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The House Hangs in the Balance


A creatively-drawn state senate district in 1812 -- which political cartoonists mocked at the time alternatively as resembling either a salamander or a monster -- became the basis for gerrymandering in the United States.


There are now less than 15 months until the 2022 midterm elections. Although it feels like we’ve only just emerged from the 2020 elections, normally at this time in the midterm cycle, pollsters and political pundits are publishing lists of what they think will be the most competitive House and Senate races next year.


They have done so for the Senate, but not the House.


Why?


The delay is because no one yet knows what the 535 House districts up for grabs next year will look like. The U.S. Census Bureau did not release its official population data until last Thursday, August 12. As CNN explained, this data dump set off the every-10-year “scramble to redraw congressional lines.”


But population shifts are not the only driver that will impact these lines next year. Recent Supreme Court rulings also could impact the shape of House districts.


Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing electoral districts to favor one person or party, has influenced the makeup of state and federal legislative districts almost since the birth of our nation. What is it, and is it about to get worse?


Let’s take a look.


The History of Gerrymandering

According to The History Channel, the term gerrymandering was coined in the United States in 1812. (The practice can be traced back to England before the U.S. colonies declared their independence.)


The Boston Gazette ran a political cartoon in 1812 that depicted “a new species of monster: The Gerry-mander.” (“Gerry” at that time was pronounced “Gary.”) The drawing showed a “contorted Massachusetts voting district that the state’s Jeffersonian Republicans had drawn to benefit their own party.” Not knowing his surname would become synonymous with a new (and distasteful) political practice, Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved the redistricting plan.


The effort worked. Jeffersonian Republicans received around 49 percent of the total votes cast that year but won 29 of the 40 state Senate seats.


Gerrymandering continued from there and exploded after the Civil War when amendments to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed Black men (not women) the right to vote. State legislators began to attempt to draw electoral district lines based on the racial breakdown of the population. This particular practice is known as racial gerrymandering.


A century later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that attempted to curb racial gerrymandering. According to The History Channel, these decisions meant “all state voting districts must have roughly equal populations.” They also established the every-10-year process of rewriting congressional district lines.


As Ballotpedia has explained, Congress also tried to intervene during the mid-20th century to prevent gerrymandering based on race. Specifically, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 said no “standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The law stands today.


These actions successfully reduced the rate of gerrymandering for a few decades, but the practice made a comeback in the 1990s when, according to The History Channel, “computer technology made it easier for political operatives to strategically map districts to benefit their party under the new rules.” While these mechanisms surely take race into account, electoral district lines are primarily drawn based on voter registration and other data.


This practice is known as partisan gerrymandering.


Notably, data gurus are now trying to fight back against gerrymandering.


According to MIT Technology Review, “mathematicians are sharpening new algorithms — open-source tools, developed over recent years — that detect and counter gerrymandering.” Representable.org “started off as a final project for a computer science course at Princeton University. Today, the software program has partners in over 20 states” who are trying to combat gerrymandering. Princeton even has created a contest for who can draw the most legally compliant gerrymandered districts. Students at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School won this year with a submission that saw Democrats representing a majority of Ohio’s 15 congressional districts despite winning only 46% of votes.


These reformers appear to have the American people on their sides.

Americans Oppose Gerrymandering

While partisan gerrymandering is proliferating, Americans and presidents from both parties have been nearly united in their opposition to it.


During his time in the White House, President Ronald Reagan said, “gerrymandering has become a national scandal.” President Barack Obama said, “We've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”


Earlier this month, The Hill reported that a public poll by the nonprofit anti-corruption group RepresentUs found nearly 9 in 10 voters oppose the use of redistricting in a manner that aims to help one political party or certain politicians win an election. The poll also “found little variation among voters who backed former President Trump, with 88 percent saying they oppose the practice and 92 percent of Biden voters saying the same.”


The Hill also reported that a poll fielded in April 2021 by The Associated Press found that 74 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans, and 63 percent of independents believe gerrymandering is “a major problem.”


These numbers have been fairly consistent over the last few years.


A poll conducted in 2017 by Democratic researcher Celinda Lake and Republican analyst Ashlee Rich Stephenson, “found 71 percent of Americans would like the Supreme Court to define a standard that ends extreme partisan gerrymandering.” Eight in 10 Democrats agreed with that statements 68 percent of independents and 65 percent of Republicans did. Lake noted, “It’s hard to find bipartisan consensus in America today,” but “this issue has bipartisan consensus even among partisan voters.”


A majority of the Supreme Court, which is not meant to follow popular will, did not agree.


SCOTUS Ruled It Cannot Take on Political Gerrymandering

On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a single ruling for two cases: Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. In his majority opinion for the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts found partisan gerrymandering claims fall beyond the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. As The Hill explained last week, that means “federal courthouses will be forced to turn away even the most egregious cases of partisan gerrymandering, which could make it easier for state lawmakers to lock in politically manipulated voting maps for the next decade.”


David Daley, an expert on partisan gerrymandering agreed. He told The Hill the Roberts decision “really tilted the playing field … toward those who would manipulate maps for their own political gain.”


Accordingly, when it comes to redrawing districts this midterm election, Republicans have a distinct advantage. According to Mother Jones, the GOP will be able to draw 187 congressional districts, compared to 75 for Democrats. (Independent commissions will redraw the remaining congressional districts.) Indeed, Republican lawmakers already have “admitted” that redistricting is part of their strategy to retake the House. For example, Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) proclaimed, “We have redistricting coming up, and the Republicans control most of that process in most of the states around the country … That alone should get us the majority back.”


There are some states where Democrats are particularly worried.


The Hill cited a study by the Brennan Center that found four states with GOP-held legislatures (Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas) are at the “highest risk of extreme gerrymandering.” Three of these four states (all but Georgia) are among the jurisdictions that are gaining congressional seats based on new Census population data. And together these four “could draw anywhere from six to 13 new congressional districts that heavily favor GOP candidates — which would be enough for Republicans to retake the House in 2022.”


When Will We Know How Congressional Districts Look?

Most states have statutory or constitutional deadlines that govern redistricting. Because of the Census delay, a handful of states have had to pass one-time changes that will allow policymakers to exceed those deadlines.


The political data website FiveThirtyEight has assembled every state’s deadline and will track progress toward meeting them. According to this source, most states are likely to complete their work in the first quarter of 2022. Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia are among the states that are supposed to complete work in 2021. Louisianans won’t know the shape of their congressional districts until July 22, 2022, less than four months from election 2022.


Keep that in mind as you start to read prognostications about which party will take control the House after Election Day 2022. There still is a lot of work to be done before any of us know what these districts will look like.

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