The Census Bureau data that’s expected to be released later this week will kick off the redistricting process and have major implications for how the American political landscape will look over the next ten years. Despite dozens of legal battles that will likely be fought over these new maps, gerrymandering by Republicans will hobble Democrats over the next decade, as Eleveld notes: “Things are just stacked so much in the favor of Republicans by sheer numbers … Republicans will dominate the process, drawing 187 congressional districts to Democrats’ 75 districts.”
Data from the 2020 census will be used to help draw these maps, which have the power to significantly impact our politics and whose voices are represented in the halls of power on both the state and federal levels. Two aspects of the process Leeper noted would be important to pay attention in the coming year are the drastically delayed/shifted timeline of this redistricting cycle and the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, two huge Supreme Court cases (Shelby v. Holder and Rucho v. Common Cause) in the last decade that have changed the legal lay of the land since the last round of redistricting. What does this mean? Well, we now have a more compressed timeframe to draw the maps, due to state constitutional deadlines dictating when maps are to be completed. “Hitting the ground running is going to be all the more important on that front,” Leeper said.
Redistricting impacts peoples’ day-to-day lives, and Wolf offered a clear breakdown of how gerrymandering draws invisible lines of power across our states:
Gerrymandering and redistricting overall are incredibly important for determining who has a say in legislative power and even who runs the legislature itself. We’ve had several legislatures in the past decade—in swing states in particular—where, because of gerrymandering, the majority of voters were not able to elect a majority of representatives, so the party that won fewer votes would keep winning a majority of seats. Who is drawing the maps can be fully determinative of who is wielding political power.
After the 2010 elections, Republicans had a great setup for redistricting and drew many state legislative and congressional districts in their favor. This has specially affected elections in swing states like Michigan, Wolf said, adding that “even when you have voters voting one way consistently, it’s just not enough to overcome these very unfairly drawn districts and elect a chamber based on majority rule.”
The pandemic is expected to have complicated this last round of census data as well by making it harder to go door-to-door and gather the information that the census needs. This delay in getting the data translated to a delay in processing the data, which is complicating the situation for some states that have a constitutionally imposed deadline by which they need to complete their maps. “You have maps that need to be completed, but there’s a lot less time to have the process play out,” Leeper said, “so because we have more compressed timeline, a big concern is the lack of public participation and the lack of transparency.”
Wolf weighed in on how crucial public participation is throughout this process, especially in holding our elected officials accountable:
We want our elections to be fair … and redistricting plays a very key role [in that]. We have a system where we let elected officials draw their own districts and pick their own voters. There’s this saying that it should not be that way—it should be the other way around, of voters choosing their representatives. So we need to reform the institutions we have right now, and the way that regular people can get involved with that—you know, there are efforts to use ballot initiatives or litigation in the courts, or even just get people more aware, that, ‘Hey, there’s a hearing going on at your legislature next month and you need to show up and make yourself heard.’
So there are all these ways that voters can get involved. Doing so right now is really critical, because as we’ve discussed before, this is happening in a very compressed timeframe. And legislators are counting on the public not being aware of what’s going on, and not being able to show up for these meetings, and not being able to raise awareness that they’re up to no good. So if people can mobilize and especially draw media attention to what’s happening in statehouses, that can have a really big impact on the process.
Zelaya asked Leeper how she and other activists prevent burnout and fatigue as they advocate for fair maps. Leeper explained that she and others draw hope from past wins that they have had on these issue. Despite the deleterious Supreme Court decisions, advocates for fair maps have also organized to form many successful citizen-led independent redistricting commissions in the last decade. What’s more, Leeper urged, we need to keep raising awareness of this issue and get involved in advocating for independent redistricting commissions where we live:
If you want to make long-lasting change, change the system that you’re working under. Because otherwise you’re going to keep playing whack-a-mole with these maps every ten years. Make long-lasting change. But as far as just making the change you can now, I would just impress upon people, if you’ve cared about any issue in the last four years, if you think you’re going to care about any political issue moving forward, or anything more localized, like your school board, or what’s going on in your city, redistricting is the thing to care about. Because it is everything—it touches every other issue. So this is not the time to lose steam. Think about how you care about those things and how you want them to be better. Redistricting is your time to speak up. It’s your time to go into your legislature or to your drawings and submit draft maps, check the maps that they’re submitting to make sure they’re not partisan gerrymanders.
Two methods, cracking and packing, are used to gerrymander districts. Cracking describes the act of splitting up one district into sections of multiple other districts to “crack” apart various constituencies and dilute the voting power of the opposing party’s base. Packing involves concentrating specific neighborhoods or towns into a district to reduce the opposing party’s voting power in other districts. In addition to understanding these concepts, Leeper also mentioned CLC’s guide to redistricting as an important educational tool to inform readers about what the key elements of fair maps are. PlanScore.org, a project of the CLC, is another resource that can be used to evaluate the fairness of electoral district maps.
Wolf says it will be important to pay attention what is happening at the U.S. Supreme Court. Citing the radical theory of federalism that that many Republicans have advanced, the Supreme Court could remove the check that state governors or state courts or state voters currently have to create some of these independent redistricting commissions or veto bad maps. A lot is at stake, he noted:
We can see states currently fighting bad government, such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. If that happens, these Republican legislatures would be unchecked and they could start passing gerrymanders again. There are pitfalls further down the road that could happen in next few years, beyond just this next midterm election. As far as this next midterm election goes, Democrats have very little margin to work with—they only have a five-seat majority. So if Republicans are passing these maximal maps in [these swing states], it’s a very distinct possibility that that alone could determine control of the House.
That would determine the allocation of federal resources and all the consequences that result from that, Zelaya added. Leeper also noted the disproportionate impact on communities of color and on voters with disabilities if gerrymandered maps are allowed to stand.
Historically, redistricting has been a highly partisan issue: one party comes into power and the other party will suddenly find that they love talking about redistricting reform, but as soon as that party takes back power, they often lose interest in the subject. But we are seeing a bit of change in the last several years, both at the national and state levels, Wolf said, citing Virginia as an example. Before Virginia Democrats finally took majority control of both chambers of the legislature in 2019, Republicans had passed a redistricting reform constitutional amendment that legally had to pass twice before it could be considered by voters and possibly become law. Many wondered whether Democrats, having just won full power, would abandon their support for the measure. To the surprise of some, Democrats in the legislature did allow that amendment to come up for a vote, and while the party was divided on it, minority Republicans provided enough votes for it to pass. It was approved by Virginia voters in 2020.
Wolf thinks that change is happening, though slowly. “Hopefully we will see more of this, where the public starts putting demands on legislatures … if they’re going to run in elections and promise that they’re going to fix redistricting, we [need to actually] hold them accountable to doing that when they come into power,” he posited. “There is a chance that things are starting to turn a corner. So far, historically the strong expectation is that people will talk about things when they’re out of power and then do another thing once they finally win it.”
Leeper and Wolf offered tips for those interested in submitting maps for their states’ redistricting processes, recommending checking sample maps for partisan bias and making sure that what they’re drawing is really representative of a state’s established communities, citing a case in Arizona where two Native communities were drawn into a district together without being consulted and strongly opposed this. Wolf recommended Dave’s Redistricting app, which individuals can use to easily draw their maps.
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