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How Democrats Turned the Tables in the Gerrymandering Wars

Conservatives are suddenly hopping mad that their opponents decided to play the game by the GOP’s rules.

Protesters carry maps of gerrymandered districts in front of the Supreme Court.
Sarah L. Voisin/Getty Images

Something very funny started happening over the last few months: Conservatives started complaining about gerrymandering. Maybe they suddenly had an epiphany about its corrosive, anti-democratic effects on American politics. Or maybe, contrary to expectations on both sides of the political divide, this decade’s post-census redistricting cycle didn’t tilt things in the GOP’s favor quite as much as anticipated.

The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman recently noted that Democrats fared better in most of the state-level battles in recent months. “Sure, you can point to commission maps in AZ/IA/MT, or that MD Dems didn’t pursue the 8D-0R gerrymander Steny Hoyer wanted,” he explained on Twitter the other day. But the “big questions” that emerged during the once-in-a-decade process in California, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Alabama, New York, and North Carolina all went in Democrats’ favor. 

One of the most recent victories  took place in New York, where the state legislature is on the verge of tipping as many as three or four House seats away from the GOP. That drew a frustrated protest from former President Donald Trump, who warned supporters that Republicans were “getting absolutely creamed with the phony redistricting going on all over the country.” A group of GOP voters sued the state to block the new maps last week, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board complained that Democrats may have “rigged districts” well enough to preserve their House majority in this year’s midterm elections.

Other solid-blue states have also tilted their House maps in Democrats’ favor to the frustration of conservatives. The Journal’s editorial board bemoaned last October that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker would sign off on a state legislative map that all but locked Democrats into 14 House seats and left only three of them as viable for Republicans. “Despite years of hyperbolic moralizing about Republican gerrymandering, Democrats are pursuing the most extreme gerrymanders whenever they can,” the board fumed.

Even more troubling for the Journal’s editorial board was a map drawn by California’s independent redistricting commission, which appears poised to make it easier for Democrats to gain seats for the next decade. The board noted on Christmas Eve that the map effectively creates 44 safe Democratic seats and only three safe Republican seats.

“Eight GOP-leaning seats out of 52, or 15.4 percent, is significantly less than the Republican vote share in state congressional elections (33.7 percent in 2020),” the board explained. “The map’s partisan balance appears not too different from the most efficient partisan gerrymander possible.” 

That all sounds suspiciously like the efficiency-gap arguments raised in partisan-gerrymandering lawsuits before the Supreme Court, which the court’s conservative majority shrugged off as, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “sociological gobbledygook.”

When Roberts made that remark in 2017 during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, the Journal’s editorial board took a different tone toward the idea that House seats should align with partisanship. It counseled the court to uphold the gerrymanders in question—and reject the proportion-oriented theory behind them. “Instead of representing a community that is mostly compact and cohesive, the lawmaker would be selected according to a statewide partisan balance determined by the court,” the board explained. “Such an approach can only heighten the already intense partisanship of contemporary politics.” How things have changed.

It wasn’t until Rucho v. Common Cause in 2019, however, that the Supreme Court finally ruled that federal courts couldn’t resolve partisan-gerrymandering lawsuits on their own. When the court’s conservative bloc issued that 5–4 ruling, the Journal’s editorial board praised it as “a notable example of judicial restraint” and predicted that “over the long run it will protect the High Court’s credibility.” It also dismissed the points raised by Justice Elena Kagan, who warned in her dissent that voters in many states would now be powerless to prevent lawmakers from entrenching themselves and their party in power. (As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern reported on Monday, the Supreme Court overruled a lower court order that would have forced Alabama lawmakers to redraw a map that “diluted Black votes in violation of the Voting Rights Act” in a 5–4 decision. This time, Roberts joined in the dissent.)

Not to worry, the editorial board opined, because alternative routes to reform still exist. “There are also political remedies for political gerrymanders,” they argued. “Politicians can elevate extreme redistricting as a campaign issue and offer solutions that don’t rely on judges. Florida added a ‘fair districts’ amendment to its constitution. Some states have given the task of drawing lines to a neutral commission or a demographer. Congress could even pass a law forcing such changes.”

Those suggestions may not have been completely sincere. Congressional Democrats, as it happens, have consistently proposed a federal ban on partisan gerrymandering over the last few years. But the editorial board has derided that proposal by claiming that “no one should want to give Washington a veto over redistricting maps.” And what about the state-level solutions that the board touted? When California’s independent commission produced a favorable map for Democrats this cycle, as noted earlier, it drew a furious response from the editorial board precisely for not creating enough safe Republican seats. The same outcry arose after Virginia’s anti-gerrymandering redistricting process went awry last year, at which time the board took the opportunity to declare that “the progressive fiction of apolitical maps in a time of polarization may be on its last legs.”

“But Matt,” you might ask yourself, “you’re also against gerrymandering, so doesn’t this make you a hypocrite, as well?” I have often written in support of the elementary principle that voters should choose their elected officials and not the other way around. Anti-gerrymandering reforms seemed like the best solution to this problem, and the federal courts had made earnest attempts to remedy them. But five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court closed the federal courts to opponents of partisan gerrymandering in Rucho, and Republicans in Congress aren’t interested in reopening those doors through federal legislation, despite having been given many opportunities to take yes for an answer.

So I’ve come around to the same conclusion as many conservatives: Gerrymandering is an inescapable feature of single-member districts, and it can never be fully extirpated from the redistricting process. Where I part ways with the right is on what comes next. For them, it’s nothing. This is the way it’s always been, and this is the way it’ll always be. National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson recently claimed that gerrymandering is normal and bipartisan and that the solution for Democrats is just to win the election anyway. I suggest he try doing so as a Democrat in Wisconsin, where the GOP wins two-thirds of state legislature seats with just half of the statewide vote.

The good news is that the single-member district system for House elections does not come from the Constitution. It was created by an act of Congress, and Congress is free to change its mind at any time. I would like to see the House shift toward a model of proportional representation in earnest. In my past writings on this subject, I’ve suggested that each state could be drawn as a single multimember House district. A group of House Democrats also introduced the Fair Representation Act last year that would approach the same problem from a different angle. It would create multimember districts in most states, with boundaries drawn by independent commissions and candidates elected by ranked-choice voting.

If there is a single prominent conservative in America who truly supports proportional representation in any form, I am not aware of them. They might find some good reasons to support it if they study it. Just as plenty of Democratic voters are left voiceless and powerless in the red states, so, too, are some Republican voters given a short shrift by single-member districts in the blue states. And the GOP might also benefit from maps that don’t reward the most extreme outliers in their party. (So would the country.) Until then, conservatives should stop complaining when Democrats engage in a little gerrymandering here or there. The GOP fought tooth and nail to protect the right to gerrymander over the last decade. Now every gerrymandered House seat in California, Illinois, and New York is a monument to their victory.