In theory, Republicans hold all the cards in the high-stakes gamble known as redistricting, which this year is attracting unprecedented money, litigation, and public scrutiny.
Thanks to their electoral sweep in 2010, Republicans now enjoy full control over the bulk of state legislatures charged with drawing new legislative boundaries in the wake of the decennial census. Republicans will have exclusive say over how 202 congressional districts are drawn, more than four times the 47 that Democrats will sketch.
In practice, though, the Democrats hold multiple trump cards. Republicans now occupy so many House seats that to expand, they’d have to encroach on solidly Democratic territory. Shifting demographics, particularly Hispanic population growth, tends to favor Democrats and might even force GOP retrenchment.
Democrats are pioneering new ways to collect big, unregulated donations for redistricting expertise and legal challenges. A growing redistricting reform movement, coupled with a spike in public interest, has given civil rights groups fresh tools with which to engage. And for the first time in decades, voting rights questions will land before a Democratic-appointed Justice Department.
To some degree, Republicans are victims of their own success. Having expanded their House majority into swing districts in 2010, they now have the most to lose in states that must eliminate congressional seats in the wake of the census, and even in some that will grow. In Louisiana, for example, which will lose a seat, the 6-1 GOP delegation will invariably shrink—setting up an intraparty fight over whose district gets erased.
“It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Republicans,” said Michael P. McDonald, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “They won too many districts in 2010. And Louisiana is the canary in the coal mine for Republicans. These battles are going to play out in state after state.”
As in Louisiana, GOP legislatures have the last word over redistricting in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Florida will gain two seats, and Texas will gain four, while Ohio loses two and Pennsylvania loses one. Yet in all those states, noted McDonald, incumbents must fight over a finite number of GOP strongholds—a tussle that invariably will pit entrenched Old Bulls against newly elected Young Turks.
Take Texas, where former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay staged his controversial mid-decade redistricting to expand the Republican majority in 2003. The Lone Star State’s four-seat gain might appear to translate into four new GOP seats, said J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. But Hebert added:
“That clearly is not going to happen. Because the reason Texas is gaining seats at all is because of Latino population growth. And they are going to have to respect that, or run the risk of violating the Voting Rights Act.”
Civil rights groups are closely monitoring the redistricting process, and urging grassroots organizations to participate in hearings, public meetings, and even drawing maps. Several states in recent years have taken steps to improve transparency and outlaw gerrymandering—the process of drawing contorted district lines to protect incumbents. The most ambitious is California, which this year for the first time has put redistricting in the hands of a non-partisan commission.
“This is probably going to be one of the first cycles where there is an all-out effort from communities to be involved in the process,” said Donita Judge, redistricting project director and staff attorney for the Advancement Project.
Of course, legislatures still face huge pressure to draw incumbent-friendly districts behind closed doors. Some lawmakers have gone so far as to hire lobbyists to represent them in the redistricting process, The New York Times recently reported. Others have mounted legal challenges to redistricting reforms that they fear will throw their seats into jeopardy.
In Virginia, public protests, a student redistricting contest, and a bipartisan advisory commission have brought new maps to the Legislature—which appears on track to produce the same incumbent-friendly maps it would have anyway. Nonetheless, maps drawn by citizens and commissions in Virginia and elsewhere could give ammunition to those filing legal challenges on civil rights or other grounds.
The courts could prove an important wild card this year. Some Republicans have vowed to go to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, instead of the Justice Department, to get pre-clearance for their redistricting plans.
The Voting Rights Act requires certain states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before making electoral changes. But going to court invariably involves more paperwork and delays, say legal experts, and historically, lower courts have deferred to Justice in any case.
Republicans do have reasons to be cheerful. Democrats won approval from the Federal Election Commission last year to collect soft money for a high-dollar National Democratic Redistricting Trust. But Republicans have now reportedly launched their own multi-million-dollar redistricting initiative to raise hard and soft money. And in most states, the GOP will still have the last word.
“I’d rather be drawing the lines than not drawing the lines,” noted McDonald. “Their majority would be much more threatened if the Democrats were in control of redistricting everywhere.” Still, as on other fronts, the GOP’s winning hand could prove ephemeral.
This article appears in the April 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.