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Democrats have little to show from efforts to wrest control over redistricting

$50 million campaign targeted state legislatures

Democrats came up short in their efforts to win control of state legislatures this year to have more say in the drawing of legislative and congressional maps for the next decade.
Democrats came up short in their efforts to win control of state legislatures this year to have more say in the drawing of legislative and congressional maps for the next decade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Redistricting power will largely remain in Republican hands for the next decade after Tuesday’s elections, although control of several state legislatures has not been finalized.

Republicans have so far held on to their majorities in every state they currently hold — and may end up adding control of New Hampshire’s legislature. Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said that leaves the GOP with the advantage in deciding House district boundaries for another decade.

“For every chamber that matters for redistricting that was on the ballot, we successfully defended our majority or picked up seats,” Kincaid said. “We have an opportunity to build a new Republican majority in Congress because of the success we had on Tuesday.”

Early in the year, Democrats cited favorable polling and demographic trends to target half a dozen state legislatures with a say in redistricting in a $50 million “Flip Everything” campaign through the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. While results have not been finalized, Democrats have not flipped a single legislative chamber.

DLCC spokeswoman Christina Polizzi attributed the troubles to maps that already favored the GOP and President Donald Trump’s strength in Republican areas.

“We always knew that it was going to be a long shot, but at the end of the day, of course, we were going to take offensive targets. That’s what a political committee does,” Polizzi said.

Kincaid ascribed the success to smart targeting of down-ballot races. He also cited Trump’s strength with his base.

“The president was strong where he needed to be strong,” Kincaid said. “[Republicans in state legislative races] were playing in the right places, and they didn’t reach too far. They focused on what they needed to focus on to win.”

The static nature of Tuesday’s results stands out for New York Law School professor Jeff Wice, a redistricting expert. By Thursday, only one state legislature had flipped, as the New Hampshire Senate reverted to Republican control. Control in Arizona had not been called, but that won’t affect redistricting as the state uses a bipartisan independent commission to draw maps.

Several states also tinkered with how they’re going to draw district lines.

Voters in Missouri passed a constitutional amendment giving a bipartisan commission appointed by the state’s governor control over the redistricting process. Hannah Wheelen, a project manager at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said the amendment attracted the moniker “dirty Missouri” for reversing redistricting reforms put in place by a 2018 ballot initiative.

“This passing basically stripped most of the really powerful pieces the Missouri reform had,” Wheelen said.

In 2018, Missouri voters, by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin, approved giving a state demographer selected by political leaders the power to draw legislative maps, among other changes. Following that measure’s passage, the state Legislature placed another constitutional amendment before voters to remove the demographer.

Tuesday, Missouri voters passed that provision, handing the line-drawing power back over to a bipartisan commission.

On the other hand, Virginia voters passed their own constitutional amendment to take redistricting power out of the political branch — sort of. The amendment, which creates a redistricting commission with a mix of elected officials and members of the public, passed on a 65 percent to 34 percent vote Tuesday.

New Jersey passed a redistricting amendment to handle the potential late delivery of census redistricting data before the 2021 legislative elections. Under the measure, the state will proceed with an election under the existing maps before running under new lines in 2023.

Headed for the courthouse

With little change in state legislative power, many disputes over the maps they draw will likely head to state courthouses.

Since a Supreme Court decision last year that found partisan gerrymandering was constitutional, advocates have signaled they’ll likely pursue cases in state courts. That’s what happened in Pennsylvania in 2018 when the court mandated a new congressional map. Wice said he hoped both sides would ratchet things down a notch and avoid costly, dragged-out court battles.

“We don’t want to see states litigating for the entire decade. That is a waste of time and money and doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose,” he said. “Lessons should have been learned in 2010.”

Kincaid doesn’t see it that way, though. He pointed to the long history of litigation over maps in places like North Carolina.

“We’ve been in a continuous stream of litigation for the last 30 years, and we anticipate that’s going to continue,” he said.

Polizzi said something similar. Republicans caught Democrats flat-footed in 2010, when the GOP flipped 22 state chambers, and the DLCC doesn’t intend to let that happen again.

“We know what’s coming and we’re going to fight against it through things like public accountability and then through the courts,” Polizzi said. 

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