At long last, Democrats have a national redistricting strategy. Or so they claim. On Friday, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) which aims to combat GOP legislative majorities by waging court challenges and utilizing ballot initiatives to create nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative and Congressional lines. Democrats have long blamed gerrymandering for the GOP takeover of 2010 but are loathe to acknowledge the GOP won 66 seats in 2010 under old lines that FAVORED Democrats.
The NDRC is Democrats answer to the GOP’s Republican State Legislative Committee’s REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project). Launched in 2009, REDMAP was a well funded joint project between the party and third party groups that spent millions on data infrastructure and the 2010 election results. Since that time, the GOP has locked in its majorities in many states (though some gerrymanders have been undone by the courts and citizen initiatives).
According to the NDRC’s website “Republican gerrymandered districts after the 2010 Census have put Democrats at a massive structural disadvantage. That’s why the most important turning point for the future of the Democratic Party will take place in 2021: when states redraw their Congressional and state legislative lines.” Additionally, “The National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) is an organization of Democratic leaders enacting a comprehensive, multi-cycle Democratic Party redistricting strategy over the next 5 years and beyond.” Beyond ballot initiatives and court challenges the NDRC will also focus on winning legislative contests in the years ahead.
Missing from the NDRC is any answer for how they will confront the non-gerrymandering aspects of their coalition. Democrats are good at arguing at how Republicans disenfranchise urban and minority voters but they refuse to admit these voters tend to do it to themselves. By this I mean the majority of the Democratic votes in many states is locked into urban and dense suburban areas and is hard to find anywhere else. While this makes gerrymandering for the GOP easier it also makes gerrymandering harder for Democrats to accomplish even if they are in control.
Take for example the state of Minnesota. After the 2016 elections the GOP controlled both chambers of the state legislature under a court drawn map favorable to Democrats. The GOP lost their initial majority in the state legislature in 2012, regained the house in 14 and retook the state senate last year. The GOP did not really have to do anything to facilitate this advantage. Democratic policies like MCare (the state exchange) and the party becoming more cosmopolitan has cost the party seats just about everywhere else. Currently, Democrats do not control a single state senate district Romney won while the GOP does not control a single, urban Minneapolis seat. The GOP gets the better end of the deal.
The Democratic argument that gerrymandering and voting laws are the reasons why the GOP has such a strong advantage in the states is partly true. But, it is only partly true. The polarization, both racial and geographical, in our politics means that Democratic voters pack themselves into areas where millions of votes are wasted (see an example here). This means for Democrats to have any hope of establishing a decade long majority in many states they will have to practice their own form of gerrymandering. And it will likely be far worse than the GOP’s.
To see an example of this dynamic take a look at Illinois legislative districts. Until last year, Democrats had veto proof majorities in the legislature to stop Bruce Rauner. Democrats built this advantage by creating incredbly ugly House and Senate districts that mixed rural, conservative areas with dense, urban and Democratic suburbs (ironically, no liberal complains about this). The Congressional Democratic gerrymander has already started to fall apart because the party could not fit down-state, rural areas into urban districts. Democrats aimed to create a 13-5 majority in the Congressional delegation. It now stands at 11-7 with a Democratic district being carried by Trump by double-digits.
Of course Democrats are silent on their partisan gerrymanders. Maybe it is because they fall apart as we have seen in Illinois and in Minnesota. But, even in purple Colorado they have fallen apart as well. The state has a split legislature (even with term limits). The current map, drawn by a Democrat appointed district judge, did everything to give Democrats a majority in the state senate. It created huge GOP vote sinks in rural areas and unified Democratic leaning suburbs. Urban Denver was kept intact while trending GOP Douglas County districts were merged with liberal Araphoe county precincts. Yet, despite this, the GOP holds a slim one seat majority in the state senate because of the Democratic insistence on appealing only to cosmopolitan voters.
To be sure, the NDRC is not a policy orientated organization. It cannot dictate to the party what legislative policies the party should pursue. But it should recommend to the party a change of course in rhetoric. Democrats have a systematic weakness in the states because their party appeals only to urban interests and rural and suburban voters have noted. This helps lock Democratic votes into districts that waste votes while GOP voters are better distributed in suburban/rural areas. Democrats can draw districts, like in Illinois, that merge urban/rural but they are incredibly ugly, non-compact and not very full-proof.
Until Democrats come up with a way to solve these issues no amount of gerrymandering will be able to help a party beholden to interests out of touch to voters in many states. This partly helps explain why Republicans since 2012 have consistently had about a +4 percent edge in the number of seats they control in the House compared to their popular vote total. Democrats, even if they got every map they wanted, could never accomplish the same.