2021’s Top Five Oddities Of America’s Broken Redistricting Process

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The turn of the decade brings a uniquely American tradition, one that’s transformed over the years from tragedy to farce: redistricting. 

The spectacle of elected officials choosing their own voters has always been absurd. But recently — with the help of specialized consultants, advanced mapping technology and a deep bench of shameless politicians — the process has become a grotesque spectator sport. 

After careful study, we’ve collected some of our favorite examples of this year’s redistricting nonsense.

In Georgia, Demographics Are Not Destiny

In this redistricting cycle, Georgia Republicans sought to control a trend that has been empowering Democrats across much of the country: the explosion in voting power of increasingly blue-leaning suburbs. In this case, they wanted to snatch back a seat flipped by Democrats in the northern Atlanta suburbs. 

Both Reps. Lucy McBath (D-GA) and Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-GA) had harnessed that energy, driven by the state’s rapid demographic change, to flip seats in recent elections. McBath, a two-time breast cancer survivor and gun-control activist after her son was murdered, vanquished former Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) in 2018. Handel had just the year before beaten now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) in a very high-profile special election. Bourdeaux squeaked by her Republican opponent in 2020, the only Democrat to achieve a non-redistricting related seat flip in the cycle. 

Now, Republicans are looking to fell one of the two success stories. Their map turned McBath’s district from Biden + 11 to Trump + 15, packing Democratic voters into a new district which overlaps with much of Bordeaux’s old one. Both women will run there, battling it out in a primary for the rights to the safe blue seat. 

It’s a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. Two successful incumbents will fight each other in a potentially bruising primary, while Republicans use their state control to make sure demographics do not equal destiny. 

A Nebraska Gerrymander With Presidential Implications 

Due to Nebraska’s unorthodox system, GOP redistricting in the Cornhusker State may have presidential implications. Each of its three districts gives its own electoral vote to the presidential candidate of its choice — the only state that awards some of its electoral votes by district besides Maine. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signed the new map into law in September which gives Nebraska’s second district a more Republican lean. That’ll both help protect Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), whose seat has been trending bluer, while also attempting to keep Democratic presidential candidates from picking off the second district’s electoral vote — like President Joe Biden did in 2020. 

Maryland Democrats Don’t Go For The Jugular 

While the current map in Maryland sees Democrats maintaining their current seven-to-one-seat edge, that consistency downplays the acrimony within the party. 

Maryland is one of the few places where Democrats, had they the stomach to be maximally aggressive, could have sniped a seat and crafted an eight-to-zero Democratic delegation. As a bonus for Democrats, the Republican seat they would have snatched back belongs to Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a culture warrior and election-decertifier who refuses to call Jan. 6 an insurrection.

But they didn’t go for the jugular. They only made Harris’ seat more competitive, but it retains its GOP lean. Some Democrats involved were uncomfortable with the contortions the maneuver would have required; some found an eight-to-zero map plum unfair. 

Their restraint has netted them essentially nothing. Not only does Harris retain the advantage going into 2022, but a group aligned with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is also suing, calling the map an “extreme political gerrymander.” 

Ohio Republicans Use The Worst Metric Of All Time

Republicans constitute a majority of Ohio’s redistricting commission, so the question this year wasn’t whether they would get their way or not — it was how they would justify the lopsided map. And it was quite lopsided, with 66 percent of state assembly districts favoring Republicans despite Trump winning the state with just 53 percent of the vote in 2020. 

Get a load of this: The commission’s GOP members said that the districts could be so justified because Republicans won 13 out of 16 statewide elections over the past decade — 81 percent. They only won those races with a cumulative 55 percent of the vote. But redistricting commission Republicans split the difference. “Thus, the statewide portion of voters favoring statewide Democratic candidates is between 55 percent and 81 percent” they wrote. 

It’s hard to capture the funkiness of this math, particularly given Ohio’s recent history. Voters have passed two constitutional amendments in recent years, one each in 2015 and 2018, to fight back against partisan gerrymandering. The Washington Post called the math “brazen.”

But it was Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Frank LaRose, who put it best in an unguarded text message to an aide: “This rationale is asinine. I should vote no.” (He ultimately voted yes.)

Count Of Competitive Districts Plunges

Perhaps the topline from the drafted and approved redistricting maps this year is the dramatic decrease in competitive districts. Both parties are guilty. Democrats passed slanted maps in Oregon and Illinois. But Republicans deserve the lion’s-share of the credit, with robust efforts in Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia — and on and on. 

Last month, the Washington Post found that, in 15 states with approved new congressional maps, the number of competitive districts — those with a 2020 presidential race margin within five points — had fallen from 23 to 10. 

Some Republicans involved in the process have tried to brush aside the trend. Adam Kincaid, the director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, told The New York Times that trying to draw more competitive districts would result in “just a lot of squiggly lines.”

It’s a hazy concept, but the competition loss gets clearer at the state level: As Inside Elections’ Bradley Wascher observed last month, Texas entered this year’s redistricting process with 14 competitive districts, measured here as districts where the Trump-Biden margin was within 10 points.

Despite Texas earning two new congressional districts in 2020 due to population growth, the congressional map signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) brings the number of competitive districts down to… three. 

“In effect,” Wascher wrote, “the map benefits the GOP by placing a hard cap on Democrats’ potential gains for most of the next decade.”

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Notable Replies

  1. Just as I asked yesterday on the re-districting story:

    Is it only legitimate reporting to tell the story from the ‘disaster the Dems are facing in midterms’ when other reporting indicates it’s not a disaster - that the Dems are not as much in the crisis stage as is being reported here?

    I cited three stories yesterday from other sources that indicate just the opposite of the doom and gloom that TPM wants to focus on.

    I’m all in favor of knocking down complacency, because the Dems DO need to win House and Senate next year, but what about the success stories? They won’t get enough clicks?

  2. I’m going to go with TMP is informing us, those of us who don’t follow this very important, but technical maneuvering.
    Also it’s the end of the year what else do they have to report on?

  3. I understand your frustration. In addition, there are many stories which–by themselves–offer hope.

    The only explanation (besides $$$$$$$) I can think of for Gloom and Doom stories anywhere is the torpor the Democrats exhibited in 2016, when every Democrat alive should have shelved their “dislike” for Hillary Clinton and voted for her to beat arch-criminal Donald Trump.

    Complacency

  4. So just checked the latest generic ballot at 538.
    CW suggest that Dems need a 7 point advantage in the generic poll margin in order to beat the gerrymander headwind to win the House. Two polls by Yougov show 8% and 9% advantage for Dems.
    Also too…I don’t think the important aspect of the 2020 census is the movement of folks from blue states to red states but more importantly, the movement of folks from red counties to blue cities.

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