It’s a redistricting year in the blue state of Illinois, which means that Republicans are getting less consideration than a missionary on the Las Vegas Strip. Democrats have been winning in the Land of Lincoln for a long while, controlling the state House for all but two of the past 38 years. But they see no harm in running up the score.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on a vow to take reapportionment away from politicians and turn it over to an independent commission. But that didn’t happen, and when the General Assembly sent him district maps that exemplified partisan gerrymandering, he signed them into law.
“Make no mistake, these maps were drawn solely for the Democrats to maintain their political power in the state of Illinois,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said. Democrats outnumber Republicans 73-45 in the state House, and those numbers are likely to grow more lopsided.
Similar things are going on in New York, where Democrats have plotted new district lines with the goal of cutting the GOP’s eight members of Congress to four or even three of the 26 seats the state will have. That’s less than 16% of the seats in a state where 38% of voters went for Donald Trump. New York’s Republican Party chair Nick Langworthy said the redistricting “is a political sham built on a foundation of lies and hypocrisy.”
Shams are the norm in this process, where lawmakers celebrate the glories of democracy while scheming to make elections an empty formality. Democrats in blue states are more than willing to ignore their good-government allies to cement their control in state legislatures — and to keep Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair.
After losing out on Maryland’s last congressional map, Republicans took the fight to the Supreme Court, arguing that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. (The court disagreed.) So you might think that Republicans would be determined to put an end to partisan reapportionment. But hypocrisy is a two-way street.
Today, the GOP has control of the governor’s office and the legislature in 23 states, compared to 15 such “trifectas” for Democrats. Such dominance is never more valuable than in a redistricting year, giving those in power the chance to supersize their advantage for a full decade.
Political scientists Alex Keena, Michael Latner, Anthony McGann and Charles Anthony Smith wrote in The Washington Post, “We found that, after 2011, 45 state legislative maps had been drawn with extreme partisan gerrymandering. Of these, 43 favor Republicans, while only two help Democrats. Because of these gerrymandered maps, Republicans held onto power after losing the statewide popular vote in Virginia in 2017, and in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2018.”
That explains why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no interest in a Democratic bill that would make it impossible to tilt the playing field. The For the People Act would require states to hand over redistricting to independent commissions. With that reform, incumbents would no longer get to tailor their constituencies to achieve permanent tenure.
It would not prevent either party from winning most legislative or congressional seats in a particular state. Such bodies already draw maps in several states, including Arizona, where the GOP has held a majority in both houses of the legislature since 2003, and California, where Democrats have done the same since 1997.
In most places, the issue is not which party will dominate. It’s just by how much.
Besides, no one objects when a party getting a majority of the votes wins a majority of seats. Objections are in order, though, when the party getting a minority of the votes wins a majority of seats. Last year, Democratic candidates for Congress got 43% of the votes cast in South Carolina — but only one of the seven House seats, or 14%.
A federal solution is needed because at the state level, no party in power wants to cede control of redistricting. Democrats say they can’t afford to unilaterally disarm in the battle for power, and Republicans show no interest in mutual renunciation of gerrymandering.
But in the long run, a fairer system would be a good thing for both parties. It would give each more opportunities to compete and more incentive to stay in tune with the preferences of those they represent.
It would be best of all for the voters, many of whom have been effectively rendered powerless. Democracy is supposed to rest on the consent of the governed, not the governors.