The GOP’s Greatest Political Weapon: Redistricting Control

An elephant holding a permanent marker in its trunk

Add one more reason why November 2020 will be among the most important elections in American history: redistricting. Following the completion of the census in 2021, states will start the once-a-decade process of redrawing electoral districts, deciding years of funding, the distribution of political power and who will have a voice in our government.

One of the most common complaints about the process is that the political parties use this process to gain partisan advantage. However, when it comes to partisan gerrymandering, both sides don’t do it. A new study found that in the last two decades, when Republicans controlled a state’s redistricting process, they benefited from a 9.1% point increase in seat share.

When the Democrats had control? Zero percent.

Since 2011, this practice has resulted in 27 House seats shifted toward the Republican Party.

For years, many of us have highlighted the extreme lengths Republicans will go to in order to gain a partisan advantage through gerrymandering. Indeed, the 2020 election will be heavily influenced by the redistricting decisions made by Republicans back in 2011. Their gerrymandering made it possible for Democrats to win the majority of the popular vote in a state but only control fewer than one-third of the legislative seats — exactly what happened in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in 2012.

Despite the popular narrative, the false equivalency of partisan gerrymandering risks masking just how shameless and ruthless Republicans have been with redistricting. We saw this clearly last year, when the Hofeller files reveled the GOP’s strategy to use gerrymandering to “create a system wherein the Republican nominee would win.”

Data shows exactly how Republicans weaponized redistricting over the past 20 years of partisan gerrymandering. Researchers found that while in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s partisan redistricting accounted for less than 5% of the gap between Republicans and Democrats in the House, the same calculations showed that it “can account for 57 percent of the gap in the 2000s and 51 percent in the 2010s.” This shift occurred particularly in the 2010s when the Republican Party took control over many governorships and state legislatures.

Following the 2010 census, I litigated a number of redistricting cases — most of which were aimed at replacing Republican gerrymanders with fair maps. Four of those cases ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. My legal team won them all. Yet I am very worried about the impact of the 2020 election on the redistricting process and its ripple effects on elections for the next decade.

As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent of Common Cause v. Rucho last year, where the Court decided partisan gerrymandering is a political question beyond the reach of the federal courts, “The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”

History has proven what Republicans will do in redistricting if they have complete power and who they will disenfranchise in the process. As we prepare for November, we need to ensure that Republicans cannot take control of redistricting again — the future of our democracy depends on it.