Joe Biden may have won the White House, but down-ballot races were much better for Republicans. In fact, the GOP’s victories in state-level elections could pay dividends long after Biden leaves office, thanks to their influence over next year’s redistricting process.
Every 10 years, after the census, congressional and state legislature districts are redrawn to account for population changes. This gives whoever is drawing the maps the power to maximize the number of districts that favor their party — a tactic known as gerrymandering. And as we wrote last month, the 2020 election represented the last chance for voters to weigh in on who would draw those maps. Both parties went into the election with a chance to draw more congressional districts than the other, but the end result was just about the best-case scenario for Republicans. As the map below shows, Republicans are set to control the redistricting of 188 congressional seats — or 43 percent of the entire House of Representatives. By contrast, Democrats will control the redistricting of, at most, 73 seats, or 17 percent.
How did Republicans pull that off? By winning almost every 2020 election in which control of redistricting was at stake:
- The GOP kept control of the redistricting process in Texas by holding the state House. Given that Election Data Services estimates Texas will have 39 congressional seats for the next decade, this was arguably Republicans’ single biggest win of the 2020 election.
- Republicans successfully defended the Pennsylvania legislature from a Democratic takeover, although they’ll still need to share redistricting power over its projected 17 congressional districts, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has veto power.
- Republicans held the majority in both chambers of the North Carolina legislature, which will enable them to draw an expected 14 congressional districts all by themselves.
- Amendment 1 passed in Virginia, taking the power to draw the state’s 11 congressional districts out of the hands of the all-Democratic state government and investing it in a bipartisan commission made up of a mix of citizens and legislators.
- In Missouri (home to eight congressional districts), Gov. Mike Parson was elected to a second term, keeping redistricting control in Republican hands.
- In an upset, Republicans managed to keep their majority in the Minnesota state Senate, thus ensuring Democrats wouldn’t have the unfettered ability to draw the state’s projected seven congressional districts. The parties will share redistricting responsibilities there.
- The GOP kept control of the state House in Iowa, with its four congressional districts.
- Republicans maintained their supermajorities in the Kansas Legislature, enabling them to pass a new congressional map (worth four districts) over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.
- Finally, Republicans surprisingly flipped both the state Senate and state House in New Hampshire (worth two congressional districts), seizing full control of both the state government and the redistricting process.
The one state where Republicans may not have gotten their preferred outcome is New York, where we still don’t know who will control the redistricting process because the state is taking so long to count absentee ballots. If Democrats win a supermajority in the state Senate, they will have total veto power over the state’s projected 26 congressional districts. Democrats are close to clearing that bar, but we won’t know if they make it for, potentially, weeks.
Regardless of the outcome in New York, the overall redistricting picture is the same: The GOP is in almost as good a position as it enjoyed in the last redistricting process when Republicans controlled the drawing of 55 percent of congressional districts and Democrats controlled only 10 percent after 2010’s GOP wave. As a result, the House map has been more biased toward Republicans this decade than at any point since the 1970s (and Republicans have been able to win multiple chambers in state legislatures despite losing the statewide popular vote1). It now looks as if we’re headed for another 10 years of Republican-favoring maps. Democrats were able to win the House and several state legislatures in 2018 thanks to shifting vote patterns in the suburbs in particular, but Republicans in many states will now have the opportunity to draw new gerrymanders that account for this realignment.
That said, the House map overall might still be less biased in the 2020s than it was in the 2010s. While it’s true that Republicans are set to draw many more congressional districts than Democrats, they will still draw fewer than they did in 2011. In addition, at least 167 districts,2 or 38 percent of the House, will be drawn by independent commissions or by both parties sharing power.3 That’s up from 145 (33 percent) in 2011, in part because states such as Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia passed redistricting-related ballot measures in recent years. These reforms should translate into fewer gerrymandered seats overall — by either party.
Furthermore, some redistricting processes still controlled by one party — think Ohio’s or Utah’s — have new rules in place designed to encourage more neutral maps. So ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see what the often-messy redistricting process produces in each state — and you can rest assured that will be a major focus of FiveThirtyEight’s coverage in 2021.
Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @baseballot
Elena Mejía is an associate visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight. @elena___mejia
Nov 17th 2020
BY ADAM ROBERTS: MIDWEST CORRESPONDENT, THE ECONOMIST
FOCUS ONLY on elections and you risk missing how, once in a decade, decisions are made that greatly influence who gets to hold power in America. In the year after the 2020 census it is up to states—either through their legislatures or through special commissions—to redraw voting districts to adjust for population change. Where politicians or their appointees oversee this, they get a chance to gerrymander. By drawing lines craftily, such as by concentrating their own likely voters and dividing those of their opponents, they can lock in a partisan advantage that endures for ten years.
Last time around, Republican strategists did so skilfully. Democrats, clobbered by the Tea Party wave, did badly in elections for state legislatures and governors in 2010. Republicans won those easily in Midwestern swing states, such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, then got to decide on redistricting the following year. The result: such states have become some of the most grossly gerrymandered. In Wisconsin, for example, even if Democrats won 54% of the votes cast in legislative elections, Republicans could still expect to enjoy a nine-seat majority in the state assembly.
This is not just unfair. It also encourages extremism. In gerrymandered seats, the incumbent knows that the risk of losing in the general election is slight. The greater threat is from in-party primary challengers who typically appeal to the political extremes (mostly it is ardent party activists who turn out for primaries). Less gerrymandering this time, therefore, could help encourage moderates in both parties.
There had been hopes that in 2021 matters would swing back a bit. Democrats had expected to win over more state houses in 2020, for example, but their efforts badly flopped. In some places where Republicans still control the legislature, such as Wisconsin, Democrats now occupy the governor’s mansion, and can (usually) veto legislators’ redistricting plans if they are egregious. A clash there is likely as legislators and the governor squabble before the courts intervene. That will look ugly but could result in less lopsided districts.
Just as importantly, several states have cleaned up the process of drawing boundaries by pushing politicians aside. In 2018 voters in Michigan, for example, overwhelmingly backed a plan for an independent commission, for both congressional and state district maps. Arizona, California, and Colorado have all introduced independent commissions. Iowa already has non-partisan staff drawing its maps. In Pennsylvania, courts have redrawn maps that were deemed too partisan, which with luck will ensure that future efforts are more restrained. Two years ago Missouri opted to reform its system, but voters undid that change in November. Even so, at least in the Midwest, there will be less chance for skulduggery.
Where will gerrymandering still happen? Keep an eye on two trends, suggests Michael Li, an expert in the subject at the Brennan Centre for Justice, a New York think-tank that focuses on law and policy. First, watch states where one party won the “trifecta”: control of the assembly, the state senate and the governor’s mansion. Republicans already have several and added two more, in New Hampshire and Montana, in November. And, second, see where sizeable population shifts are recorded, meaning that big changes to voting districts are due.
Democratic-run Illinois remains badly gerrymandered. More serious worries arise in fast-growing southern states, where Republicans often dominate all wings of government. Race is usually an underlying issue—maps are redrawn to weaken the influence of African-American and other non-white voters (who are more reliably Democratic). Conditions are ripe for bad behavior in Florida, Georgia, and Texas—and in North Carolina, where the governor cannot veto redistricting plans.
It is unlikely that a divided Congress would agree on federal plans to improve redistricting for all, but it could push for national standards both for congressional districts and for state legislative ones. Three representatives from California proposed such a bill in 2019. Congress has acted before. In 1842 it ordered that a district could have only one representative, for example. Nearly two centuries on, it might be time for it to act again.
September 15, 2020
Every 10 years, a U.S. election bestows a predictable long-term advantage to one of the two major parties. The 2010 election handed that edge to the Republicans, and they didn’t waste the opportunity for gerrymandering — manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage. Even though Democratic candidates received more votes nationwide than did Republican candidates in the 2012 House elections, Republicans won a 234-201 seat majority.
