Voters get fewer choices as Democrats and Republicans dig partisan trenches in redistricting
New state congressional maps— the product of the once-a-decade redistricting that comes with each decennial census—are almost finished, and Democrats, who worried about losing nearly a dozen seats to Republicans, have done far better than expected.
But those victories for Democrats obscure a larger truth for voters: fewer competitive seats across the country. Experts warn that could mean an even more divisive Congress in the decade to come that will push Americans deeper into their political corners.
“Competition is really one of the big victims this cycle," said Michael Li, chief counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. "And I think that has the potential to profoundly change the country’s politics."
Some experts had predicted a Democratic bloodbath in the redistricting fight that would further complicate the party's ability to hold the House in the November midterms. But left-leaning gerrymanders in places like New York have balanced GOP-drawn maps in red states such as Texas.
The result is fewer congressional seats where either party could realistically win an election. With fewer tossup districts, congressional elections increasingly are decided during the primary, pushing candidates to embrace the political extremes that resonate with the party faithful, experts said.
Seven of the 12 maps rated by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and the non-partisan group RepresentUs, which advocates for redistricting reforms, received F grades, including four maps engineered to favor Democrats. The groups grade maps based on partisan fairness, competitiveness and geographic features.
“Both parties certainly are guilty of it and both parties have drawn maps that are very anti-democratic, small d," Li said. “Some people say this isn’t as bad as it could have been. But I think we deserve a democracy that’s better than a 'better-than-it-could-have-been' democracy.”
A bright spot for Dems, but what about voters?
Redistricting has turned out to be one of the few bright spots for Democrats this election year. GOP officials had bragged in 2020 about being “able to secure a decade of power across the country” because of the number of Republican-controlled legislatures able to draw maps favoring their party.
While the non-partisan Cook Political Report predicts anywhere from three to eight more House districts for Democrats when redistricting is done, it also sees more pickup opportunities for Republicans.
Led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, who has waged a one-man war through a mix of court wins and state commission challenges, Democrats argue they have fought to create fairer seats.
But non-partisan groups paint a more nuanced picture, one that underscores how fairness is often in the eye of the beholder.
RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project found that 18 states with completed maps don’t have a single competitive congressional district, and only 46 of the 358 districts drawn as of late last week were considered competitive.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project developed an algorithm to generate 1 million maps for each state, comparing the plans adopted in those states against all of those possibilities and rating them based on the comparison.
Joshua Graham Lynn, the CEO of RepresentUS, said uncompetitive districts give primary voters from the fringes of their party more sway over who wins congressional seats. It creates an incentive for candidates in those districts "to be more extreme," he said.
"It's driving the lack of action on issues that a lot of Americans really care about. And it's driving the gridlock because you have both sides pushing that polarization," he said.
Holder held up how Democrats invested early in the redistricting process this time after losing ground during the last census count, but he blamed Republicans for creating uncompetitive districts.
"I think Democrats do better where the system is fair," he said. "And so as we have emphasized fairness, that has meant that more people are able to vote for or will be able to vote for the people who they want to represent them."
National Republican Redistricting Trust executive director Adam Kincaid downplayed Democrats outperforming expectations in redistricting. He told USA TODAY “prophecies about an impending apocalypse” where Republicans gerrymandered their way into permanent majorities were never realistic.
“We said our goals from day one were to get Republicans in a position to take back the House and give us the ability to hold it through the decade,” he said. "That didn’t mean that we were going to lock in a majority for the decade. It meant we had the ability to win it for a decade."
Analysts have held up New York and Texas among the poster children for gerrymandering in both blue and red states this cycle.
In New York, a solidly blue state, Democrats carved out maps that could take away as many as three to four House seats from Republicans.
Conservatives have called out Holder for criticizing GOP state legislators for “gerrymandering” in their states while saying little about New York.
Holder told USA TODAY the purpose of redistricting is to “update” representative seats and that New York’s maps have fairly followed the shifting population data.
“Census data made it clear that Democrats were going to pick up seats and Republicans were going to lose seats in New York,” Holder said.
