At a Faith and Freedom Coalition event last week, the freshman Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) made a startling if casually delivered admission. He told the right-wing grassroots audience that he expected Republicans to claim the House majority next year, not by winning the most votes, but by gerrymandering themselves into minority rule.
“We have redistricting coming up,” he said. “That alone should get us our majority back.”
Jackson should be no one’s idea of a civic role model, but he probably isn’t wrong. Today, Democrats hold one of the slimmest House majorities in history and their five-seat margin is easily erasable through partisan gerrymandering—the practice of drawing maps that sort voters into districts in ways that favor particular parties.
It is possible, if not likely, that Democrats could win the popular House vote next fall, only for Republicans to seize control of the chamber anyhow. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Often ignored among the dozens of other reforms in Democrats’ catch-all voting-rights and democracy bill—the For The People Act—is a proposal to ban partisan gerrymandering. As Democrats look inward to determine whether they have the mettle to protect the democracy with new legislation, salvaging this provision should be their highest priority.
In their landmark 2019 ruling, Rucho v. Common Cause the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices (then five in number) essentially decided that while partisan gerrymandering may be distasteful, they weren’t going to do anything about it. And worse, they would prevent other federal judges from doing anything about it either.
Though long practiced by both parties, partisan gerrymandering re-entered the public conversation in 2012 with new vigor. That November, Democrats won the national popular vote for the House by 1.4 million ballots only to lose the chamber. Republicans gained control of the House instead with a minority of votes thanks overwhelmingly to the new, biased district maps they had drawn the previous year.
In some cases the gerrymanders they drew were so egregious that they jumped off the page. In Ohio, for example, President Obama won re-election by nearly three points, only to lose 12 of the state’s 16 congressional districts.
The effects of the 2011 Republican gerrymanders warped political outcomes for the rest of the decade, and it’s possible that Democrats would not have regained the chamber in that 10 year period were it not for courts in key states (i.e. Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina) that threw out blatantly rigged maps.
The Rucho ruling, and its recent related cases will only make a bad situation worse. When they drew their gerrymanders in 2011, state legislators had to worry, at least in theory, that the federal judiciary might declare them to be unlawful. But in 2017, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Court rejected a bevy of statistical tests—devised to identify which maps were rigged to favor a single party, and which were fair—as “sociological gobbledygook.”
This year, Republicans will be in a position to draw nearly three times as many congressional districts as Democrats. And while that is an improvement over the abysmal 2011 redistricting cycle, it’s still more than enough to deliver Republicans the House majority in 2022, and this time Republicans can be as shameless as they’d like.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If all Senate Democrats worked together to pass the For the People Act—even one that’s modified to win the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—they could ensure that the 2022 House election, and all subsequent ones, play out on fairly-drawn maps.
In response to Republican obstruction, which has prevented the Senate from even debating the bill, some Senate Democrats have suggested that the party turn away from this effort and focus instead on restoring the Voting Rights Act, where there is (supposedly) more cross-ideological consensus.
That would be a grave mistake.
It may seem obvious, but the only way to stop partisan gerrymandering is to ban partisan gerrymandering.
Though restoring the VRA is important, it would only prevent the most egregious racial gerrymanders. Its protections might serve as a bulwark against the worst gerrymanders in states like Texas, where all but two members of the Democratic delegation represent majority-minority seats. But that won’t be enough if Democrats want the midterms to be fought fairly across the nation.
Consider Kentucky’s third congressional district—Louisville—which for the last 14 years has been represented by John Yarmuth, an unusually progressive southern Democrat. Yarmuth’s district has a Cook PVI rating of D+8, making it a relatively safe Democratic seat. But in a state that Trump won by more than 25 points, it’s easy to imagine Republicans in the Kentucky legislature, empowered by a supermajority, cracking his district in half or even in thirds, securing themselves another congressional seat. Such a map would be a blatant partisan gerrymander.
But even in a world with a restored VRA, Yarmuth and his constituents would be essentially powerless to fight back. Despite Louisville’s rich Black history, the district is only 23 percent Black and majority white. It is doubtful that the Republican-dominated federal judiciary would see the dismantling of a 66 percent white district as a racial gerrymander, which would be necessary for a VRA lawsuit to succeed.
And Kentucky is not unique. Republicans in Tennessee, for example, are similarly primed to wash away Democratic Rep. John Cooper’s Nashville-based district, which, like Yarmuth’s, is also more than 60 percent white.
Reps. Lucy McBath (GA-06), Frank Mrvan (IN-01), Sharice Davids (KS-03), Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), and Charlie Crist (FL-13) face similar risks—enough seats, when combined, to flip partisan control of the House.
In all of these cases, the ban on racial gerrymandering alone would likely not be enough to keep those Democratic-leaning, majority-white seats competitive.
These aren’t hyperbolic predictions. Last October, Kansas’s Republican Senate leader Susan Wagle promised to draw a map that “takes out Sharice David” and her suburban Kansas City district. Just last week, Tennessee Republicans openly floated their gerrymandered Nashville plans in The Hill. And in Florida, multiple House Democrats are running for statewide office, or are considering doing so, due to concerns that their seats will be wiped off the map.
Republicans argue against efforts to even the playing field in two ways; Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) recently complained about Democratic gerrymandering in Maryland and Illinois, using alleged hypocrisy to defend far more extensive Republican gerrymandering, and thus to oppose a solution that would make maps fair everywhere.
Meanwhile, after she voted to block the Senate from even debating democracy reform, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised some elements of the For the People Act, only to then argue that its mandate to establish independent redistricting commissions (of the kind Alaska has used for decades) might be unconstitutional. She elided the fact that Democrats have already agreed to remove the commission requirement, and replace it with one that prohibits partisan gerrymandering in a less-intrusive way.
It may be impossible to have a good-faith debate with Republicans over voting rights, but Democrats should nevertheless make banning partisan gerrymandering their top priority, even if it means delaying or eliminating other kinds of reforms. While independent redistricting commissions, mandatory public input, and respect for communities of interest are all certainly best practices for redistricting, they are not vital.
What’s vital is making it impossible for Republicans (or Democrats) to pick off their opponents like prey by manipulating maps to pack opposite-party voters in lopsided districts or cracking up opposite-party enclaves much like pizza slices.
A failure to ban partisan gerrymandering will, in all likelihood, doom Democrats’ chances to retain the House in 2022, and thus reward and accelerate the Republican Party’s descent into authoritarianism.
If House Democrats lose the chamber next year, while winning a majority of the votes, it’ll be through GOP abuse of power, and a catastrophe for democracy. But the Senate Democrats who failed to unite against partisan gerrymandering will also shoulder the blame.
Zachariah Sippy is a researcher who has written about redistricting and gerrymandering for various publications including The Hill, Business Insider, and Teen Vogue.