Democrats haven’t gotten much good news in recent weeks, but here’s one piece: Redistricting, the once-a-decade process of drawing new lines for congressional and legislative districts, is turning out better for them than expected.
Both parties gerrymander when they can, but in this cycle, like the one 10 years ago, Republicans have had more opportunities to do so than Democrats do. In part, that’s because the GOP has full control over more state legislatures. Another big factor is that voters in some large Democratic states — notably California — have taken redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and given it to independent commissions.
So Democrats started this redistricting cycle at a significant disadvantage and expected the worst. Instead, the results so far — with more than half the states having set their lines and most of the others well along in the process — have upended projections that line-drawing alone would net Republicans enough seats to erase the small Democratic majority in the House.
When all is done, it’s even possible Democrats could emerge with a slight gain compared with the current maps.
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That won’t solve the other problems Democrats face: inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the historical pattern of the party in the White House losing seats in midterm elections. Odds remain strong that Republicans will regain House control after November’s voting.
But with the final big fights coming soon in two major states — Florida and New York — Democrats are in better position than they counted on when the process began a year ago.
State courts step in
Partisan impact, of course, is not the only reason to care about gerrymandering. The skewing of district lines to favor political interests hurts democracy even if it doesn’t strongly favor one party.
This year’s round of line drawing has had two notable features, both bad: a drastic reduction in the number of competitive districts and the elimination of districts in Texas, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina in which Black or Latino voters made up the majority.
A new report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice documents the impact of gerrymandering so far.
On the competitive front, the report notes that in the Republican-controlled states that have finished redistricting, 54 districts in 2020 went for former President Trump by more than 15 percentage points. Under the new maps, that number of lopsided Republican districts will soar to 70. The number of districts with large majorities for President Biden also would go up, although not as much. What disappears are the toss-up districts that either party could win.
Twelve states so far — seven controlled by Republicans and five by Democrats — have passed gerrymanders that would be illegal if the voting rights legislation that Democrats failed to move through the Senate this week were to become law, the center determined. Lawmakers in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio on the GOP side, and Illinois and New Jersey on the Democratic side have approved the worst gerrymanders, they found.
That list, however, points to one of the big constraints on gerrymandering this year — the willingness of some state courts to act as a check.
That Ohio gerrymander that the report called out got wiped off the books this month, when Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled the map violated the state constitution. There’s a good chance that North Carolina’s Supreme Court will overturn the gerrymander in that state, too.
The Ohio court was enforcing what the state’s voters decided in 2015 when they approved a ballot measure that barred the legislature from redistricting in a way that “unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.”
The congressional map drawn by the state’s Republican legislature broke that rule, the state court said. The justices pointed to the Cincinnati area, for example, which the legislature had sliced into three districts, diluting its Democratic voters in a sea of rural Republicans.
In a state that tilts slightly to the GOP, the map would have given the Republicans 11 heavily favorable seats, compared to two strongly Democratic seats and two competitive ones.
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the enacted plan favors the Republican Party and disfavors the Democratic Party to a degree far exceeding what is warranted” by the state’s political geography, Justice Michael Donnelly wrote in his opinion for the court’s 4-3 majority.
Republican officials had argued that the language of the ballot measure was too vague for a court to enforce and should be considered merely “aspirational.”
In 2019, a similar argument persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against efforts to rein in gerrymandering on the federal level. Such claims “present political questions beyond the reach of federal courts,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
But this case was different, the Ohio justices ruled. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t contain language about gerrymandering; thanks to the 2015 ballot initiative, Ohio’s does.
Following the voters’ directive doesn’t require strict proportional representation, the court said. But it does forbid a divvy as out-of-whack as the one the state legislature approved.
Notably, the court ruling was bipartisan. Ohio’s justices are elected on partisan ballots, and the court has four Republican justices. But Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, joined the three Democrats to strike down the gerrymandered map.
In a separate case, the court also struck down the new map for the state legislature. In both, it ordered up new versions. On the congressional level, that probably will net Democrats two additional seats.
The impact could go further because the Ohio ruling may influence other state high courts.
The next test will come in North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled legislature passed a gerrymander more extreme than the one in Ohio.
North Carolina is more evenly divided than Ohio. But the new map would create 10 heavily Republican districts, one competitive seat and just three Democratic ones, down from the current five. The North Carolina high court, which has a Democratic majority, is scheduled to hear arguments about the maps on Feb. 2.
State courts can also have an impact even before they rule.
The most important example of that comes from Florida, one of the two big states yet to act.
Republicans currently hold a 16-11 majority in the Florida congressional delegation under a map produced after lengthy court fights.
The state gained one seat as a result of the 2020 census. The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has pushed his own map, an aggressive gerrymander that would likely increase his party’s share to 20 seats.
So far, the state Senate has ignored DeSantis’ plan in favor of one that would produce roughly a 14-8 division of safe seats plus six competitive ones. The state House has been working on two plans that would provide more Republican seats than the Senate’s map, but probably fewer than the governor’s map.
