In Democrats' strategic strike against gerrymandering, Holder leads the charge

At a breakfast for reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, former Attorney General Eric Holder calls political gerrymandering 'a fundamental affront to our system of democracy.' He's heading a Democratic effort that seeks a more level playing field well beyond the next elections.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. speaks at the Monitor Breakfast in the St. Regis Hotel, Feb. 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

There’s no doubt that Democrats are energized for this November’s midterm elections. But there’s more at stake than just the partisan control of state and federal offices for the next few years.

Democrats are laying plans for a political reset – and, they hope, a more level playing field – with an impact that would reach all the way to 2031.

Leading the charge is a perhaps-unlikely figure: Eric Holder, attorney general under former President Barack Obama. With Mr. Obama’s help, he’s tackling the seemingly dry issue of redistricting, the drawing of boundaries for state and federal legislative districts.

In fact, it’s a hot topic, with the 2020 Census coming soon, followed by redistricting in 2021, and three cases at the Supreme Court. And in Mr. Holder’s view, the fair formation of voting districts – and fighting partisan gerrymandering – goes to the very heart of representative democracy.

“We have a system now where politicians are picking their voters as opposed to citizens choosing who their representatives are going to be,” Holder said Wednesday, speaking at a press breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “And it’s a fundamental affront to our system of democracy.”

Holder is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), a group that launched last year to help elect Democratic state legislators, governors, and other elected officials in key states as redistricting approaches, and to promote reform of the process.

The NDRC has targeted 12 states, some of them so-called GOP “trifectas” – states where both legislative chambers and the governor’s office are controlled by Republicans. It is also trying to prevent others from becoming trifectas.

For Holder, a career lawyer in both the private and public sectors, political activism is a new world. He calls fundraising “interesting,” and leaves it at that. As for whether he might run for office himself – possibly even president – he said Wednesday, “We’ll see.” He’ll decide by the end of the year, he says.

Holder’s own high profile, as well as that of his friend Obama, is helping with fundraising. In 2017, the NDRC and its affiliated entities raised $16 million, out of an eventual goal of $30 million. It also contributed $1.2 million toward Democrat Ralph Northam’s winning gubernatorial race in Virginia last November.

In Virginia state legislative races, the Democrats defied expectations, nearly retaking control of the lower chamber – an effort Holder helped through fundraising and campaign appearances.

Democrats also scored a victory Monday in Pennsylvania when the US Supreme Court declined to block a state high court ruling that threw out the state’s congressional map over partisan gerrymandering – the drawing of political boundaries to favor one party over another. Thirteen of Pennsylvania’s 18 members of Congress are Republican, even though registered Democratic voters in the state outnumber registered Republicans.

Two cases before Supreme Court

Partisan gerrymandering also lies at the heart of two cases before the US Supreme Court – one brought by Democrats in Wisconsin, the other by Republicans in Maryland. The cases show that partisan gerrymandering is an equal-opportunity practice. How the justices rule could reshape the conduct of US elections.

When asked about Maryland, where it’s the Democrats who are blamed for engaging in partisan gerrymandering, Holder points out that it’s just one congressional district at issue.

“You could talk about that one district, but we’re focusing on states that have had substantial gerrymandering problems,” Holder says, naming Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina as the most egregious examples.

A lawsuit over North Carolina’s congressional map is working its way through the courts. And last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Texas case on racial gerrymandering.

Holder says he and Obama plan special outreach to black voters in the run-up to the midterms.

But in general, Democrats can only get so far in creating more favorable maps via redistricting and legal action, experts say. They need to do the shoe-leather work of running for and winning seats in the state legislatures that draw the maps in most states every 10 years.

Belated realization

During Obama’s presidency, the party let its down-ballot efforts atrophy, and suffered a net loss of nearly 1,000 state legislative seats. The result has been stark: In 2008, Democrats controlled almost 60 percent of state legislative bodies. Today, Republicans have nearly 70 percent.

“Democrats finally came to the realization that they’re at a bit of a disadvantage on the map,” says David Wasserman, an expert on redistricting and gerrymandering at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Part of that is attributable to redistricting, he says. In 2010, the last census year and Obama’s first midterm, the Republicans won big across the board – a “shellacking,” as Obama put it, in the big tea party wave.

But even in a wave election, which the Democrats are hoping for this November, targeting races is key. In 2010, the Republican program REDMAP – the Redistricting Majority Project – targeted states where just a few seats could shift the balance of a state legislative chamber to Republican control in time for the 2011 redistricting. That’s part of what NDRC is doing in 2018 on the Democratic side.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which developed REDMAP.

Another challenge for Democrats is that their voters are clustered in cities and towns and on the coasts, which hurts their chances of winning power, Mr. Wasserman notes. The trend toward partisan “sorting” – people choosing to live near like-minded people – means there’s only so much Democrats can do in redrawing district lines.

“The truth is, gerrymandering compounds sorting,” says Wasserman. “When we’ve had a balkanization or a polarization of voters on the map to the degree we’ve seen in the last 20 years, it becomes easier for partisans drawing the maps to create safely Democratic or safely Republican seats.”

Impact on polarization

Safe seats often lead to the election of members who don’t feel the need to work across the aisle, contributing to polarization. Elections in such districts are often decided in the primaries, which are dominated by the most hard-line partisan voters.

So the creation of more competitive congressional districts could ease polarization, at least somewhat.

Citizen-led efforts to reform redistricting are under way in seven states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Some involve ballot initiatives, others are trying to pass legislation. But taking redistricting out of the hands of partisans is difficult.

Only four states ­– Arizona, California, Idaho, and Washington – use an independent commission to draw congressional districts. In 37 states, the state legislature draws the boundaries, and in most, the governor must approve the map. Two states, Hawaii and New Jersey, use politician commissions. Seven states have just one member of the House, and thus there’s no congressional redistricting.

“I actually think that a movement toward nonpartisan commissions is in some ways the purest way to do [redistricting],” says Holder. “But I deal with reality, and between now and 2021, we're not going to get commissions in all of these states.”

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