Republicans believe they have a great chance to win control of the US House of Representatives in 2022, needing a swing of about six seats to depose Nancy Pelosi as speaker and derail Joe Biden’s agenda.
To help themselves over the top, they are advancing voter suppression laws in almost every state, hoping to minimize Democratic turnout.
But Republicans are also preparing another, arguably more powerful tool, which experts believe could let them take control of the House without winning a single vote beyond their 2020 tally, or for that matter blocking a single Democratic voter.
That tool is redistricting – the redrawing of congressional boundaries, undertaken once every 10 years – and Republicans have unilateral control of it in a critical number of states.
“Public sentiment in 2020 favored Democrats, and Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives,” said Samuel Wang, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Princeton gerrymandering project. “[But] because of reapportionment and redistricting, those factors would be enough to cause a change in control of the House even if public opinion were not to change at all.”
While redistricting gives politicians in some states the opportunity to redraw political boundaries, reapportionment means there are more districts to play with. After each US census, each of the 50 states is awarded a share of the 435 House seats based on population. States gain or lose seats in the process.
The threat of extreme gerrymandering is more acute today than it has ever been
Owing to population growth, Republican states including Texas, Florida and North Carolina are expected to gain seats before 2022, although the breakdown has not been finalized, with the 2020 census delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican-controlled legislatures will have the power to wedge the new districts almost wherever they see fit, with a freedom they would not have enjoyed only 10 years ago, owing to a pair of controversial supreme court rulings.
“The threat of extreme gerrymandering is more acute today than it has ever been because of the combination of an abandonment of oversight by the courts and the Department of Justice, combined with new supercomputing powers,” said Josh Silver, director of Represent.us. The non-partisan group issued a report this month warning that dozens of states “have an extreme or high threat of having their election districts rigged for the next decade”.
“Frankly,” Silver said, “what we’re seeing around gerrymandering by the authoritarian wing of the Republican party is part of the Putin-style managed democracy they are promoting – that combination of voter suppression and gerrymandering.”
Rules for who controls redistricting vary from state to state. The process can involve state legislatures acting alone, governors or independent commissions. Maps are meant to stand for 10 years, although they are subject to legal challenges that can result in their being thrown out.
The new Republican gerrymandering efforts are expected to focus on urban areas in southern states that are home to a disproportionate number of voters of color – meaning those voters are more likely to be disenfranchised.
In Texas, mapmakers could try to add districts to the growing population centers of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth without increasing representation of the minority and Democratic voters who account for that growth. In Florida they might add Republican voters to a growing Democratic district north of Orlando. In North Carolina, where the Democratic governor is shut out of the process, Republican mapmakers might seek to add a district in the Democratic-leaning Research Triangle, in a way that elects more Republicans.
Republicans could also seek to repay voters of colors in Atlanta who boosted Biden to victory and drove the defeat of two Republican senators in special elections in Georgia in January, by cracking and packing those voters into new districts.
“Republicans could net pick up one seat by rearranging the lines around Black people and other Democrats in the Atlanta area,” Wang said.
Racial gerrymandering – or using race as the central criterion for drawing district lines, as opposed to party identification or some other signifier – remains vulnerable to federal court challenges, unlike gerrymandering along partisan lines, which was declared “beyond the reach of the federal courts” by the supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, in 2019.
A separate decision by Roberts’s court, in Shelby County v Holder from 2013, is seen as adding to the likelihood of gerrymandering. The ruling released counties with acute histories of racial discrimination against voters from federal oversight imposed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That means that in 2021, some southern legislators will draw district boundaries without such oversight for the first time in 50 years.
‘Much more national awareness’
Potential legal challenges aside, the success of Republican mapmakers is not a given. Turnout in future elections – higher or lower – could foil expectations based on historic patterns. The partisan mix of voters in any district can change unpredictably. And stretching a map to wring out an extra seat could leave incumbents vulnerable.
Public awareness of such anti-democratic efforts has grown, said Wang, since a 2010 Republican effort called Redmap harvested dozens of “extra” seats.
“There’s much more national awareness of gerrymandering,” Wang said. “And citizen groups are now much more in the mix than they were 10 years ago.”
Silver said the gerrymandering threat has redoubled the urgency of advancing voting rights legislation that passed the US House but has stalled in the Senate.
“This is why we have to pass the For the People Act, which is federal legislation that with one pen stroke by the president would create independent commissions in all 50 states, end voter suppression and restore representative democracy in the United States,” he said.
“We have to stop gerrymandering, or there will be no representative democracy in America, period – only preordained and symbolic election results.”