That outcome paled alongside what happened in Wisconsin. After the 2010 election, the Republican-controlled legislature gerrymandered the state’s Assembly districts to an extent that made it impossible for Democrats to compete. In Wisconsin’s 2018 election, for instance, Republican candidates received only 45% of the statewide popular vote but won 63% of the State Assembly’s seats.
Unrestricted partisan gerrymandering was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2019. The ruling came in a 5-4 decision with the five Republican-appointed justices in the majority. “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” said Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary …” Speaking for the minority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation …”
The year 2020 has brought a new twist to what’s at stake in the decennial November election — the possibility that the U.S. census will be manipulated for partisan advantage. In early August, the Trump administration declared that the census count would end on Sept. 30 instead of the previous deadline of Oct. 31. From the standpoint of conducting a census in the midst of a pandemic, which compounded the difficulty of counting harder-to-reach residents, the decision made no sense. From a partisan standpoint, it made perfect sense. Unless the courts intervene, Republicans stand to gain from a shortening of the period. Every census ends up in an undercount, but it will be more severe this time. Racial and ethnic minorities and poor people, who lean Democratic, will constitute the large share of those left out. In turn, they will not be counted when congressional and state legislative districts are reapportioned.
What obligation do the news media have in confronting this dual threat to the integrity of our elections? The Supreme Court’s ruling places the gerrymandering threat mostly beyond the reach of whatever influence the press might have. Nonetheless, it has a duty after the election to monitor how individual states draw the boundaries of their election districts. The November election will end with Democrats and Republicans each in control of a substantial number of state governments. Gross abuses by either party in reshaping election districts should be highlighted to create pressure for more equitable outcomes. Democrats should get special scrutiny. Many of them have expressed outrage at Republicans’ abuse of redistricting power. Will they call out their own party if it does it?
The census threat is different in that the limit on the press’s influence is one of its own making. The norms of American journalism stand in the way of achieving a fuller census ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. The carrying out of the census is not a Republican or Democratic prerogative. It’s a constitutional requirement that calls for an accurate count of the U.S. population. In turn, the count affects how federal funds and legislative seats are allocated between and within the states. As such, the integrity of the census falls squarely within the bounds of watchdog journalism. Indeed, the media sounded the alarm in early August when the Trump administration announced that
the census process would be shortened.
Since then, the census issue has largely diminished in the news. Journalist Walter Lippmann predicted as much. Writing in the early 1920s, Lippmann noted that journalists concentrate on obtruding events rather than issues. Events “happen” and thus take a form that journalists recognize as news. Issues don’t happen, Lippman argued. They simply “unfold,” normally at a slow enough pace to escape journalists’ gaze.
Only rarely do issues alone drive the news, and normally only when stylized into a form that the audience will see as news. An example is the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Although almost nothing significant happened from one day to the next, the detention of American diplomats in Tehran was kept in the news by marking each day with a number. The hostages were released on Day 444.
In their classic study “Some Reasons Why Information Campaigns Fail,” sociologists Hebert Hymn and Paul Sheatsley highlighted conflicting messages and citizens’ short attention spans as obstacles to imparting vital public information. He also implicated the press for its tendency to turn quickly from one topic to the next, usually without looking backward. The census issue is no exception. The Trump administration’s census announcement in early August was prevalent in the news for not much longer than it took for Trump to dangle an enticing tweet.
Did the press’s watchdog obligation to the 2020 census end in early August with a blowing of the whistle? It’s not a simple question to answer, and journalists would differ in their views. But if the press’s obligation extends beyond the triggering event of early August, it has roughly two weeks left to blow the whistle as loudly and as often as it can. Americans need to know that time is running out for them to be counted. Today is Day 16 of the countdown, assuming the Sept. 30 deadline stands. Day 0 is Oct. 1. A countdown box on the front page of every American daily paper and every national and local newscast won’t produce a full count but would make a difference. On Oct. 1, if the news media try to blame a severe undercount squarely on the White House, media analysts might reasonably ask why journalists walked off the field in early August.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at email@example.com.