Redistricting and Silver Linings

by Barbara Head, Feb. 7, 2022. Republicans boast that they will take back the US House of Representatives through redistricting alone. They have been encouraged by Republican successes in red legislatures in states such as Wisconsin and New Hampshire, as well as far-right Trump-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. But Democrats are making an unexpectedly strong showing in the redistricting battle, debunking the prediction that Republican-drawn maps would prevent Democrats from ever regaining the majority in the House. 

First The Bad News:

The redistricting process requires that states redraw their congressional maps following US Census results. The 2020 US Census, finally completed last year after obstruction by Trump and then by Covid, spawned a wave of redrawn maps and newly gerrymandered districts. Maps may be subject to review by the courts but, as shown by this week’s US Supreme Court decision, fair maps are not always the end product of those judicial reviews. 

Earlier this week, the reactionary justices on the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, dealt a serious blow to voting rights advocates, Democrats, and those opposing racial gerrymandering in Alabama. ( Merrill v. Mulligan decision 2/7/22) This ruling, with the three liberal justices and John Roberts dissenting, overturned a lower court order to redraw Alabama congressional maps that were judged racially discriminatory and in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. In the gerrymandered map, a huge number of Black voters are piled into a single district, while the rest are distributed into several majority-white districts, diluting Black voting power. As a result, Black Americans control just 14% of Alabama’s congressional delegation, though they comprise 27% of Alabama’s  population. (SCOTUS Just Blew Up the Voting Rights Act’s Ban on Racial Gerrymandering 2/7/22)

This callous Supreme Court decision crushed dreams that increasing Black political power could produce a positive ripple effect throughout the South. Instead, the court’s ruling provides a legal precedent to further disenfranchise Black voters in other Southern states like Louisiana and South Carolina. 

Yet, as reprehensible as the Merrill v. Mulligan decision is, the overall redistricting landscape is rosier than expected. Now that the redistricting process is about two-thirds completed, which party is ahead? This may surprise you – it’s the Democrats. 

Now the Good News:

Last week, editor David Wasserman of Cook Political Report tweeted, “NEW: for the first time (in this election cycle), Dems have taken the lead on (Cook Political Report’s) 2022 redistricting scorecard… they’re on track to net 2-3 seats from new maps vs. old ones.”  (Wasserman 2/3/22)  These encouraging results are partly due to Democrats benefitting from court developments in states like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In these states, Supreme Courts have struck down Republican-drawn maps and ordered red legislatures to draw maps that are more favorable to Democrats. (The Hill 2/7/22)

And surprise, surprise, the Democrats are now doing their own gerrymandering in blue states New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reported that New York Democrats “carved here and sliced there, opening up new opportunities for themselves and making Republicans more vulnerable. (One district) will be absurdly convoluted as it winds its way through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.” On the “ruthlessness” of the Democrats, Waldman comments — “good for them.” Washington Post, 1/31/22. The Republicans are, as Shakespeare stated, being hoisted with their own petards – meaning literally, being blown up by their own bombs. 

While this week’s Supreme Court decision and US Senate voting legislation efforts are very disappointing, better news is found at the state level. Redistricting has been surprisingly good for Democrats. Those few extra House seats on the Democratic side of the aisle could make the difference in 2022 in keeping the House blue. True, we still have to overcome the historical tendency for the opposition party to regain control of the House. However, it does not seem like the Republicans will have an insurmountable structural advantage. The Democrats’ successes in swing state Supreme Court decisions indicate that even if Democrats lose the House in 2022, we are on target to regain the majority within the next few election cycles.