Democrats, don't panic over post-Census redistricting

The media are scaring Democrats into accepting their own gerrymandered demise. But Republicans can only gain so much from redistricting. 

The Democrats are toast. That’s the headline from this week’s Census report. Big population gains in America’s red states mean more Republican seats in Congress, and big GOP victories in state-level contests mean more conservative control of the redistricting process. In just seven weeks since the election, Democrats have already reached stage five of their electoral grieving process: acceptance.

And why shouldn’t they be? It’s nearly impossible to find predictions about redistricting that don’t portend doom for the Democrats. The November election gave Republicans a “commanding redistricting edge,” according to The Hill. The GOP will now be able to “redraw the political landscape for the next 10 years,” writes USA Today. In states where one party controls redistricting, Republicans enjoy a “crushing” 197-49 advantage, notes the Washington Examiner.

Liberals need to relax

More liberal teeth were gnashed this week when new Census data showed that blue and purple states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio would lose seats in Congress. Red states, meanwhile, are sitting pretty. One of them, Texas, is picking up a whopping four seats. 

ANOTHER VIEW: Democrats' last line of defense against GOP gerrymandering: the Voting Rights Act

But Democrats shouldn’t panic. Most of these Democrats-are-toast analyses are a mile-wide and an inch-deep. They take into account neither individual state methods for drawing districts nor which party drew them a decade ago. Protected majority-minority districts are ignored, as are practical considerations of the number of districts that could realistically shift parties. And few ask the question: Is maximizing the number of possible Republican seats actually the primary motive of mapmakers?

Before we look more closely at each of these limitations on gerrymandering, a practical point bears consideration. It is tempting to believe that because Republicans control the redistricting process in 197 congressional districts, this means they can draw 197 new Republican seats. They can’t.

The limits to gerrymandering

For one thing, the Democratic-leaning voters who make up roughly half the population of these districts will still exist come November 2012. Sure, they can be shuffled around, but that’s a zero-sum game. It’s like kneading pizza dough – you can only spread it so thin before it breaks.

Four states are often highlighted as ones where the GOP could make major gains through redistricting: Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Alabama. Yet each state exhibits at least one of the potential limitations Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) will face during next year’s redistricting battles.

One of the states where the GOP controls a “trifecta” – controlling the governorship and both legislative chambers – is Arizona. That’s why the Grand Canyon State is often pointed to as one where Republicans can hope to strike redistricting gold. Such predictions ignore a major constraint: the state’s independent redistricting commission. Rather than allowing legislators to gerrymander congressional districts, Arizona is one of just under a dozen states, including California and Iowa, which now delegate mapmaking authority to an independent panel.

Simply pointing to which party controls a state’s redistricting process next year is akin to noting who the House Speaker will be in the next Congress – it’s only noteworthy if it wasn’t the case before. The potential for gains is significantly diminished when the party in charge already drew the current map. A prime example of this is Florida, where the GOP currently enjoys majorities in the legislature and also holds the governors mansion – just as it did in 2001. To be sure, Republican control in Florida prevents Democrats from redrawing the map to their benefit. But the GOP’s ability to play good defense is quite different than putting forth a real offense. As with the pizza dough, Democratic voters can only be spread to a certain point.

GOP advantage is exaggerated

Massive population growth is giving Texas four new congressional seats in the next election. And because the legislature controls redistricting in Texas and Republicans currently hold a trifecta but did not a decade ago, there is potential for big GOP gains, right?

Not necessarily.

Texas is one of 14 states that are required by the Voting Rights Act to have their maps preapproved by the Justice Department in order to prevent possible discrimination. Of primary concern are majority-minority districts, where a majority of residents are racial minorities. Such districts are legally protected by the Department of Justice, which unlike 10 years ago, is now controlled by Democrats. Texas already has four majority-minority districts, and with Latinos making up 63 percent of the state’s population growth over the past decade, it will probably have at least one or two more protected districts in 2012.

In Alabama, the GOP enjoys a significant upper hand in the redistricting process, which is controlled by appointees of the House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor, both Republicans. The problem is that Republicans already represent six of the state’s seven congressional districts (the last one is a protected majority-minority district). Like Democrats in Massachusetts, the GOP has virtually no room to grow in Alabama. The same thing is true in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

An overlooked factor

One final factor that is often overlooked by political analysts is whether parties in charge will even try to maximize the number of possible winning seats. Republicans in Michigan could try to paint some Democratic districts redder, but doing so would require shifting Republican voters from one district to another, potentially jeopardizing safe Republican seats.

When redrawing congressional districts, there is a direct tradeoff between maximizing the number of possible Republican wins and the number of actual safe Republican seats. The former results in more potential red seats, but also a greater chance of Republican incumbent losses in wave Democratic years. Columbia political scientist David Epstein argues that this factor should not be overlooked because “incumbents usually don’t like seeing their margins narrowed.” Indeed, this is exactly what happened in California, when in 2001 Democrats opted for a redistricting plan that protected incumbents rather than tried to make new Democratic seats, despite controlling a trifecta.

2010 census results: Why did US population growth slow?

To be clear, it is true that Republicans enjoy an upper hand and will probably pick up some seats in states like Indiana and Georgia. Democrats also have some states where they can press their gains, including Illinois and Colorado. In the end, redistricting will probably turn some districts red, but given the many constraints that state legislators deal with when drawing new maps, those gains will probably be restricted to single digits.

Democrats are notorious Chicken Littles. There is plenty for them to be worried about in the 2012 election – like a tough Senate cycle that will force them to defend 23 of the 33 seats up for a vote. But rest assured, Democrats, your decline will not come on a cross of redistricting.

Scott Keyes is a researcher for Progressive Media and at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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