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Demonstrators protest against gerrymandering at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2019, during the cases Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Demonstrators protest against gerrymandering at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2019, during the cases Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Time Running Out for Democrats to Block GOP Gerrymandering Bonanza

"Two weeks for Dems to pass redistricting reform before the GOP gerrymanders them out of power for a decade in Congress and at the state level."

Kenny Stancil

With the U.S. Census Bureau set to release data on August 16 that state governments will use to redraw their 10-year congressional and state legislative maps, progressives are warning Democrats in Congress that if they fail to pass redistricting reform within the next two weeks, Republicans are likely to gerrymander their way to decade-long GOP majorities in the House and in dozens of state houses.

"You cannot out-organize a well-crafted gerrymander. Once manipulated maps are drawn, they will be almost impossible to overcome."
—Michael Li, Brennan Center for Justice

"The recent wave of voter suppression laws has rightly drawn much attention," Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, wrote Monday in an op-ed for the Washington Post. "But another, even more pernicious wave of anti-voter laws will begin shortly: the redrawing of congressional maps."

"Unless Congress acts quickly," Li continued, "Americans are on the verge of some of the most aggressive gerrymandering in the country's history. Inevitably, communities of color, which provided almost all of the country's growth over the past decade, will bear the brunt of this anti-democratic line-drawing."

Li is one of many advocates who has been urging Congress to enact a ban on partisan gerrymandering by passing the For the People Act, or other redistricting reform legislation that Senate Democrats are now working on.

And he is part of a growing chorus sounding the alarm about what The Daily Poster's Walker Bragman has called "a fast-approaching deadline that could decide the [Democratic Party's] political fate for the next decade."

Last week, The Guardian's Sam Levine warned that ten years after right-wing operatives "pulled off what would later be described as 'the most audacious political heist of modern times'" by manipulating congressional and state legislative maps to advantage Republican candidates, the GOP is preparing to rig future elections through partisan gerrymandering, in which lawmakers "carefully pick their voters, insulating them from the accountability that lies at the foundation of America's democratic system."

With the decennial redistricting process set to start in just two weeks, "Republicans are once again poised to dominate it," wrote Levine. Most of the 31 states in which state legislatures are in charge of redrawing electoral maps are GOP-controlled. In the absence of reform, Democratic voters could be disempowered for the next ten years.

According to Levine, "This time around things could be even worse than they were a decade ago." He continued:

The redistricting cycle arrives at a moment when American democracy is already in peril. Republican lawmakers in states across the country, some of whom hold office because of gerrymandering, have enacted sweeping measures making it harder to vote. Republicans have blocked federal legislation that would outlaw partisan gerrymandering and strip state lawmakers of their authority to draw districts.

Advances in mapmaking technology have also made it easier to produce highly detailed maps very quickly, giving lawmakers a bigger menu of possibilities to choose from when they carve up a state. It makes it easier to tweak lines and to test maps to ensure that their projected results will hold throughout the decade...

In 2019, the Supreme Court said for the first time there was nothing federal courts could do to stop even the most excessive partisan gerrymandering, giving lawmakers a green light to be even more aggressive. And because of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case, places with a history of voting discrimination will no longer have to get their maps approved by the federal government for the first time since 1965. It's a lack of oversight that could embolden lawmakers to attempt to draw districts that could dilute the influence of minority voters.

Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman warned last week that "Republicans could pick up anywhere from six to 13 seats in the House of Representatives—enough to retake the House in 2022—through its control of the redistricting process in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas alone."

Congressional Democrats have the power to prevent such a scenario from unfolding, although it remains to be seen if they will take advantage of their unified control of the federal government's legislative and executive branches.

In an essay published last month, Bragman wrote that "if Democrats want to have their best shot at preventing Republicans from redrawing red states' congressional districts in a way that could lock in a GOP House majority for a decade, they need to tweak and pass the For the People Act, their signature voting rights and democracy reform legislation," before 2020 census data is released on August 16.

In addition to increasing ballot access nationwide and curbing the corrupting influence of big money in politics, the House-passed For the People Act would require states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to combat partisan gerrymandering.

However, Senate Republicans deployed the 60-vote filibuster rule to block debate on the bill in June, after which President Joe Biden refused to pressure conservative Democratic holdouts, including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), to drop their opposition to filibuster reform in order to protect voters from the GOP's anti-democratic assault.

With progress on the For the People Act halted by a combination of Republican obstructionism and Democratic acquiescence, Senate Democrats are currently preparing less comprehensive voting reform legislation.

"Congress and the Biden White House need to make saving the redistricting cycle an urgent priority. Every vote should count equally—and every day matters to ensure that happens."
—Li

Li wrote Monday that as Democrats finalize their new reform bill, "it is essential, as [Manchin] recognized in June, that the measure include a provision to 'ban partisan gerrymandering.'"

"Such a ban—along with beefed-up remedies for abuses and uniform standards for drawing maps, including strengthened protections for communities of color—would amount to the most consequential federal redistricting legislation in history," Li noted. "But unlike other parts of voting legislation that might not come into play until 2022 or later, redistricting reforms cannot be put off."

That's because, after August 16, "states are expected to rush to complete maps," said Li. "In a matter of weeks, the process will be over in most of the country."

"Eighteen states, including Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina, face tight fall deadlines for completing maps," wrote Li. "Another 14 states, including Georgia and Tennessee, also could pass new maps by the end of the year or shortly thereafter based on historic practices."

Despite the fact that "Biden lived the consequences of the post-2010 GOP gerrymandering," as Bragman noted, the White House insisted as recently as last week that it is possible to "out-organize" voter suppression.

Progressives, including Li, have grown increasingly alarmed and frustrated by such messaging.

"You cannot out-organize a well-crafted gerrymander," wrote Li. "Once manipulated maps are drawn, they will be almost impossible to overcome."

Li pointed to evidence from the past decade to make his case:

In 2011, Republicans in Pennsylvania passed a congressional map that divided communities to engineer a GOP lock on 13 of the state's 18 congressional districts. It worked. In 2012, Democrats won 51% of the statewide congressional vote but secured only five congressional seats. The Pennsylvania map was so durably gerrymandered that even if Democrats won a historically high 56% of the congressional vote, they would capture only six seats. (By contrast in 2006, when Democrats won 56% of the vote under the prior map, they won 11 congressional districts.)

A similarly gerrymandered map in Ohio has held Democrats to just four of the state's 16 congressional districts all decade, while maps in North Carolina gave Republicans a 10-to-3 advantage for most of the decade. All told, the Brennan Center estimates that last decade's extreme gerrymandering gave Republicans an extra 15 to 17 seats in Congress. Wins in court were able to dial back some of this advantage, but litigation consumed much of the decade. North Carolina did not receive a new, fairer map until the 2020 election.

"Federal legislation would transform how congressional districts are drawn, stepping in where the Supreme Court has stepped out, to restore fairness to the process and strengthen frayed legal protections for communities of color," Li continued. "It also would make it easier and faster for voters to challenge politically or racially discriminatory maps in court, and for the first time require meaningful transparency in a process that historically has taken place behind closed doors."

"But the longer it takes to pass federal legislation," he added, "the harder it will be to fully implement its reforms. For example, the transparency provisions of the bill would be impossible to implement after the fact. That would allow lawmakers to hide maps from the public and then cram them through in a matter of hours, as happened in Pennsylvania in 2011."

"Congress and the Biden White House need to make saving the redistricting cycle an urgent priority," Li concluded. "Every vote should count equally—and every day matters to ensure that happens."


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