REDISTRICTING, so the old saying goes, is when politicians get to choose their voters. Every ten years, following the national census, each state must redraw the constituency boundaries for both its members of Congress and its state legislators. In most states, the party in power controls both those processes, either directly through the state legislature or indirectly through the appointment of members to commissions charged with the job.
The whole business has been riven with conflicts of interest for at least two centuries. This time around, though, Republicans are in charge in far more states than Democrats, so should be able to weight the political odds in their favour for the next decade. But that is proving trickier than normal, for a variety of reasons.
Take Texas. Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature, so can draw new maps without interference from Democrats. That power is all the more coveted since Texas will receive four new seats in the House of Representatives at the next election, thanks to the rapid growth of its population over the past decade. Partisan Republicans would like all four districts drawn with Republican majorities. But as Sherri Greenberg of the University of Texas at Austin points out, even in Texas, there are not enough Republicans to create four secure new Republican districts.
That is partly because Republicans won almost every marginal seat in the state at the last election, leaving themselves already thinly spread. Democrats now hold just nine of Texas’s 32 House seats. “The elections accomplished what we were afraid they were going to try to accomplish by gerrymandering,” says Mike Villarreal, the most senior Democrat on the redistricting committee in the state House of Representatives. That outcome, in turn, was underpinned by a previous Republican gerrymander. In 2003, shortly after taking control of the state legislature for the first time in over a century, Republicans redrew the congressional map in a way that cost the Democrats six seats at the subsequent election, and more since. That leaves Republicans with few plausible targets in the Democratic congressional delegation.
To make matters trickier for the Republicans, some 90% of the growth in the state’s population over the past decade has come from minorities, who tend to vote Democratic. Indeed, minorities are now in the majority in Texas, with Hispanics alone accounting for about 38% of the population—although their share of legal residents of voting age is smaller. The racial divide in Texas politics is quite stark: there are only two state House seats with a white majority represented by Democrats, a legislator points out, and only three minority seats represented by Republicans.
A latter-day Governor Gerry might respond by distributing Hispanic voters across all seats to minimise their influence. But that is a risky tactic in two respects. First, the state’s demographics are changing fast enough that an overly ambitious partisan gerrymander is likely to come unstuck during its ten-year lifespan. The last map the Republicans drew secured them a comfortable majority of 88 of the 150 seats in the state House in 2002, but only 76 in 2008. Republicans involved in redistricting this time around say they cannot be too aggressive if their handiwork is to have any hope of surviving.
Moreover, the Voting Rights Act, originally intended to prevent the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, makes it difficult to marginalise minority voters. It enjoins states to create districts dominated by minorities where feasible, and bars them from reducing minorities’ overall electoral clout. Trey Martinez Fischer, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, says his group will sue if the Republicans produce a congressional map with fewer than two new Hispanic districts. The fact that Republicans just pushed through a redistricting plan for the Texas House of Representatives that fell far short of the five new Hispanic seats he was demanding will also probably spark lawsuits. “Redistricting in Texas is a two-step,” he says, “first in the legislature, then in the courthouse.”
Democrats are especially enthusiastic about legal challenges to redistricting plans this year, since the federal government, which has considerable leeway to interpret and enforce the Voting Rights Act, is in Democratic hands. (Republican administrations, as it happens, have presided over all previous redistricting cycles since the act was passed in 1965, with a Republican in the White House in 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001.) Some Texan Republicans are already musing about bypassing the Department of Justice, and obtaining the necessary approval of their electoral maps from a federal court instead. But most seem to think the best defence against a legal assault is to produce a relatively timid redistricting plan in the first place.
That suits most incumbents just fine. While they would be happy in principle to see their party’s ranks swell, they are seldom willing to help by allowing their own seats to become less secure. Instead, Republican congressmen and state representatives in Texas seem eager to shore up their own districts by jettisoning minority neighbourhoods, university towns and other left-leaning voters. That is understandable: given the scale of the Republican landslide in Texas last year, simply retaining all the existing Republican seats in next year’s elections will be a struggle, however the maps are drawn.
All across the country, Republicans are afflicted by similar problems. There are some bright spots for them, such as North Carolina, where the newly Republican legislature is likely to be able to flip a few Democratic seats in Congress by rejigging the boundaries. But there are also trickier prospects, such as Illinois, where Democrats will probably succeed in undermining several freshmen Republicans. In Florida, perhaps the most glaring Republican gerrymander of the previous cycle, a new law on redistricting is likely to crimp the state legislators’ most partisan impulses.
All told, both Democrats and Republicans agree, redistricting for Congress is unlikely to alter the balance much, with Republicans focusing for the most part on consolidating the gains they made at the last election. Despite the Republicans’ notional domination of the process, there will be few direct Democratic casualties. That will only be scant consolation to the Democrats, however, who will still face the daunting task of dislodging a mighty Republican majority of 49 in the House of Representatives.