Democrats face a stark choice on redistricting

The new census numbers will make an anti-democratic system even worse

American abacus.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Every 10 years, the U.S. counts its population and shifts seats in the House of Representatives according to how different states have grown. This process, known as reapportionment, has obvious political implications for the House, because each state with more than one seat also draws new district boundaries. The Census Bureau, after a lengthy delay to settle legal challenges, released those numbers Monday, and they were mostly bad news for Democrats hoping to cling to their narrow majority next year — unless they can muster the courage to make some much-needed and fundamental changes to our dated electoral system.

The top line numbers were not unexpected by observers who keep a close eye on population shifts — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, and California will all lose a seat in the 435-member House, while Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Colorado and Oregon will gain one. Fast-growing Texas will add two. If we want to reduce this solely to the 2020 election, that's a net gain of three seats for states won by Donald Trump and a net loss of three for states won by President Biden. The only big surprise is that Arizona was expected to gain a seat and it did not. Absurdities abound, of course, including the fact that had New York counted 89 more people, it would not have lost a district.

Overall, these figures tell the story of a long, slow-moving shift of the U.S. population away from the Northeast and Midwest and toward the South and West, a migration driven more by housing costs, job opportunities, and weather preferences than ideology. The widespread availability of low-cost air-conditioning has made many of these states more attractive to people who can now mostly hang around indoors in the most punishing summer months rather than slowly melt into sweat puddles.

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If the United States used a sensible, non-partisan system for drawing the boundaries of its House districts, that would be the end of it. But nearly half of those 435 House seats will be drawn in states where single-party control means the hounds of gerrymandering will immediately be released to squeeze as many seats for their party out of the maps as possible, all other considerations be damned. And that spells trouble for Democrats, because Republicans will be able to do this to many more districts than Democrats, and several states with single-party GOP control now have more seats in the House.

There is basically no check on state Republicans in Texas, and the state supreme court that threw out Florida's post-2010 gerrymander is now firmly in the grip of conservatives. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper can't veto the maps produced by the Republican state legislature of North Carolina, and Republicans in Wisconsin are likely to use every tool at their disposal to do an end-run around their own Democratic governor.

Meanwhile, the largest Democratic state, California, uses a non-partisan commission to draw its boundaries. The upshot of all of these factors is likely to be a modest shift in the House landscape away from Democrats and toward Republicans, meaning that — stop me if you've heard this one before — Team Blue will have to not just win but clobber the GOP next year if they want to keep the speaker's gavel in Nancy Pelosi's hands.

The Supreme Court could have ended this charade in 2019, but as usual, Chief Justice John Roberts and his friends set any conceivable principles aside to reinforce the GOP's structural advantage in the U.S. electoral system, declaring that it was up to Congress and the states to fix partisan gerrymandering. Should any cases stemming from this round of redistricting once again reach the Court, they will be heard before an even stronger conservative majority.

The good news is that there are ways to end this anti-democratic madness, to reduce the partisan jockeying around the census and to stop punishing the citizens of certain states for growing less than their neighbors: First, repeal the 1929 Permanent Reapportionment Act that capped the House at 435 seats, and allow the chamber to grow dynamically along with the population. Rather than take seats away from Illinois and New York, they could simply award new ones to the states whose populations are growing quickly.

The U.S. House of Representatives, as scholars have been shouting futilely into the wind for many years, is much too small to perform the functions that the authors of the Constitution intended. When the House's size was frozen, the U.S. had 106 million people, or 243,000 per representative. It is now over 747,000 people per representative, a figure that would have shocked and horrified the Founders (since we all know that the real or imagined whims of these long-dead men continue to hold great sway over our contemporary decisions).

Congress could radically increase the size of the House, or it could allow for modest increases in its size every 10 years. It could also require non-partisan redistricting commissions for all states (a reform included in the For the People Act sitting on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's desk). All of these things are well within the indisputable constitutional authority of Congress, and would eliminate the Republican Party's systematic and cynical attempts to entrench minority rule in the states and in Congress.

Making the House larger and reforming redistricting is a start, a good governance gateway drug. But the idea that would do the most to arrest the downward spiral of procedural escalation, mistrust, and paranoia that characterizes relations between the two parties and their voters would be much more profound.

Maryland-based Fair Vote has been advocating to completely replace the "single-member district plurality" system, in which each of our 435 districts produces a single winner, even if that person wins just a plurality rather than a majority of the vote. Instead, most districts could elect between three and five members, by ranked choice voting, making gerrymandering all but impossible, allowing smaller political parties to win seats and giving politicians incentives to broaden their appeals. The group's Fair Representation Act has been introduced in the last two congresses, but so far has yet to pick up widespread support.

The bad news is that a handful of recalcitrant Democratic moderates in the U.S. Senate are likely to block any of these reforms. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are still publicly wedded to their unflinching support of the legislative filibuster, which means not only that the For the People Act is dead on arrival but so is any conceivable reform of the House that might avert this gerrymandering catastrophe that is unfolding right under their noses. They believe that slow-rolling the Democratic agenda that President Biden promised the voters will help them retain their seats in 2024, and that the party's slim congressional majorities are best preserved by doing basically nothing.

They are wrong, of course, and they are running out of time to change course. Maps will be drawn well ahead of the midterm elections, and they don't have time to wait until next April to figure out they will never find 10 Republicans to help them fix American democracy, for the very simple reason that the GOP detests and fears the electorate and wants to make sure the verdict of its majority never comes down.

If Manchin and Sinema won't budge and Congress doesn't step in to end these clearly anti-majoritarian practices, blue-leaning states like California should untie their hands and gerrymander their GOP seats away. Better for Democrats to use the full measure of their power than once again lose on principle.

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