One of the many big surprises in this month’s surprising election was the Democrats’ failure to overturn Republican majorities in state legislatures. Various Democratic committees budgeted $88 million to flip majorities in big states such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina. Total gains: zero.
That’s a bad return on lavish investments in money and psychic energy. Liberals have been bemoaning partisan redistricting as a betrayal of democracy, as politicians removing choice from the people.
Such rhetoric is overheated and ahistorical. Those who have followed redistricting since the Supreme Court’s equal population decisions in 1964, as I have, know that redistricting can give a party a marginal and temporary advantage — but that the voters have the final say.
I remember few lamentations about the evils of redistricting in the cycles following the 1960, 1970 and 1980 censuses, when Democrats mostly controlled state legislatures and when Phillip Burton, who held what is now Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco seat, was crafting clever plans.
Partisan redistricting, plus skillful young politicians first elected in the Watergate years and crafty conservatives from the South, enabled Democrats to control the House for 40 straight years. High-minded liberals had no problems with redistricting then.
That started to change in the 1990s, as Watergate babies and Dixiecrats retired, died or were defeated and Newt Gingrich’s Republicans won a House majority in 1994. Redistricting was a partisan wash after the 1990 census, and Republicans had a clear advantage in the 2000 and 2010 census cycles. That helped them hold House majorities for 20 of the past 26 years and control 59 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers.
The current Republicans’ partisan advantage is not as overwhelming as it seems. Some eight states give some role in redistricting to supposedly nonpartisan independent commissions. Democrats have proved adept at gaming their proceedings. Voters have imposed restrictions on redistricters, and in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Democratic governors can veto Republican legislatures’ plans.
Redistricters’ leverage is limited in the 35 states that have fewer than 10 congressional districts.
The most important thing to understand about redistricting is that the equal-population standard set by the Supreme Court in 1964 limits the advantage any party or faction can gain over the 10-year period between censuses. If you create too many 53% districts, you may end up losing most of them if your party’s percentage of the population in those districts falls five points. That happened to Michigan Republicans in the 2010s, just as it did to California Democrats in the 1960s.
The other problem for partisan redistricters is that political alignments can change over a decade. As parties gain among one segment of the electorate (as Democrats have with high-credential voters and Republicans among blue-collar whites), districts that favored one party at the beginning of a decade swing toward the other before it ends. The affluent Houston and Dallas seats, which were the most Republican congressional districts in the nation in the 1980s, elected Democrats in 2018 and 2020.