House Democrats reeling from big losses in 2010 and 2014 are turning to an unexpected source to return to relevance; the courts. Democrats believe they have already scored a victory in Virginia where a district court gave the legislature until September 1st to redraw the state’s Congressional maps (apparently state legislative seats are cool though). The case is pending on appeal however.
Elsewhere, more cases are pending. In Alabama, the state Democratic Party and NAACP have alleged state and Congressional lines were drawn to minimize the impact of black voters. In Florida, Democrats argue the GOP’s 2011 redistricting map violates the state’s 2010 Constitutional Amendment banning lines be drawn based on partisanship. Ironically, the Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP have sided with state Republicans for fear any new lines could eliminate majority-black Congressional districts.
Adding another wrinkle to the debate is a lawsuit before the Supreme Court brought by the Arizona GOP. The lawsuit argues that only state legislatures can draw district lines. The 2011 citizen redistricting commission drawn map angered AZ Republicans because it eliminated two safe Republican districts and created a new safe Democratic district. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of AZ GOP it would make every nonpartisan redistricting commission nationwide illegal and have repercussions for the balance of power in the House significantly.
Yet, some argue differently. “We’re only talking about fiddling around the margins here,” said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert at the University of Florida who served as an expert witness in the Virginia lawsuit. But this ignores the legal precedent set by such a ruling. And it would make GOP dominance of state legislatures, a result of 2010 and 2014, even more significant. The Supreme Court has already established through cases in TX and Georgia that mid-decade redistricting is legal if it takes into account prior legal requirements( population, compactness, compliance with the VRA).
Both parties stand to benefit from overturning of the Citizen Commissions in AZ. Democrats in California could draw more heavily Hispanic precincts into districts represented by few Republicans. Even though Democrats have a 39-14 advantage in the state House delegation those numbers could move further blue if the strongly California state legislature had a chance to redraw the lines.
Until recently both parties were fine with racially based district lines because both believed it benefited them. Democrats supported these districts because it gave them safe, minority-majority districts. Republicans favored past lines because it drew majority districts that either elected white conservative Democrats or conservative Republicans (the latter occurring more of late).
The primary lesson Democrats have taken away from the 2010 GOP wave that dominated legislative and state executive offices is they need to invest more in these races. But even though the party did in 2014 it made little difference. The GOP took control of blue governorships in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts and swung legislative chambers their way across the nation. Democrats may now figure it is safer to fight in the courts than electorally.
Still, Democrats will take whatever help they can get. Even if they only gain a few seats out of cases in Florida and Virginia they will take the help. Democrats openly acknowledge even if everything goes their way in the courts they will still need to wait until the 2018 midterms when the majority of governorships and legislatures are up and 2020 (more governorships and legislatures) to gain enough power to draw a significant number of district lines in the coming decade.
Republicans scoff at the notion that their majority will be adversely impacted due to court decisions. The Supreme Court has largely stayed out of district line arguments. The court most recently told state courts in Alabama and North Carolina they erred in their decisions overturning prior maps but only because those courts wrongly interpreted prior Supreme Court precedents. This means those states district lines could still be overturned. If they are one can easily expect Republicans to appeal and we may finally get a significant Supreme Court weigh in on the topic.
Addendum: The above of course assumes the Supreme Court does not side with the AZ state GOP in their lawsuit.
Addendum 2: It is unclear what impact the SCOTUS overturning Section V of the VRA has had on this debate. This may have made states more likely to draw lines based on race but also lower courts more likely to try to mitigate the ability of states to do so.