While the world focused on the election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in November, some of the most consequential contests were in state legislative races between candidates many have never heard of.
State lawmakers have the authority to redraw electoral districts in most US states every 10 years. In 2010, Republicans undertook an unprecedented effort – called Project Redmap – to win control of state legislatures across the country and drew congressional and state legislative districts that gave them a significant advantage for the next decade. In 2020, Democrats sought to avoid a repeat of 2010 and poured millions of dollars and other resources into winning key races.
It didn’t go well.
Democrats failed to flip any of the legislative chambers they targeted andRepublicans came out of election night in nearly the best possible position for drawing districts, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, and will have the opportunity to draw 188 congressional seats, 43% of the House of Representatives. Democrats will have a chance to draw at most just 73 seats. Republicans will probably also be able to draw districts that will make it more difficult for Democrats to hold their majority in the US House in 2022.
“It was really bad. It was devastating to the project of building long-term power,” said Amanda Litman, the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, a group focused on local races.
There isn’t a single explanation for why Democrats performed so poorly in down-ballot races. The decision not to canvass in person may have had a more severe impact on local races. Democratic candidates were also trying to win in districts that Republicans had already gerrymandered to their own advantage. “The loss in down-ballot races was a loss by a thousand paper cuts,” Litman said.
Democrats are quick to point out that their position isn’t as bad as it was after 2010. There are Democrats in the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who can veto excessively gerrymandered maps. An independent commission will draw districts in Michigan for the first time, thanks to a 2018 referendum grassroots by activists. Voters in Colorado, Utah, and Virginia have also all passed recent measures to limit partisan influence.
But Republicans have two additional advantages this year. In 2019, the US supreme court said that federal courts could not strike down districts on the grounds that they were too partisan, giving lawmakers a green light to virtually guarantee their own re-election. 2021 will also be the first time that places with a history of voting discrimination will also be able to draw districts without first submitting them to the justice department for approval because of a 2013 supreme court decision, Shelby County v Holder, that struck down a pre-clearance provision at the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Here’s a look at who will draw the districts in several key states:
Texas offered Democrats one of their best chances to prevent Republican gerrymandering. Going into the November elections, Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, the bodies involved in redistricting. Democrats, however, believed they could flip control of the state House of Representatives, giving them a seat at the table. Democrats needed to flip nine seats in the state legislature to take control of the House, a move that seemed well within grasp after the party flipped 12 seats just two years ago.
But Democrats fell far short, flipping just one seat and losing another.
Republicans will once again have total control to draw all of Texas’ 40 congressional districts – the state is projected to gain two to three seats in Congress because of population growth – as well as nearly 200 districts that make up the state legislature. Those districts will probably cement Republican control in a state where Democrats have made political gains in recent years.
Democrat Akilah Bacy, a lawyer and community activist, was running to flip a House district in the north-west Houston area. She lost her race by just under 2,100 votes. Bacy said she thought a last-minute decision by the governor, Greg Abbott, to only allow a single ballot drop-off location for the 2.4m voters in her county affected the race. But, she added that Democrats needed to more carefully calibrate their messaging.
“I knew we were fighting an uphill battle,” Bacy said in an interview with the Guardian. “There is definitely some introspective work we need to do in the Democratic party and make sure that we are speaking to everyone in our base. Not only that, but making sure that our messages are local to the communities and making sure that they’re messages that matter to the community.”
Ten years ago, Republicans gerrymandered their way to clear majorities.
After the 2010 census, Texas had gained about 4 million residents – mostly Black and Hispanic people – which gave them four more congressional seats.
The Republican-controlled legislature drew new maps so that three of the four new districts would skew Republican. A federal court blocked the state from using those maps in 2012 because they discriminated against people of color, and the court drew new interim maps to be used that year. These maps, though, were still based on the partisan maps and had a lot of the same problems.
After that election, the Republicans permanently adopted these maps with only minor changes and argued they should be allowed because the courts themselves had drawn them. Critics filed a lawsuit saying the maps still discriminated against people of color. In 2018, the US supreme court’s conservative majority ruled that the new districts were not racially discriminatory, except for one state house district in Fort Worth. The decisionallowed Texas to get away with serious discrimination without real consequences.
One shape that was allowed to stay was the 35th congressional district, which encompasses parts of San Antonio in the south and Austin in the north – a district that packs various clusters of Hispanic voters into the same district.
“I am very clear and sober-minded as to what will happen and what is most likely to happen as far as gerrymandering goes and with there being no Voting Rights Act as well,” Bacy said. “You might be able to quiet the people for a moment, but you cannot silence a state that is growing in the way that Texas is growing.”
2 North Carolina
Democrats had a chance to mitigate Republican gerrymandering in North Carolina, which has recently seen some of the most egregious examples of the practice. Republicans had complete control over the state legislature heading into the 2020 election, and Democrats needed to gain five seats in the state senate to have a voice in redistricting.
But Democrats failed to flip either the state senate or the state house of representatives, meaning a Republican-controlled legislature will draw the new districts and keep their majorities in the state legislature. Under state law, North Carolina’s governor, currently Democrat Roy Cooper, does not have a veto over redistricting maps, so Republicans have complete control of the process.
That’s a huge win for Republicans in North Carolina, which is projected to gain an additional congressional seat because of population growth.
Democrat JD Wooten, who was running to represent a state senate seat in a district west of state’s famed research triangle, told the Guardian his campaign had plenty of volunteers and funding. But in the end, Republicans were able to just turn out more voters.
“At the end of the day, the old thinking that the more voters, the more likely it is that Democrats will win, that didn’t hold,” he said. “We needed a perfect storm going into 2020 to do what we were hopeful we could do.”
Over the last decade, North Carolina Republicans have displayed some of the most brazen attempts at political gerrymandering.
