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Protesters attend a rally for "Fair Maps" on March 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty Images)

Partisan Gerrymandering Is Carving Up US Democracy

To reverse the long-term decline of compet­it­ive districts, reforms to create fairer, more inde­pend­ent map-draw­ing processes will be essen­tial.

One of the most consequen­tial outcomes of this redis­trict­ing cycle has been the continu­ing decrease in the number of compet­it­ive congres­sional districts. Under new maps, there are just 30 districts that Joe Biden won by less than eight percent­age points in 2020 and, like­wise, just 30 districts that Donald Trump won by less than eight points.

All told, there are now fewer compet­it­ive districts than at any point in the last 52 years. If the good news is that both parties emerged with reas­on­able oppor­tun­it­ies in coming years to win control of a closely divided House, the bad news is that they will fight that battle on the narrow­est of terrains under maps arti­fi­cially engin­eered to reduce compet­i­tion.

This redis­trict­ing cycle, we saw the percent­age of compet­it­ive congres­sional districts fall even further to just 14 percent.

Though the number of compet­it­ive congres­sional districts in the current House was already small, this redis­trict­ing cycle, we saw the percent­age of compet­it­ive congres­sional districts fall even further to just 14 percent. This is signi­fic­ant because as a district leans further toward one party or the other, the general elec­tion becomes increas­ingly insig­ni­fic­ant while the favored party's primary becomes the real contest. As a result, primary voters can effect­ively decide which candid­ate will repres­ent the district in Congress, even though they make up a small frac­tion of the elect­or­ate and are often far more partisan than the aver­age general elec­tion voters. Candid­ates elec­ted in these districts then have little incent­ive to woo moder­ate voters in campaign­ing or legis­lat­ing, further increas­ing the House's partisan polar­iz­a­tion.

Unsur­pris­ingly, partisan map draw­ers drove the decrease in compet­it­ive districts. In Repub­lican single-party controlled states, the percent­age of compet­it­ive seats fell from 16 percent of districts before redis­trict­ing to just 12 percent after. The decline in compet­it­ive seats in Demo­cratic single-party controlled states was even more precip­it­ous, fall­ing from 12 percent to just 6 percent.

Yet these percent­age point decreases only tell part of the story: Repub­lic­ans control the map draw­ing of far more seats than Demo­crats do, and although the states controlled by Demo­cratic mapmakers saw a sharper percent­age point decrease in compet­it­ive seats, the actual number of compet­it­ive seats lost in Repub­lican-controlled states is almost triple that of Demo­cratic-controlled ones.

By contrast, states where commis­sions or courts drew maps either saw the percent­age of compet­it­ive districts fall only margin­ally or even increase. Indeed, after the steep decline in compet­i­tion in single-party controlled states, maps drawn by commis­sions or courts now account for almost 60 percent of the nation's shrink­ing number of compet­it­ive districts. To be clear, inde­pend­ent commis­sions like those in Michigan and Color­ado differ in import­ant ways from the politi­cian-appoin­ted, bipar­tisan bodies in states like New Jersey and Montana, but they all require parti­cip­a­tion from both major polit­ical parties. When the commis­sion states are considered together, there is only about a 15 percent decrease in the share of compet­it­ive seats, far less than the drop in compet­i­tion that occurred in states where one party drew the map.

Brennan Center - proportion of competitive districts by map drawer

But while both parties were aggress­ive in redu­cing the number of compet­it­ive districts in the states that they controlled, their strategies diverged.

For Demo­crats, a major handi­cap head­ing into redis­trict­ing was the lopsided map-draw­ing advant­age that Repub­lic­ans held. With a virtual lock on control of redis­trict­ing in the seat-rich South, Repub­lic­ans star­ted out the cycle with expec­ted control of the redraw­ing of 187 congres­sional districts, while Demo­crats would control only 75. And worse for Demo­crats, many of their states were places like Massachu­setts or Mary­land where they already controlled all or nearly all of the seats, mean­ing that there were few if any pick-up oppor­tun­it­ies.

The small number of oppor­tun­it­ies avail­able to them created major compet­ing pres­sures for Demo­crats. On the one hand, they faced pres­sure to create new Demo­cratic districts in the states they controlled to offset massive gerry­man­der­ing expec­ted in Repub­lican states. At the same time, they faced the usual pres­sure to shore up vulner­able incum­bents and hold on to the seats they already had.

Partisan map draw­ers drove the decrease in compet­it­ive districts.

In the end, Demo­crats split the differ­ence. Rather than increas­ing the number of super-safe districts that Biden won by more than 15 percent­age points in 2020, they instead increased the number of districts that he won by 8 to 15 percent­age points—creat­ing solid Demo­cratic districts but ones not conceiv­ably out of reach for Repub­lic­ans in the right elec­tion cycle.

Repub­lic­ans did the oppos­ite. Faced with the twin chal­lenges of demo­graphic change and the unanti­cip­ated shift of college-educated white voters toward Demo­crats, Repub­lic­ans prior­it­ized ultra-safe districts.

Texas is a case in point. For each of the prior two redis­trict­ing cycles, Texas Repub­lic­ans' strategy had been to maxim­ize GOP-held seats wherever possible. But that aggress­ive, seat-maxim­iz­ing strategy almost back­fired last decade. An infam­ous gerry­mander that divided liberal Austin among six districts had come close to being a "dummy­mander" by the end of the decade as Austin's popu­la­tion boomed and made districts that included any part of it increas­ingly more Demo­cratic. Like­wise, districts in the rapidly diver­si­fy­ing and polit­ic­ally volat­ile suburbs of Dallas and Hous­ton had unex­pec­tedly evolved into some of the most compet­it­ive in the coun­try. Indeed, by 2018 and 2020, Texas had become an unex­pec­ted ground zero in the battle for control of the House.

With this round of redis­trict­ing, Texas Repub­lic­ans' strategy would shift from maxim­iz­ing seats to creat­ing iron­clad safe districts even it if meant leav­ing some vulner­able Demo­cratic incum­bents in place. Whereas before redis­trict­ing, 12 of the state's then 36 districts had been compet­it­ive, under new maps, only 3 of 38 districts are—and two of them just barely. Moreover, virtu­ally all Repub­lican districts in Texas are not only safe, but ultra-safe. In all, a remark­able 88 percent of Repub­lican districts in Texas are now ones that Donald Trump won by 15 or more percent­age points—signi­fic­ant insur­ance against the demo­graphic change and suburban polit­ical shifts that bedeviled Repub­lic­ans last decade in Texas.

But as dire as the story on compet­i­tion is, it could have been worse if maps origin­ally passed by New York's legis­lature had not been struck down by courts and redrawn by a court-appoin­ted special master. Under New York's court-drawn map, almost one in five seats are compet­it­ive, the highest percent­age in the coun­try for a large state. Had the map passed by the Demo­cratic-controlled legis­lature remained in place, no districts would have been compet­it­ive.

In the end, a closely divided House remains up for grabs, with reas­on­able oppor­tun­it­ies for both parties to win control in coming years. However, barring unfore­seen polit­ical shifts, most voters will watch that fight from the side­lines due to maps that arti­fi­cially reduce compet­i­tion. If Amer­ic­ans hope to reverse the long-term decline of compet­it­ive districts, reforms to create fairer, more inde­pend­ent map-draw­ing processes will be essen­tial.


© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice

Michael Li

Michael Li serves as counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections.

Chris Leaverton

Chris Leaverton

Chris Leaverton is a Research and Program Associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he focuses on redistricting.

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