As chatter increases and lawmakers and commissioners ramp up the processes, we know that the redistricting season is well underway. But while most people have their eye on congressional redistricting, it’s state legislative redistricting that may be far more consequential. Welcome back to Between the Lines, a series focused on coverage, discussion and speculation on redistricting across the country.
In the first three installments of this series, I’ve limited my coverage to the drawing of congressional lines. But since state legislatures are an important part of government (and because I have experience writing about them), I thought it was worth taking a deep dive into the topic. With 7,383 elected state legislators in total across the country, to say the topic is complicated would be an understatement. However some state legislatures are more competitive and high-profile than others, so they’re the main ones I’ll be focusing on.
Before I go into that:
Redistricting in the News
Starting with some good news on the census front, the Associate Press is reporting that redistricting data needed to draw maps will be available sooner than expected, albeit in an outdated format, with an estimated August release. While the format makes it more tiresome to draw maps, this extra month-and-a-half of access will almost certainly alleviate some pressure on lawmakers and commissioners to pass maps on time. So expect the action to really start around then, and visit Elections Daily for in-depth coverage.
In other news, despite census delays, many legislatures and commissions are kicking off redistricting procedures. For example, the Oklahoma legislature are wasting no time, and are starting the map-drawing process, with help from the public. In fact, they are planning to draw state legislative maps early, using 2019 estimates.
Also planning ahead is North Carolina. Their state House chose Representative Destin Hall to run their redistricting committee. Hall has said that he expects the process to involve a degree of bipartisanship, which would be a shift away from the state’s history of brutal gerrymandering. He says that talks have started, but they’re still waiting on data to use in the process. It’s uncertain whether fair maps will actually pass, but I expect maps to look similar to the current ones.
A Closer Look at State Legislative Redistricting
State governments remain largely out of the national media spotlight, relative to the federal government. But state governments are just as impactful on their citizens as the federal government, if not more. That’s why state legislatures are so important. You often hear about “representatives choosing their voters”, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in state legislatures. Members of Congress have their districts drawn externally, but most state legislatures have the luxury of drawing their own districts. This is one of the reasons state legislative redistricting can be so dangerous, many times as much so as congressional gerrymandering.
The threat of gerrymandering
2010 was a fantastic year for Republicans, and it came just in time for the latest redistricting cycle. As a result, they drew some explicit gerrymanders in several states. Some credit these gerrymanders with helping Republicans keep the House in 2012, despite losing the popular vote. But Republican gerrymandering was only limited to red states, and others had fair maps or Democratic gerrymanders. This, combined with courts striking down five Republican gerrymanders over the decade, gave Republicans no guarantee of locking the House in their favor. To this day Democrats hold the House, and the median seat is fairly reflective of the nation as a whole in terms of partisanship. Thus some might argue that congressional gerrymandering is overblown as an issue, but that’s a conversation for another time.
So why is state legislative gerrymandering so much more of an issue? Well since they are responsible for drawing every district, and one party has complete control over government in most states, state legislatures can ensure a lock for their party in legislative elections. All they have to do is ensure the median seat in each chamber leans comfortably toward them. And in many states this is incredibly easy to do. Take a look at Wisconsin, for example, where Republicans drew such an extreme gerrymander that the Supreme Court almost struck it down.
How to Draw a State Legislative Gerrymander
Congressional and state legislative gerrymandering may seem similar on the surface, but there is one clear distinction between them. Congressional gerrymandering seeks to maximize the expected number of seats for a party, whereas state legislative gerrymandering seeks to maximize a party’s chances of getting a majority. To illustrate this, we can look at the New York State Senate map that the General Assembly passed in 2012.
At first glance, the map may seem like a Democratic gerrymander. Indeed, 47 out of the 63 districts on this map are shown to be Democratic leaning. But it was in fact intended as a Republican gerrymander. If a similar map were proposed on the congressional level, it would quickly be dismissed as a “dummymander”. Instead, Republicans would have benefited from a few more Democratic vote sinks, which would have allowed them to eliminate some of the light blue districts.
But since this is a state legislative plan, Republicans benefit from this map in one major way: the median district is 16 points redder than the state as a whole, which puts the chamber in play. It was for this reason that Republicans managed to hold the chamber up to 2018. Republicans were likely aware that the map could backfire, potentially giving Democrats a supermajority (which eventually happened after 2020), but to them it was a small price to pay for a competitive chamber.
One silver lining on this issue is that several states have stricter guidelines on drawing state legislative lines compared to congressional lines. In Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example, the legislature can draw congressional maps, but not legislative maps. In North Carolina, Texas, and several other states, there are very tight restrictions on county splitting. Many states limit municipal splits, and have compactness or contiguity criteria. Overall, gerrymandering may be more difficult, which partly alleviates the threat that it poses. So states could try suppressing the minority vote unrestricted, but don’t expect them all to get away with it.
Which maps will become more and less fair?
As with any map with a large number of districts, speculation is difficult. But given partisan control of state governments, we can get a good idea which way things will go. Democrats may be hit the hardest in Texas, where they failed to flip the House in 2020. Republicans will likely draw Democrats a few more vote sinks in an attempt to move the median seat to the right and shut out any Democratic chances at the majority. New Hampshire, where Republicans recently got a trifecta, may be another instance of a gerrymander, although the partisan geography complicates things there. And North Carolina will have Republican control, albeit under heavy scrutiny from the 4-3 Democratic state Supreme Court.
On the flipside, several states show hopes of fairer maps, particularly in the Midwest. Michigan and Ohio will have commissions to draw the maps. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have Democratic governors to veto any Republican gerrymanders, so they will either need compromise, or they will be drawn by courts. Most other states I expect to have similar maps, and similar partisan control after 2022.
While most legislatures’ redrawing of their maps may be under the radar as the redistricting season approaches, it will be something to think about. I’d recommend keeping caught up with the news regarding your legislature, and the maps they may draw. For that I’d highly recommend Ballotpedia, which has key pieces of information regarding topics like this.
If you’re bored by the lack of newsworthy events regarding redistricting, fear not. Because we’re just days away from the release of apportionment data from the 2020 census on April 30. On that day we will know each state’s populations, and exactly how many seats in Congress each will have for the next 10 years. This is the first major step in the redistricting process, and I will be here to cover it with an article. I’ll also be providing in-depth coverage on my Twitter account, so feel free to give that a follow. Until next time.