Democrats lost their House majority due to Independent Redistricting Commissions
Are IRCs ineffective because they are trumped by Winner Take All elections? Have they outlived their usefulness?
As the dust settles from the November 8 election, it’s clear that the Republicans have managed to take control of the US House of Representatives. In that 435-seat body, winning 218 seats gives a party majority-control, and the GOP has reached 219 seats. With three of the four undecided seats leaning Republican, the margin is likely to end up at 222-213, a squeaker of a majority.
It’s not unusual for the party of the president to lose seats during a midterm election, as voters vote for some vague notion of “change.” But in addition to that factor, it appears that the GOP quest for a House majority was aided by an unlikely ally – independent redistricting commissions in several key states. I have been an advocate for IRCs all my political life, and it pains me to admit this, but the evidence is overwhelming. It’s time to admit their severe limitations.
The GOP advantage: winning trumps fairness
Republicans have long fought against any kind of redistricting commission, insisting on leaving the line-drawing in the hands of their own partisans to maintain their dominance in key states like North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. On the other hand, many Democrats and their allies, including nonpartisan reformers like myself, have been on a mission for electoral “fairness,” which often includes support for nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
Indeed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats overwhelmingly passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” which among other worthy political reforms expressly outlawed partisan gerrymandering and required states to use independent redistricting commissions to draw lines guided by specific criteria that prioritizes minority representation and protects communities of interest. No question, all of those goals, if uniformly applied across the nation, are worthy and would improve our democracy.
I was a big supporter of H.R.1. But it’s hard not to notice that not a single Republican supported this legislation in the House. Even though it passed on the strength of Democrats’ votes alone, it was killed in the crib by a filibustering GOP in the Senate. The Republicans knew that passing that bill would have interfered in their efforts to gerrymander the hell out of whatever states they control.
Meanwhile, in the ultimate irony, IRCs have been used in several Democratic-dominated states, a kind of unilateral disarmament on the battlefield of partisan gerrymandering. During the November 8 election, Democrats’ disarmament appears to have backfired, and resulted in the recent GOP takeover of the House.
Blue California disarms
The biggest state to deploy a redistricting commission is California, where I live. I have watched the unfolding of the Golden State’s commission and its noble goals since its passage in 2010, which I supported both individually and organizationally as director of the political reform program for New America. In taking away the ability of this heavily Democratic trifecta state to do what the GOP does in its dominated states, the impact has been devastating. This election, California Republican candidates won three House seats by five points or less, and are poised to win two more seats once all the ballots are counted.
If California Democrats had been left a free hand to draw their version of a delightfully partisan Picasso redistricting map, in all likelihood all five of those seats would have been won by Democrats. A swing of just those seats might well have allowed the Democrats to retain a bare House majority.
So an IRC in just this one state probably cost the Democrats their control of the Congress.
But IRCs in other states also aided the Republicans’ gerrymandering efforts. In New York, long-standing attempts to create a fair and nonpartisan redistricting process backfired. The state court appointed a special master to draw the districts, who unwound the Democrats’ gerrymandered congressional map. According to the Brennan Center, “The effect was to make three Democratic districts competitive, whereas the original map had none.” On November 8, GOP candidates in New York won four seats by five points or less (two of those seats by less than 1%).
Maps drawn by independent commissions in Arizona and Colorado were considered some of the “fairest” in the country. In Arizona, its new commission map improved Republicans’ chances in both the 2nd and 6th districts, turning former swing seats into red-leaning districts which the GOP then went on to win. In Colorado, a state with a Democratic trifecta controlling the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature, an IRC map appears to have resulted in a Republican winning the closest House race in the country by fewer than 600 votes, a margin of 0.16% (and the odious, election-denying incumbent Lauren Boebert, no less).
In this war of unilateral disarmament, a “fair map” only meant that one side of the partisan divide was forced by a commission to restrain its partisan gerrymanders while the other side line-drew its way to domination. Indeed, looking pre-election at the national gerrymandering landscape and the impact of IRCs, the Brennan Center concluded “if Republicans have a path to a majority, they can thank courts and commissions that drew two-thirds of all competitive Biden districts nationwide and 9 of 11 of the most competitive.”
Without this IRC interference, the Republican path to a House majority likely would have failed.
The good, the bad and the ugly of commissions
The extreme gerrymanders of a decade ago sparked a national movement for redistricting reform, resulting in commissions being enacted in a number of states. But some commissions worked better than others, and the experts have been trying to assess why. FairVote’s David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy, evaluated “the good, the bad and the really ugly” of commissions used in diverse places such as Ohio, Utah, Missouri, Virginia and Colorado.