What is gerrymandering?:Redistricting means new winners and losers
The former attorney general noted how over past decade the Empire State’s rural areas lost population versus its urban areas, such as New York City, which gained population.
That is in stark contrast to red states such as Texas, Alabama and North Carolina, he said, where GOP legislators have crafted maps that are trying to smother demographic shifts.
“So if they want to talk about New York—I can defend New York in the way that I have,” Holder said. “Let's compare that to Texas. There's not a damn way that they can justify what they did in Texas.”
Kincaid said he prefers to look at whether maps are legal rather than fair because the law gives clear criteria.
“For Democrats, fair is a map that elects as many Democrats as possible," he said. "That’s how they define fair.”
In New York, Kincaid said Democrats drew an illegal map that violates a 2014 state constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission and are “grasping at straws” to defend a Democratic gerrymander.
Kincaid defended Republican maps in states like Texas and Florida, saying they are in part the product of minority voter preference for Republicans in those states.
Former President Donald Trump improved his position among Latino voters in those states in 2020, exit polls show. In Texas, he received about 41% of the vote among Latino voters in the 2020 election compared with 34% in 2016, according to CNN exit polls. In Florida, his share of votes from Latinos jumped from 35% in 2016 to 46% in 2020.
“This whole rhetoric from the left is they’re trying to conflate Democrats and minorities and that’s just not the case anymore,” he said.
A lighter shade of blue
The Brennan Center's Li said Democrats are spreading more blue across the congressional map but are taking risks to do it.
Republicans already expanded their hold on seats during the 2010 redistricting cycle. This year, they are shoring up those districts to make them "impenetrable," Li said. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are aggressively targeting Republican incumbents where they draw the lines in an attempt to flip those seats.
That means more seats that favor Democrats, but not by the same kind of double-digit margins that many Republicans enjoy, he said.
Kincaid said those lighter blue districts are more vulnerable to GOP candidates in a wave election. He expects 60 to 70 competitive seats in Congress when maps are finished and for that number to grow over the decade.
“What Democrats have done is they’ve built themselves this very low blue wall where a lot of seats will crash out in a good cycle for Republicans, and their hope is somehow those seats will come back to them in a better cycle for them,” he said.
Commissions better, but not perfect
States where commissions draw the lines almost always create fairer maps, said Lynn, the RepresentUS CEO.
“If you had a legislature that has been elected into power drawing their own district lines, that would be the equivalent of in the Olympics if the person who won the gold medal last year, their country then got to pick all the judges the next year,” he said.
Holder agreed, saying ideally it is better for representative maps at the congressional and state levels to be drawn by non-partisan actors.
“That really is the way to do this,” he said. “Take the redistricting power away from interested people—that is, from politicians—who are going to be drawing districts that affect them, and put it in the hands of a neutral body and let them draw the lines.”
Not all commissions are created equal, however.
Holder, for instance, commends panels in states such as California and Michigan but argued others have yielded poor results because of the way the panels were set up.
He pointed to Virginia as an example of a well-intentioned body that was halted by gridlock. Last October, for instance, the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission failed to agree on their new maps and were forced to punt to the state supreme court, according to the Washington Post.
New York's commission drew a map that RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave an A grade, but that recommendation was an advisory opinion and the legislature adopted a Democratic gerrymander that received an F rating.
Across the country, 27 state legislatures have primary responsibility for drawing congressional lines in their state, compared with eight independent commissions and three political commissions, according to All About Redistricting.
Three states have advisory commissions and three states have backup commissions. Six states have only one congressional seat and no system for drawing congressional lines.
Joe Kabourek, a director for the RepresentUs anti-gerrymandering campaign, said regardless of the variety in how commissions are constructed, they favor "ones that fundamentally take the politicians out of the process and leave them with no decision at all."
"The base underlying incentive is the same: if politicians have the opportunity to press their interest – sometimes that’s in the shape of protecting incumbents, other times that’s in the shape of extending their grasp – they are going to take that," Kabourek said. "That is clear.”