The only way Democrats can win the 2020 redistricting fight

Fighting gerrymandering the wrong way could make it worse.

Flordia state Sen. Bill Galvano (R) speaks before congressional maps in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Phil Sears
Flordia state Sen. Bill Galvano (R) speaks before congressional maps in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Phil Sears

WASHINGTON, DC — Democrats will bring out some big guns to combat the partisan gerrymandering that helps lock in Republican control of the House of Representatives and many state legislatures. Yet, a recent speech by one of these big guns suggests that they have not fully thought through the full extent of the challenges facing their party — or the appropriate solutions to address these challenges.

President Obama himself says that combating gerrymandering will be the major focus of his post-presidential political activity, and the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee — a group formed to fight Republican gerrymanders — will be chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder. On Monday, Holder spoke to the State Innovation Exchange (SIX), a left-leaning group primarily focused on state lawmakers, and laid out some of his thoughts about the coming fight over redistricting.

Holder clearly understands the magnitude of the problem presented by partisan gerrymanders. In Wisconsin, he told the gathering of state legislators, Republican state assembly candidates won less than half of the vote in 2012, yet they received 66 of the 99 available seats. In North Carolina, Democrats got 51 percent of the vote for the U.S. House in 2012, “but only got four of the 13 congressional seats.” Likewise, in Pennsylvania, Democrats won a majority of the votes cast in U.S. House races, but only won a quarter of the available seats.

Gerrymandering contributed significantly to these outcomes, but it also isn’t the sole reason why Democrats underperform their vote count. Geography, as much as gerrymandering, has become the Democratic Party’s greatest enemy as Democrats cluster in cities while Republicans spread out across a much greater area. The result is that states which use traditional redistricting criteria, such as compactness or grouping similar communities together in the same district, will produce maps that favor Republicans even if the mapmakers do not set out to do so.

Yet Holder appeared to endorse these very same criteria in his SIX speech. The former attorney general mocked “a House seat in Ohio that is only contiguous at low tide,” “a House seat in Virginia that can only be connected by a boat ride,” and “a House seat in Michigan that was shaped like a contorted snake.” More significantly, Holder proposed “making sure that people who live near each other, and who have similar interests” vote in the same district.

Holder, in other words, called for a standard that would group people in cities together. That’s a recipe for Republican victories.

Consider a hypothetical state with a single major city and five congressional districts with roughly even population. One way to draw these districts would be to group “people who live near each other, and who have similar interests” together as much as possible, thus yielding two entirely urban districts and three rural/suburban districts. Another way is to draw five districts shaped more or less like pie slices, and which include both a segment of the state’s major city and a segment of its rural and suburban residents.

Neither map has the kind of districts “shaped like a contorted snake” that Holder warned about. But the map on the right compensates for the advantage geography gives to Republicans, while the map on the left exacerbates that problem.

If Democrats want to solve the problem of legislative maps that are biased against them they need to pursue a strategy that is more likely to produce maps that compensate for geography. The standard Holder proposed, by contrast, risks producing the opposite result. If compactness and grouping people with similar interests together becomes a constitutional rule, then Republicans will be free to draw maps like the one of the left for the very purpose of hurting Democrats at the polls, but Democrats will be forbidden from drawing maps that look like the one on the right.

In fairness, Holder’s speech did not suggest that he is rigidly committed to standards like compactness. He praised a lower court’s decision out of Wisconsin, for example, that relied, in part, on a mathematical formula to strike down that state’s assembly maps. Notably, this formula measures the degree that a particular map advantages one party over the other, not whether those districts comply with traditional criteria.

But if Democrats succeed in establishing a national rule targeting partisan gerrymandering, it will matter a great deal how they succeed. The wrong rule could effectively entrench the GOP’s advantages.