The next major US voting rights fight is here – and Republicans are ahead

After the latest census numbers, Republicans are well positioned to draw districts that will give them an advantage in their effort to reclaim the House in 2022

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The next major fight over voting rights in the US kicked off Monday: a hugely consequential battle over the boundaries of electoral districts for the next 10 years that will have profound implications for American politics. And Republicans seem to be pulling ahead.

Census officials released a decennial tally of people living in the US, a number that’s used to apportion the House’s 435 seats among the 50 states. The Census Bureau announced that Colorado, Montana, Oregon, North Carolina and Florida will all gain an additional seat in the House, while Texas will get two more. Seven states – California, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – will lose a seat.

The numbers accentuated what many have predicted for months: Republicans are extremely well positioned to draw districts that will give them an advantage both in their effort to reclaim control of the US House in the 2022 midterms, and cement control over congressional seats for the next decade.

The constitution gives state lawmakers the power to draw districts and, because of their continued strength in state legislative races, Republicans will dominate the process later this year and can manipulate the lines to their advantage, a process often called gerrymandering.

Even though Democrats earned about 4.7m more votes in 2020 House races around the country, Republicans will have control over the drawing of 187 congressional districts later this year (down from 219 in 2011) while Democrats will have complete control over the drawing of 75 districts (up from 44 a decade ago), according to the Cook Political Report.

Republicans need to win just five seats to retake control of the US House of Representatives, a gap observers believe they can wipe out with gerrymandering alone. Eric Holder, the former US attorney general, told reporters Wednesday he was concerned Republicans could use their complete control of the redistricting process in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina alone to overcome that gap.

“What we’re seeing is a Republican party that has shown they’re willing to bend or break the rules of democracy simply to hold on to power,” said Holder, who is leading the Democratic effort to push back on excessive GOP gerrymandering. “If Republicans gerrymander those states, as they have indicated they will, they will have the ability there, almost to take control of the House of Representatives just based on what they do in those four states.”

In 2019, the US supreme court said for the first time that federal courts could not do anything to stop severe manipulation of district lines for partisan gain. One lingering uncertainty is whether Democrats in Congress will be able to pass pending federal legislation to place new limits on the practice. Passing that legislation, however, requires getting rid of the filibuster, a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance legislation. Democrats do not yet have the votes to get rid of the procedure.

“You could pass new criteria, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering … require greater transparency in the process,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s a lot that could be done.”

Because of a 2013 supreme court ruling, states with a history of voting discrimination, like Texas and North Carolina, will not have to get their maps approved by the federal government before they go into effect. That leaves an opportunity for lawmakers to draw maps that discriminate based on race. Kathay Feng, the national redistricting and representation director at Common Cause, a government watchdog group, warned that voting advocates would be closely monitoring for that kind of discrimination. Much of the America’s population growth over the last decade has come from non-white people.

“Our top priority is ensuring that states that are adding congressional seats recognize the population growth fueled by communities of color in the upcoming redistricting process,” Feng said in a statement.

As federal legislation stalls, Democrats are already signaling they will move aggressively in court to challenge gerrymandering. Shortly after the apportionment numbers were released, Holder’s group filed three separate lawsuits in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana – states where Democrats and Republicans share control of the redistricting process – asking courts to be prepared to step in if lawmakers reach an impasse. Such quick machinations are crucial because the redistricting process is moving on a condensed timeline this year because of delays releasing data due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marc Elias, a top Democratic election lawyer, said this week more lawsuits are likely to follow.

While the Republicans made possible gains, the biggest surprise of the Census Bureau’s Monday’s announcement was that it didn’t result in more of a shift for the party. Projections based on population estimates had predicted Texas would gain three seats and Florida would gain two. Arizona, where districts are drawn by an independent commission, was expected to gain a seat, but ended up not doing so. Minnesota and Rhode Island were both projected to lose seats, and New York could have lost an additional seat.

“Overall, the population shifts to the the south will definitely benefit Republicans, but definitely not as much as people were expecting, just because they got fewer seats,” Li said.

It’s not unusual for the final tallies to be slightly off from apportionment, but Li said he was surprised to see the kind of variation there was this year. There is some concern that the variation in the data may signal an undercount of Hispanic population, especially after the Trump administration repeatedly tried to tamper with the process. Bureau officials said Monday they are confident in the data.

Holder told reporters on Tuesday that it was impossible to separate the upcoming battle over redistricting from an aggressive GOP effort underway in state legislatures to restrict access to the voting booth.

“I have no doubt that the same Republican legislators that have pushed these bills will now try and use the redistricting process to illegitimately lock in power for that party, for them, for the next decade,” he said.

Contributor

Sam Levine in New York

The GuardianTramp

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