to the 1-2 that Republicans have missed out on in Arizona. While Democrats have gerrymandered Illinois to pick up a couple seats and are expected to do the same in New York to gain 3-4 seats, Republicans are likely to be the clear winners from the 2020 redistricting process, achieving a net gain of a few seats and putting many of their endangered incumbents in safer districts.
2010 was a very successful election year for Republicans, giving them control of many state houses that were able to gerrymander themselves into power for ensuing ten years and increase their odds of holding onto national power in Congress. Accordingly, in 2012 just after Republicans 2010 gerrymanders, Democrats won over a million more votes than Republicans in U.S. House elections but ended up with 33 fewer seats. Incredibly, Democrats needed to increase their margin by more than 6% on average across the country to flip enough seats to win the majority, meaning that even if Democrats had won 7% more votes than Republicans, they still might have lost the majority.
Also challenging for Democrats is the fact that successful gerrymanders can build on themselves by allowing the party who gerrymandered themselves into power to use that power to gerrymander again. In addition to gerrymandering congressional districts, Republican state lawmakers also re-drew maps for many of their own seats finding ways to practically guarantee that they would hold onto power throughout the 2010s. Now, in 2020, Republicans still hold power in some of these states because of their 2010 gerrymandering, enabling them to attempt to gerrymander for the next ten years as well. In Wisconsin, for example, voters in 2018 cast more votes for Democrats in the State House then Republicans, but Democrats only flipped one seat to end up with a meager 36 out of 99 seats, about 37%. Republicans won by an average of about 20%, and Democrats 37%. This is likely the most extreme example, as Democrats’ legislative power was so far under their share of votes, but other swing state gerrymanders from 2010 in states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have allowed Republicans to hold onto state legislative power even when voters cast most of their votes for Democrats. Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin now all have Democratic Governors, but with Republicans in control of the state legislature, Democrats are unable to redraw the lines to their advantage, in large part because Republicans gerrymandered so well in 2010.
A current bill moving through Congress, the Freedom to Vote Act, contains provisions that would sharply reduce partisan gerrymandering and establish guardrails on the extent to which a party could draw seats to its advantage in an evenly divided state. This bill was introduced after the House passed a similar, but stronger, bill in March, which died in the Senate because a single Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, declined to support it. Now, the Freedom to Vote Act has the support of all 50 Democratic Senators, as well as enough Democrats in the House to pass it, and the Biden Administration has publicly said many times that it considers the bill a priority. However, no Republicans support it, and their caucus has filibustered several times against it. This means Democrats will need to either find ten Republicans to support it, which seems practically impossible, or modify or abolish the filibuster, which two Democrats in the Senate currently oppose. It is true that Democrats currently experience the worse side of the gerrymander effect, and for that reason alone it’s reasonable for Democrats to aim for a moonshot of changing the filibuster and outlawing gerrymandering. Although some say that without doing so Democrats would find themselves permanently locked out of power, that isn’t particularly likely. After 2010, many analysts thought Republicans’ huge gerrymandering advantage would guarantee them control of the House for the whole decade, but Democrats’ strength in the suburbs in 2018 allowed them to flip multiple previously safe GOP seats. In all likelihood, regardless of how much Republicans gerrymander this cycle, Democrats will eventually be able to win back control of the U.S. House, although there very well may be more unfair years like 2012, when Democrats get the most votes but far from the most seats. In the long run then, the reason to abolish partisan gerrymandering is to re-insert fairness into the electoral process, allowing for more competitive districts and more political moderation. This will empower voters to pick their politicians rather than the other way around, instilling confidence and trust in government. Regardless of which party holds the advantage this year, it’s the right thing to do.