Nearly a decade ago, long before the reality TV star descended the gilded Trump Tower escalator, before the US Supreme Court began its relentless evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, before state legislatures protested certified presidential election results in their own states, Republican lawmakers and operatives began gathering in private, well-secured bunkers and map rooms nationwide.
An effective GOP long-term strategy called REDMAP — short for the Redistricting Majority Project — had given Republicans complete control of the decennial redistricting process in critical swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, as well as others with rapidly changing electorates such as Texas and Georgia. It was time to claim the spoils. US elections haven’t been the same since.
As the 2021 cycle of redrawing congressional and state boundaries begins, it’s imperative to understand the toxicity of the maps drawn a decade ago, what we’ve lost as a result, and how difficult it will be to untie the minority rule that has been knotted into our government at nearly every level. It will probably get worse before — and if — it gets better.
How effective were those 2011 congressional and legislative lines, drawn following the 2010 Census with the benefit of sophisticated mapping software and the most precise data ever available on voting behavior? Well, Republicans did not lose a single legislative chamber in any of those eight competitive yet wildly gerrymandered states over the last decade, even during elections in which Democrats earned hundreds of thousands more votes.
Perhaps the most extreme example comes from Wisconsin, in 2018, where Democrats swept every federal and statewide office and state Assembly candidates captured some 203,000 more votes than Republicans — but reduced the GOP edge by just one, to 63-36. That’s right: Republicans won 44 percent of the vote, but 64 percent of the seats.
When lawmakers know they can’t lose, they are accountable to no one.
That unearned majority in Wisconsin, for example, felt free to ignore a 2019 Marquette University poll that showed residents overwhelmingly endorsed common-sense gun laws. Republicans rolled them back instead, to the extent that, as Paige Williams wrote in The New Yorker, an “18-year-old could legally buy a semi-automatic rifle without a permit or proof of training, and openly carry it almost anywhere.” That’s how Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, had a friend a year older buy him the assault rifle he used to shoot three people, two fatally, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha.
Gerrymandered legislatures in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have stripped governors of emergency powers necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic. In gerrymandered Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia, lawmakers have advanced “personhood” abortion restrictions that drastically curb reproductive rights, regardless of polls showing majorities opposed to those new limits. Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, among others, have ignored the perils of climate change and doubled down on fracking and carbon-intensive energy sources. Legislation in Texas and elsewhere that prevents teachers from giving a full portrait of the nation’s racial history is made possible by gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering also enabled the Big Lie. Legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin refused the entreaties of nonpartisan election officials who wanted to open and process millions of 2020 mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, as the vast majority of states allow. When they refused to provide ample time, results were delayed, giving oxygen to Donald Trump’s claim that he led on election night and the presidency was stolen from him.
National politics have been reshaped by these titled lines as well. Democratic US House candidates won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in 2012, but the GOP held the chamber 234-201 — putting an end to Barack Obama’s legislative agenda on the very night the nation gave him a second term. Redistricting also helped create and embolden the obstructionist, and sometimes insurrectionist, House Freedom Caucus, many of whose members, such as Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, come from deeply gerrymandered states where district lines have made party primaries the only meaningful elections.
Democrats shouldn’t take any comfort from the 2018 midterm elections, when they managed to reclaim the US House. They did not overcome gerrymandering to do so. They were aided, first, by court-ordered new, fair maps in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Some 70 percent of the seats that flipped in 2018 were drawn by courts or commissions. Democrats did not win back a single congressional seat in Ohio, Wisconsin, or North Carolina. And they owe their current slender five-seat majority in the US House entirely to state court decisions that overturned GOP maps in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, creating six Democratic pickups.
That is to say: Without those two court decisions, Republicans would have a one-seat advantage in the House, even though Democratic US House candidates won 4.7 million more votes nationwide in 2020. That’s more than three times the margin from 2012. Republicans win even with a minority of voters. Democrats need massive landslides to eke out even a thin majority of seats.
And that’s before new maps are drawn for 2021, a process that Republicans will still largely dominate in key states including Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, with additional gains possible by cracking blue cities in red Kentucky, Kansas, and Tennessee. It’s easy to see how Republicans could pick up nearly a dozen seats and take the House in 2022 through redistricting alone.
Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled partisan gerrymandering a nonjusticiable political issue, closing the federal courts to these claims, voters will have even fewer protections from extreme partisan maps. But the Supreme Court’s decision did invite Congress to pass legislation if it wanted to establish guardrails. That’s not easy, but it is imperative. Fewer than four weeks remain before 2020 Census data is released to states and the bunkers and map rooms rev up again. If gerrymandering determines partisan control of the people’s US House of Representatives once again, Democrats will have maddeningly squandered the last meaningful opportunity for reform.
It could get worse. A return to government shutdowns. A debt ceiling crisis. Paralysis on policy post-pandemic, despite the expressed will of voters. Then, imagine a replay of Jan. 6 in 2025, in which gerrymandering hands Republicans the US House and Congress refuses to ratify the results of the presidential election. That insurrection failed seven months ago. It might not next time.
This is how free and fair elections crumble before our eyes. And it’s how the gerrymanders that could be designed over the next few months threaten the very foundations of majority rule and representative democracy as we know it.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”