A blue wave swept across Wisconsin on Tuesday night, ousting Gov. Scott Walker and sending U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin back to Washington by double digits. Democrats captured every statewide office, defeating a Republican attorney general, taking over the treasurer’s office and re-electing a progressive secretary of state.
Then the wave crashed against the GOP seawall: Gerrymandering.
More than 1.3 million Wisconsin voters backed a Democratic candidate for the state Assembly, compared to 1.1 million ballots for Republicans. The GOP, however, maintained its 63-36 supermajority in the Assembly and expanded its edge in the state Senate. Only eight Assembly races were competitive enough to finish within single digits. Republicans won seven. Had Democrats won them all, they’d still have a double-digit minority of seats. (Democrats also failed, for the fourth straight election on these maps, to flip a U.S. House seat in Wisconsin this year.)
Truth is, they never had a chance. Secret Republican draft maps and detailed statistical studies — which became public through a legal challenge to these Assembly maps that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (the litigation is ongoing) — revealed how they drew these lines to serve as a barrier against exactly this kind of wave. Once again, they performed as expected.
Democrats had a really good election night, outside of the U.S. Senate, where the party faced its toughest map in a century. They’ll take control of the U.S. House after a gain of at least 32 seats. They flipped more than 325 state legislative seats nationwide, even turning red chambers to blue in Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, New York and New Hampshire. There will be Democratic governors in Michigan, Nevada, and even Kansas.
It would be easy to look at these gains and suggest that the impact of gerrymandering has been overstated. That would also be wrong.
The most extreme gerrymanders nationwide not only held up, they limited GOP losses, pushed back hard against Democratic majorities, and left Republicans in a powerful position ahead of the redistricting cycle that begins in 2021. Several victorious ballot measures will help level the playing field, and Democrats improved their standing by winning key governors’ races, gaining a degree of control over gerrymandering in those states. But Democrats nevertheless remain at a profound disadvantage. Blue wave, meet the red firewall.
This is especially apparent at the state legislative level. In Michigan, more voters cast ballots for Democratic state House and Senate candidates. Nevertheless, Republicans kept control of both chambers. Democrats have now won more total votes for the state House in four consecutive elections without claiming a majority. In the state Senate, Democrats earned 50.4 percent of the votes. Republicans will claim 58 percent of the seats.
Gerrymandered districts also blocked majority will in North Carolina’s state legislature. Republicans will maintain majorities in both chambers despite a minority of votes. Democrats earned 51 percent of the state House vote, but just 45 percent of the seats. On the Senate side, Democrats also won the most votes — but Republicans captured 58 percent of the seats. A majority of voters wanted Democratic control. On these maps, the best those majorities could do was break GOP veto-proof supermajorities.
In Ohio, the popular vote for Democratic congressional candidates increased to 48 percent, an uptick of 5.4 percentage points. Not only did that translate into zero new seats, but Republicans will still hold 12 of the state’s 16 seats — 75 percent of the power with 52 percent of the vote. This split is just as stark in North Carolina, where Democrats won more than 49 percent of the overall congressional vote, failed to flip a U.S. House seat for the fourth straight election of this redistricting cycle , and once again hold just three of the state’s 13 seats in Washington. North Carolina’s electorate shifted from red to blue. The seats didn’t budge.
Compare that to Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court ordered a new, non-partisan congressional map installed for 2018, after overturning district lines that had produced a 13-5 GOP delegation in 2012, 2014, and 2016 as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The new districts created a fairer outcome: Democrats won 53 percent of the popular vote, and converted it into 50 percent of the seats. (In contrast, Democrats won just a tick under 50 percent of the statewide vote in 2016, but just 28 percent of the seats.)
How important are maps? While Pennsylvania’s congressional map was replaced this year, the state legislative maps drawn by Republicans remained in place. Pennsylvania voters re-elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator with double-digit margins and flipped several U.S. House seats blue — but as in North Carolina, a blue wave didn’t come close to control, but merely ended a GOP supermajority in the Senate.
Republicans created these swing-state firewalls after the 2010 midterms, when they won unilateral power to remap North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and several other crucial states. Give the credit to a well-timed GOP wave and a savvy, $30 million strategy called REDMAP. Its focus was to flip swing-state legislative chambers red ahead of the decennial redistricting that follows the census, then to etch durable, decade-long advantages with the help of sophisticated new mapping software.
It was so effective that in 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes for the U.S. House, but Republicans retained a 234-201 majority. That crumbled this week, thanks in part to court decisions against partisan and racial gerrymandering that mandated fairer congressional maps and new districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.
Elsewhere, however, Democrats continue to struggle to translate a majority of votes into a majority of seats. Before, 2010, that was not the case in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. When, under the previous decade’s maps, Democrats won more votes there in 2008, they captured legislative chambers. In 2010, a red wave pushed them to the GOP.
That’s when the lines were redrawn, a GOP move that immediately paid dividends: Democrats won more state House votes in each of those states in 2012, but failed to win a single chamber. Republicans have suggested that Democratic clustering in urban areas is responsible, but courts and academic studies have consistently dismissed the idea that a modest geographic advantage created such extreme results.
Court challenges have also unearthed smoking guns. In Wisconsin, a federal court declared the state Assembly map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, based in part on detailed statistical modeling that showed how the GOP maps were carefully crafted to withstand even a 54 percent Democratic wave. In North Carolina, where another federal court threw out the state’s congressional map, a legislator actually admitted that it was designed to create a 10-3 Republican edge, only because mapmakers couldn’t determine how to make it 11-2. Both of those cases could return to the U.S. Supreme Court over the next year.
Democrats snoozed on REDMAP in 2010, but the party’s fully awakened now. Trouble is, 2020 redistricting is one election cycle away, and the biggest blue wave in more than a decade only nominally improved the party’s standing.
More than two-thirds of the U.S. House seats flipped by Democrats were drawn by commissions or courts; the lines drawn by Republicans to protect Republicans largely survived. A new Democratic governor in Wisconsin will give the party veto power over new maps — but Republicans have already moved to curtail his powers. Democrats need to retake either chamber in North Carolina or Florida to have a seat at the table there after 2020, which would require a still-larger wave than this one.
Democrats also lost key down-ballot Ohio elections, such as the state auditor and secretary of state, that will help determine the makeup of the bipartisan commission there in 2021. The chambers they did flip — Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut, for example — carry little authority or impact over redistricting. New Democratic governors could veto GOP maps in Kansas and Virginia, but victories by Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland could give Republicans some influence over maps that are currently bright blue.
That’s not a bad thing: Studies show that fairer maps get drawn when both parties have a say, and more extreme maps when one side is locked out of the process. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Most voters don’t see it that way. On Election Day, four states — Michigan, Utah, Colorado and Missouri — went around the politicians and passed ballot initiatives that will require fair maps. Red states, blue states, purple states — they all detest gerrymandering.
Perhaps that will put pressure on politicians to pass meaningful reforms. But very few states remain where this can be fixed via referendum, and the U.S. Supreme Court showed little interest in getting involved even before Justice Anthony Kennedy retired and his replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, shifted power rightward.
Meanwhile, our democracy continues to be distorted by swing-state maps that remain extraordinarily challenging for Democratic inroads, even with sizable popular victories. Fixing it may require something as difficult as successive tsunami-style elections in closely divided states, during polarized times. Even that might not be enough.
Democrats may have flipped the U.S. House, but the next set of lines will be drawn by state legislatures that remain deeply gerrymandered. When voters can’t translate majorities into seats in the chambers that are supposed to be most responsive, nothing less than democracy itself is at risk.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton) and a senior fellow at FairVote.