Redistricting Battles Shape the 2022 Midterms
While most Americans are not yet seeing political television ads or receiving endless robocalls from campaign committees, Election 2022 definitely is in full swing. In fact, it has been underway for several months — ever since the U.S. Census Bureau released data from its 2020 count.
As readers might recall from school civics lessons, the results of the every-decade Census determine how many congressional seats each state will have for the next 10 years. Those results also set off fierce fights in every U.S. state over how to redraw congressional districts. That’s because, outside of stipulating that the number of House districts in each state is dependent on population, the U.S. Constitution does not say much about congressional apportionment. It does not say who should draw district lines, or what happens if the architects do not agree, and it certainly does not stipulate what should happen if one group of voters feels disadvantaged over another once the lines are drawn.
All that the U.S. Constitution says is that each state, “and legislature thereof,” gets to determine the “times, places, and manner" of congressional elections.
So who is in charge of redistricting in each state, and what could their decisions mean for 2022? Let’s take a look.
How States Redraw Congressional District Lines
Elections matter. And if you care about how districts for the U.S. House of Representatives are drawn, state legislative elections really matter. That is because, according to Ballotpedia, in 33 U.S. states, the legislatures have primary control over how the lines for U.S. congressional seats are drawn. In most of these states, it takes only a simple majority vote to approve redistricting plans. Governors do have the opportunity to veto the plans — just like they would with any piece of legislation — but if legislative leaders can muster enough votes they can override these vetoes.
Legislators in a handful of these 33 states (Iowa, Maine, Maryland, and Utah) work with nonpartisan advisory committees on the front end to draft redistricting plans. While this process is somewhat more collaborative (and bipartisan), the legislatures still have the final say when it comes to redistricting approval. According to scholars at Loyola Law School, in eight of these 33 states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas), if legislators cannot agree to a plan, a backup advisory committee will step in. Generally, these commissions are populated by statewide elected officials like the attorney general or even governor.
What happens in the other 17 states?
In the six least-populated U.S. states (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) redistricting is not even necessary because there is only one congressional district for the entire state.
As the Loyola Law School scholars explain, in another three states (Hawaii, New Jersey, and Virginia) political commissions redraw congressional districts. The makeup of these commissions vary, but the party that controls the state government generally has outsized input into the process. In the remaining eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York, and Washington — independent commissions are in charge of congressional redistricting. Generally, state regulations limit the direct participation by elected officials on these panels in order to rein in the potential for partisanship.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, while there are limited exceptions, congressional redistricting must be completed before primary election filing deadlines. (Candidates for office, after all, need to know where to campaign and what voters to talk to!) Those deadlines will start to hit in earnest in late winter and early spring. Texas is the only state where the filing deadline already has passed.
While these deadlines are coming up quickly, only 26 of the 44 states that must rewrite congressional districts are done with that work.
Which Party Has The Redistricting Advantage So Far?
According to Politico, the 26 states that have completed redistricting work have a total of 268 congressional seats. When looking at the partisan makeup of these districts, it appears that Democrats have an advantage. Only 99 of these districts are what Politico is calling strong Trump seats — meaning voters in them overwhelmingly chose the former president in the 2020 election. Far more, 127 to be precise, are strong Biden seats. The rest (42) are toss-up seats.
While those numbers seem to bode well for Democrats, the election data website FiveThirtyEight has provided a deeper insight into the numbers.
According to FiveThirtyEight, redistricting so far has created seven more Democratic-leaning seats nationally, but since all of those seats already are held by Democrats it just means the incumbents in them (or the incumbent party) is in a safer position. Democrats have not really improved their odds of taking over seats currently held by the GOP.
FiveThirtyEight says it is “actually Republicans who have gained a handful of House seats through the redistricting process so far.” Additionally, “Republicans have also converted light-red districts into safer seats in states like Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah.” Based on redistricting alone – meaning in a political vacuum – Republicans could take back enough seats to gain a House majority after this November’s election.
The GOP also went into the 2022 redistricting process in the catbird seat. As FiveThirtyEight reported last April, based on presidential election results, the map of U.S. House districts “has had a Republican bias since at least 1968.” Additionally, after a round of highly successful state legislative elections in 2010, the GOP actually “drew more than five times as many congressional districts as Democrats, and they used it to push their structural advantage in the House to record levels.”
In other words: Democrats have decades of redistricting disadvantages to undo. That’s why both parties are using every opportunity to stake claim on the 2022 redistricting process.
Ohio Supreme Court Overrules GOP Legislature’s Map
Republicans are in charge of the redistricting process in Ohio. As The Columbus Dispatch explained, as written by the state legislature’s majority, the map would “have given Republicans as much as a 12-3 advantage in a state that voted for President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, twice.” According to Harvard professor Dr. Kosuke Imai, Republicans would have been expected to win three more House seats under Ohio’s redrawn map than they currently hold.
The League of Women Voters and a group led by Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder challenged the GOP-drawn map in state court and, last week, those challengers prevailed. In 2018, Ohio voters had approved a constitutional amendment that sought to prevent a congressional district map that favored one party over another. In a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state legislature’s lopsided map violated that language.
As a result, Ohio lawmakers must draft a new map. They have 30 days to do so. According to The Dispatch, “If they can't reach a solution, the Ohio Redistricting Commission — a panel of statewide elected officials and state lawmakers — will have 30 days to do so.”
A similar challenge is wending its way through the North Carolina court system, where a Republican-led legislature also redrew maps to the party’s advantage. A lower court panel made up of one Democrat and two Republicans has ruled the map is constitutional, but the state supreme court has not yet heard challengers’ appeal. According to The New York Times, as written, North Carolina’s new congressional map “would give Republicans control of as many as 11 of the state’s 14 House seats, compared to the party’s current eight-to-five edge.”
Florida Governor Writes His Own Map
In Florida, congressional district lines are drawn by the state legislature and subject to the governor’s veto.
For current Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), however, that veto power simply was not enough. As The Associated Press reported, this past Sunday night Gov. DeSantis “submitted a proposal to reshape the state’s congressional map and carve up districts held by Black Democrats.” Through a spokesperson, the governor said he had “legal concerns” with the map that was drawn by the Republican-held legislature. The state Senate had been planning to vote on the maps as early as this week.
The Associated Press called the move highly unusual. Other news outlets have said it might be without precedent.
While we cannot find any other instance of similar gubernatorial actions — so are not sure about precedent — we are sure that this move is the latest signal that Gov. DeSantis has his eye on higher office. (As the website Florida Politics noted, the governor’s redistricting move was in response to “conservatives [who] have complained the maps out of the Senate don’t seek to gain U.S. House seats for Republicans.”)
We are also sure that Florida’s intra-party kerfuffle indicates that Election 2022 could be among the country’s most contentious yet.