Oct 3, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Redistricting revs up

 Illustration of a donkey and elephant dipping their tails into blue and red paint buckets.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A number of states have proposed or finalized new congressional district maps in the past week. The recurrent theme: protecting incumbents rather than expanding majorities.

Why it matters: The flurry of activity is just the start of the high-stakes process that has the potential to affect congressional power for a decade. The biggest states are still to come — as well as deadlines, lawsuits and the potential for lots of court-drawn midterm maps.

  • "The narrative that is emerging is of incumbents protecting themselves, not necessarily trying to maximize their party's fortunes," Nate Persily, a redistricting expert at Stanford Law School, told Axios. "But there's still a lot of territory that remains."
  • Republicans are currently expected to net one to two seats through redistricting, according to the Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman, but, "we're also on track for far fewer competitive seats."

The details: Six states only have one district, so they don't have to go through redistricting. Three states have already completed new maps for the next decade, including in Oregon — where Democrats have the advantage to win the state's newly gained seat. The other two are Maine and Nebraska.

  • Texas's proposed map would likely net two Republican seats. It does not include a Hispanic-majority district, which experts say will likely result in a lawsuit.
  • Colorado's final proposed map includes one new competitive seat, giving Republicans a shot at equal House representation with Democrats in a state that voted for Joe Biden by 13 points in 2020.
  • The Ohio state legislature missed an initial redistricting deadline, allowing Republicans more time to gerrymander. But GOP legislators would have to prove to the state Supreme Court their map doesn't favor one party — or risk a court-drawn one that could cost them seats.
  • Michigan has an independent commission in charge of drawing maps with partisan fairness. It's not an easily-defined metric. The state's geography favors Republicans, but "the question is whether the commission consciously uses partisanship to try to draw more Democratic seats and achieve parity," Wasserman told Axios.

By the numbers: Princeton University and RepresentUs have launched an in-depth grading system for proposed and enacted maps — scoring them on partisan fairness, competitiveness and geographic features.

  • So far, they've given an overall "A" to Colorado, "B" to Ohio, "C" to Georgia and "F" to Texas maps.
  • Their analysis shows states drawing large numbers of uncompetitive districts, with 60-70% of voters favoring the party in charge of redistricting, Joe Kabourek, RepresentUs senior campaign director, and Adam Podowitz-Thomas, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project's senior legal strategist, told Axios.
  • At the same time, states have generally been able to avoid failing the groups' tests for suspicious geographic manipulation like county-splitting. New technology has made it easier to create districts meeting certain requirements that still benefit a given party.

What we're watching: A major, unanswered question is whether Democrats try to hold on to their majority through gerrymandering in New York and Illinois.

  • The Illinois map is expected to give Democrats two extra seats, Wasserman said, and the New York map could be key to the Democrats holding onto control of the House itself.
  • What Republicans do in big states North Carolina and Florida is where they control the process— and whether they propose more aggressive maps in Georgia than they initially did.
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