Jan 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The next big political war: redistricting

Illustration of two hands holding markers like crossed swords, one marker is red one marker is blue.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats are preparing a mix of tech and legal strategies to combat expected gerrymandering by Republicans, who are planning to go on legal offense themselves.

Why it matters: Democrats failed to regain a single state legislature on Election Day, while Republicans upped their control to 30 states' Houses and Senates. In the majority of states, legislatures draw new congressional district lines, which can boost a party's candidates for the next decade.

  • Redistricting experts and advocates are especially concerned about political gerrymandering this year, given a 2019 Supreme Court ruling that blocks politics-based gerrymandering lawsuits from federal courts.
  • "I think this is going to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, fight of next cycle," Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, told Axios.

What to watch: The expected flashpoints are the battleground states of Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia — where Democrats failed to gain any control over redistricting.

  • Adding to the party's concern is that, because of another federal court ruling, Republicans won't have to gain pre-clearance for their plans under the Voting Rights Act.
  • For their part, Republicans will be ready to sue Democrats in states where they control redistricting, particularly Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico, Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, told Axios.

The backstory: Republicans gained sweeping control of the redistricting process in 2011. Over the past decade, Democrats have fought in court against some of their subsequent congressional maps with a few notable wins, such as in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Democrats have built new, sophisticated mapping technologies, and Republicans have been working on a 50-state redistricting database to help them identify their best tactics.

  • Both sides are educating legislators and the public about redistricting rules.
  • Democrats have had people on the ground in nine states for over a year, training state legislators and building out grassroots campaigns, Burton said.

Democrats already have a large network of attorneys and organizations on their side, many of whom were involved in the surge of election lawsuits last year and the last round of gerrymandering litigation.

  • "There was criticism — fair or not — that following 2010, Republicans were more prepared than the Democrats," said Marc Elias, a top Democratic attorney and NDRC general counsel. "I can assure you that will not be true in 2021."
  • Kincaid, the Republican redistricting executive, said Democrats "had a chance to win at the ballot box, and they failed. ... Republicans draw maps that favor Republicans, and Democrats draw maps to favor Democrats."
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