Both houses of the Florida legislature have Republican majorities, but like Ohio, the state has a voter-passed constitutional provision limiting gerrymandering. No one can be sure how aggressively the state’s conservative Supreme Court would enforce the limits, but the prospect of more litigation has been one factor holding lawmakers back.
Then there are states where reform efforts have failed to restrain partisanship, notably New York, which is for Democrats what Florida could be for Republicans. Voters there passed an initiative in 2014 to create an independent redistricting commission, but it has proven toothless: The legislature can reject the commission’s maps and draw their own. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other Democratic leaders have made clear that’s their plan.
Republicans currently hold eight of New York’s 27 seats. The state lost one seat after the census, and some Democrats have pushed for a map that would cut the GOP to as few as 3 seats in the new 26-member delegation.
Even as Democrats in Washington have pushed to impose new limits on gerrymandering, their co-partisans in Albany have moved to exploit the current system. How aggressively they do so will go a long way to determining where the nationwide balance of power ends up.
A not so happy anniversary
This week marked a year since President Biden took office, and the anniversary found him at a low point in his presidency.
As The Times’ Eli Stokols wrote, Biden is struggling to change the narrative around his tenure, which increasingly holds that his ambitions and experience have been no match for the crises he has confronted.
In a marathon news conference on Wednesday that lasted nearly two hours, Biden called his first year one of “challenges but also enormous progress,” Stokols and Noah Bierman reported. The president told reporters he would restart efforts to pass his signature legislative agenda and use the midterm election campaigns to push harder against Republican obstructionism.
“We have faced some of the biggest challenges that we have ever faced these past few years,” Biden said. “Not only are we getting through it, we’re laying the foundation for the future.”
As Bierman wrote, one of Biden’s most valuable political skills has been a knack for planting himself firmly at the ideological center of the Democratic Party. That trait helped him win elections and enabled him to cobble together enough lawmakers to pass a large economic relief package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But he’s been stymied on two of his biggest initiatives because he needs not only the center of the party, but 100% of its members to get anything through an evenly divided Senate.
The news conference, which may have set a record for length, included a couple of trademark Biden gaffes. On Thursday, the White House sought to clean up the record, Stokols and Arit John reported. Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Biden “was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election” when he said the voting “could easily be … illegitimate” if Democrats failed to muster a legislative response to new restrictions on voting passed by Republican-controlled states.
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The other major fracas to emerge from the news conference involved Biden’s remarks about the consequences that might follow a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. As Tracy Wilkinson reported, officials in Kyiv reacted angrily to Biden’s words, which appeared to wobble on whether the U.S. and its NATO allies would back Ukraine if Russia attacked in a manner that stopped short of a full-scale invasion.
The remark came on the heels of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s in-person assurances to Ukraine’s besieged leaders that the U.S. would punish Russia if it invades the former Soviet republic, Wilkinson reported.
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The latest from Washington
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s refusal to cooperate with the congressional committee investigating last year’s Capitol assault marked his most definitive rejection of the Jan. 6 probe and put him and the committee into uncharted legal and political waters, John reported.
By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court on Wednesday turned down former President Trump’s plea to shield his White House records from the investigating committee, David Savage reported. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented as the court agreed with two lower courts that the former president’s claim of executive privilege could not outweigh the committee’s need for the records.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Republican National Committee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have asked the Supreme Court to strike down a campaign funding law that bars winning candidates from collecting checks from donors to pay off personal campaign debts of more than $250,000. As Savage reported, it’s the latest effort by Republicans to free election money from limits set by Congress in decades past.
Recent allegations of lawmakers potentially benefitting from personal stock market trades has generated new interest in reining in their ability to trade or own individual stocks while in office, Jennifer Haberkorn reported. Dozens of lawmakers have come out in support of competing but similar bills that would limit their ability to hold or trade stocks while in office, perhaps requiring them to put any stocks into a blind trust before being sworn in.
The administration plans to distribute 400 million high-quality masks to Americans for free starting next week in the hopes of offering better protection against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Anumita Kaur reported.
The latest from California
Vice President Kamala Harris plans to visit a San Bernardino fire station Friday to announce the federal government will provide California $600 million to help the state recover from a historically severe wildfire season, Bierman reported.
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Jessica Lall said Wednesday that if elected she would create a city department of homelessness to coordinate the response to the crisis, Benjamin Oreskes reported.
Currently, Lall said, the system that dispenses aid and care to homeless people in Los Angeles is marked by a “maddening refrain of ‘it’s not my responsibility.’” The proposal was part of a broader homelessness plan released by Lall, who serves as president and chief executive of the downtown business group Central City Assn., and is mounting a long-shot bid for the city’s top job.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to help energy companies tap into a huge reserve of lithium that lies underground below the Salton Sea, George Skelton wrote. The mineral is in high demand for electric vehicle batteries, and, if successful, the lithium plan could create a boom in the economy of a part of the state that has been stagnant for years.
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