Says Daley, “Commissions that include politicians or other partisans become poisoned from the inside,” while advisory commissions “are treated as exactly that – something lawmakers feel perfectly confident to ignore, and so are mostly useless.” Moreover, state and federal courts have become less and less reliable to oversee the redistricting process, as conservative judges retreat from intervening in either racial or partisan gerrymanders. Despite reformers’ successful efforts in many states to pass IRC’s, political insiders were able to capture control of many of those commissions in a way that rendered them toothless.
When citizens actually run the show, and when politicians can’t hijack the panel or cherry-pick its members, a fairer process can happen, says Daley. But that doesn’t happen too often.
And even when it does, like in California, you end up with a “fair” redistricting commission in a blue state that hogties the Democrats while Republicans are allowed to wild through the garden and trample everything in sight. In short, fairness in a handful of blue states does not necessarily translate into fairness on a national level. Quite the opposite. Unilateral disarmament via redistricting commissions has cost Democrats their House majority.
Can we make redistricting commissions better?
Does that mean independent and nonpartisan redistricting commissions have no value at all? No, that would be too extreme of a conclusion.
At the very least, some IRCs allow reformers to say that incumbents are no longer drawing their own districts. That is a modest step toward reducing public cynicism. If we could wave a magic wand and mandate IRC’s for every state in the nation, it would certainly be worth doing. But it’s time to recognize the grave drawbacks of redistricting commissions, and to provide a reality check for well-meaning reformers and their unbounded Panglossian optimism.
In Los Angeles, this ill-founded optimism once again is bumbling its way to a potential disaster. In the aftermath of a hot-mic scandal in which three elected Latino city councilors were recorded making racist comments as they plotted a Latino gerrymander of council districts, a number of groups led by Common Cause have called for an independent redistricting commission as a remedy.
But the real problem in Los Angeles is not so much over who draws the district lines but the "winner take all" districts themselves. When you have geographic-based representation by districts, only one side can win each seat. Will it be Latinos? Blacks? Asians? Whites? Democrats? Republicans? Not all of them can win, that’s why it’s called "winner take all." No redistricting commission, however well-designed, can change this naked reality.
Indeed San Francisco, where I live, saw a major IRC failure this past year. The mayor was able to capture the IRC, and her allies managed to set the Asian and Black communities at each other’s electoral throats in what became a brutal redistricting battle. The redistricting task force found itself bedeviled by the same racial dogfight as in Los Angeles, as the IRC was forced to decide who was more deserving of representation between competing racial groups and political factions. The city became bitterly divided and the IRC failed in its mission to project an aura of fairness and equity over the line-drawing process.
Why would an independent redistricting commission in Los Angeles have any better success? In a city as diverse as the City of Angels, an IRC doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of transforming these daunting “winner take all” dynamics. “Winner take all” elections force minority groups, political factions and various communities of interest to compete and claw for their share of a limited commodity: political representation.
The shortcomings of this approach are increasingly hard to ignore.
Dump winner take all elections in favor of proportional representation
A “multi-everything city” like Los Angeles needs to use a better democratic method that is not based on these toxic winner-take-all dynamics. If LA based its elections on the bedrock of what is known as proportional voting, that would greatly reduce these kinds of turf wars in favor of “full representation for all.” Los Angeles should follow the example of Portland, OR where a multi-racial charter commission voted 17-3 to allow voters to weigh in on a charter amendment to implement proportional ranked choice voting to elect its city council. Portlanders passed that ballot measure on November 8 by a 58-42 margin.
The rest of the country also should follow the Portland example. Only if the US House is elected by proportional representation will our democracy be able to escape the strait jacket of geographic-based politics that is pitting Americans against each other.
Independent redistricting commissions should not be ends in themselves. They must solve a larger dilemma of democracy – levelling the playing field and making politics more fair. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that this worthy goal cannot be done on a piecemeal basis, state-by-state. It must be done nationally. Otherwise, as we have seen in recent years, it has led to unilateral disarmament in which one party is relinquishing a powerful tool in an increasingly bitter political war, while the other is merrily brandishing its weapon. That is not a fair fight.
And it doesn’t lead to more impartiality or a level playing field, it has resulted in just the opposite. Unless IRCs can be mandated nationally for all states, so that all partisans are equally stripped of this potent gerrymandering weapon, IRC proponents will only undermine the cause of national fairness. Indeed, that is what happened on November 8, as Democrats lost their House majority due to well-meaning but ineffective redistricting commissions.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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The only way to eliminate the incentive to gerrymander is to implement multi-member districts filled via proportional representation. Unfortunately, the duopoly realizes that fair representation reduces partisan authoritarianism.