Taking the Temperature on Redistricting

Sam Reeves, MVC Writer

America’s time-honored year-ending-in-one tradition of drawing new congressional district maps, called redistricting, is now underway. Superficially this seems like a strange thing to care about, but redistricting is important for partisan balance of power reasons. State legislatures are (in general) the bodies in charge of drawing districts, and districts can be drawn for partisan advantage. Take, for example, Utah. In 2020, Republicans won 58% of Utah’s vote share–a sound, but not deafening margin–and also won all 100% of Utah’s seats in the House of Representatives. 

The process that makes this possible is most popularly called gerrymandering. America’s urban-rural demography quirks even makes this practice easy. In a state like Utah with one central metro area, it is as simple as splitting urban areas into equal pieces within separate districts and then diluting those votes with rural population centers, essentially divvying up districts into pizza slices with cities in the center. 

States home to larger populations, like Indiana, need to get a bit more inventive and create “vote sinks” – high-population districts home to almost only one type of voter, drawn to shore up margins in surrounding districts. IN-7, a district which grew northward this year to cushion the margin of the previously competitive IN-5 (Spartz v. Hale in 2020, those names should sound familiar), is an example of a vote sink.

Gerrymandering can even be a weapon of intra-party conflicts. West Virginia lost a seat in the 2020 census; previously three districts that now must be compact down into 2. These three districts are, of course, occupied by three Republicans, but not all the same type. Two of West Virginia’s congressional representatives, David McKinley and Alex Mooney, voted for the certification of the 2020 election. The third representative, Carol Miller, voted against certification of the 2020 election. David McKinley and Alex Mooney, the certificationists, have had their districts merged and must run against one another in 2024, whereas Carol Miller’s seat remains safe and uncontested.

So, in the most recent round of redistricting, who is winning?

Right now, it is practically a wash. Or at least, it is very, very close, and things are subject to change enough that it is difficult to say. Between the leading draft maps and ratified maps, Democrats have netted a total of 2 more seats, giving them a slight edge so far. Though this is based on the slightly Democratic-skewed 2020 and 2018 data, the skew is not strong enough to color the results. 

Republicans have been gerrymandering for longer, so more Republican stronghold states are gerrymandered. Democrats, classically being the voter-rights party, have long opted for a strategy of “unilateral disarmament” – that is, not gerrymandering in hopes that Republicans will stop. Outside of Idaho, that did not happen, and only recently have Democrats given up unilateral disarmament. In the 2011-2021 maps, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts were the only gerrymandered blue states, which leaves a lot more room to grow in the current redistricting cycle.

Newly-toothed democratic state legislatures have taken a good bit of advantage, like in Oregon, Virginia, New York, and Nevada, and the list continues. Of the seven blue states that have already ratified maps, four are gerrymandered. Many more states are still in the map drafting process, and of them roughly three fifths are. 

Republicans have, in parallel, tightened their strongholds; in Texas, both Carolinas, and Ohio for example. Perhaps most notably, this redistricting cycle has born a dramatic reduction in the number of competitive districts nationwide; IN-5 is far from the only loss of such districts.

To recap: it is neck and neck, but it is not done and things can change. North Carolina’s scathingly aggressive 10R-3D-1C map was challenged in court, and while that litigation failed it is likely more maps will be challenged and changed before final drafts are reached. Many states do not even have drafts yet. States do have hard deadlines for new districts, generally Spring of 2022.