In 2011, lawmakers drew state legislative maps that allowed them to maintain a supermajority in the state legislature, even though they only won about half of the statewide vote. That advantage allowed them to pass controversial laws, like an anti-transgender bathroom law in 2016.
Republicans were just as brutal at the congressional level. They drew districts that gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in the congressional delegation, packing Democratic voters into only a handful of districts. This meant Democrats had wide margins in two congressional districts – the first and 12th – but lost competitive races nearly everywhere else.
The 12th district, for example, groups black voters in Greensboro to the north and Charlotte in the south, even though they aren’t geographically close to each other.
The supreme court eventually ruled that those two districts were a racial gerrymander because it packed black voters into fewer districts to dilute their voting power. When Republicans were forced to redraw the congressional map, they made it openly clear they wanted to maximize their partisan advantage.
Republicans kept their clear advantage in the redrawn map, producing precisely drawn gerrymandered districts. North Carolina A&T University – the largest historically black college in America – was split into two congressional districts.
Democrats have reason for some hope in North Carolina, however. Last year, a state court struck down North Carolina’s legislative map, saying it was so egregiously gerrymandered that it violated the state constitution. Democrats still control a narrow majority in the North Carolina supreme court, offering state courts as one possible avenue for voting advocates to check Republican gerrymandering in the state.
Republicans control the legislature and governor’s mansion and have all the power in drawing the new districts. Florida is projected to gain at least one more congressional seat in addition to the 29 it already has.
Florida passed a law to stop gerrymandering. Republicans gerrymandered anyway.
In 2010, Florida voters passed two constitutional amendments to ban racial and partisan gerrymandering. The Republican-led legislature still tried to gerrymander maps by packing Democratic voters into a handful of districts.
For example, here’s the fifth congressional district, which twists and turns to include Jacksonville, Gainesville and Orlando.
The courts ordered the legislature to draw new maps in 2014 – but those maps were again struck down because they were drawn with an “unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican party and incumbents”. Eventually the Florida supreme court approved a new map drawn by voting rights groups. The courts also ordered the legislature to redraw the state senate map in 2012 and in 2015.
The original maps did exactly what Republicans wanted: They won just 54% of votes but nearly two-third of the congressional seats. After the new maps were drawn, the proportion of votes to seats evened out.
Republicans came away from the 2020 election controlling both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature, giving them the authority to draw congressional districts. But Democrats control the governor’s mansion, which will allow the party to have a significant check on any maps that severely benefit the GOP.
That’s a significant break from 2011, when Republicans had complete control over state government.
They took advantage, packing Democrats into just five of the state’s 18 congressional districts.
The maps produced some bizarre shapes, such as the seventh district.
The 2012 election showed that Republican partisan gerrymandering had worked. The congressional map allowed Republicans to win just half the votes but hold on to 13 of the 18 seats, and this was the case for the following two elections in 2014 and 2016.
In 2018 the state supreme court struck down the congressional map, saying it was so egregiously gerrymandered that it violated the state constitution. The state supreme court eventually struck down the congressional maps for being a partisan gerrymander and drew a new map for use in 2018. With the new maps, Republicans won about half the votes and half the seats. Democrats still hold a majority on the state supreme court, which could offer another important check on GOP efforts to gerrymander over the next decade.
Democrats don’t control either chamber of the Wisconsin legislature, but the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, can veto any electoral maps. Democrats ensured that veto power will hold by breaking Republicans’ supermajority in the state legislature in November.
It’s a modest change with huge consequences.
There are few places in America where gerrymandering has been more consequential than in Wisconsin.
A Project Redmap target, Scott Walker, a conservative Republican, was elected governor and Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2010. Shortly thereafter, Republicans drew maps that made it nearly impossible for them to lose state control of state government. They were able to control 60 of the state’s 99 assembly seats, even while winning around half of the statewide vote. The gerrymandering was so egregious that it made it possible for Republicans to win a supermajority in the state assembly while winning a minority of the statewide vote, Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote earlier this year.
In 2018, Democrats won every statewide race, but Republicans held control of 63 of 99 seats in the state assembly. This entrenched power has supported a litany of Republican goals in the state, including weakening public sector unions and passing measures like voter ID.
The congressional maps packed Democrats more tightly into their districts, but the makeup of the delegation stayed the same over the last 10 years.
For example, Milwaukee and a few blue-collar suburbs were packed tightly into the fourth district, allowing Republicans to hold on to three seats in the areas.
Two more states to watch: Ohio and Georgia
In Georgia, Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature, giving them complete control over the drawing of the state’s 14 congressional districts as well as state house districts. That power will probably allow Republican lawmakers to draw districts that diminish an electorate in Georgia that is increasingly diverse and Democratic-leaning after Joe Biden was the first Democrat in nearly 30 years to carry the state.
Ohio, another Redmap target, has also seen some of the most severe partisan gerrymandering. Last year, a federal court struck down the state’s congressional map, where Republicans consistently held a 12-4 advantage, saying: “This partisan gerrymander was intentional and effective and that no legitimate justification accounts for its extremity.” The US supreme court later reversed the ruling, leaving the map in place.
This redistricting cycle, Republicans will control the legislature and governor’s mansion in Ohio, but in 2018 voters approved a ballot measure designed to rein in excessive partisan gerrymandering. The measure blocks lawmakers from passing a permanent map without getting meaningful support from the minority party, which should give Democrats some of a say in the process.
Data for redistricting laws for each states is from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Brennan Center for Justice. Data on the makeup of state legislatures after the 2020 election is from 270toWin. Congressional district shapes are from the US Census Bureau and the Digital Boundary Definitions of United States Congressional Districts, 1789-2012; election results are from the from Stephen Pettigrew via Harvard Dataverse, the MIT Elections Lab and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.