Re-Drawing America

GOP redistricting edge moderated Democrats’ 2018 gains

By David A. Lieb
Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Democrats won more votes, regained control of the U.S. House and flipped hundreds of seats in state legislatures during the 2018 elections. It was, by most accounts, a good year for the party.
Yet it wasn’t as bad as it could have been for Republicans.

That’s because they may have benefited from a built-in advantage in some states, based on how political districts were drawn, that prevented deeper losses or helped them hold on to power, according to a mathematical analysis by The Associated Press.

The AP’s analysis indicates that Republicans won about 16 more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country. In state House elections, Republicans’ structural advantage might have helped them hold on to as many as seven chambers that otherwise could have flipped to Democrats, according to the analysis.

The AP examined all U.S. House races and about 4,900 state House and Assembly seats up for election last year using a statistical method of calculating partisan advantage that is designed to flag cases of potential political gerrymandering. A similar analysis also showed a GOP advantage in the 2016 elections.

The AP used the so-called “efficiency gap” test in part because it was one of the analytical tools cited in a Wisconsin gerrymandering case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 and is part of a North Carolina case scheduled to be argued on Tuesday before the court. In that case, justices will decide whether to uphold a lower court ruling that struck down North Carolina’s congressional districts as an unconstitutional political gerrymander favoring Republicans.

The high court also is to hear arguments Tuesday on whether Democrats in Maryland unconstitutionally gerrymandered a congressional district in 2011 in order to defeat a long-time Republican incumbent.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never struck down districts because of excessive partisan manipulation, and the efficiency gap formula is no guarantee it will start. During arguments on the Wisconsin gerrymandering case, Chief Justice John Roberts called it “sociological gobbledygook.”

Some Republicans also have criticized it, insisting they win simply because they run better candidates. The formula does not necessarily prove political shenanigans, because partisan advantages also can arise naturally based on where Democratic and Republican voters choose to live.

Many political and redistricting experts say the formula provides a neutral way to determine the effects of gerrymandering and how one party can maintain power for a decade or beyond. Plaintiffs in the North Carolina case say now is the time for the court to end highly partisan gerrymandering, with the next round of redistricting set to follow the 2020 Census.

“Gerrymandering as a whole cheats voters out of our representation,” said Love Caesar, a student at North Carolina A&T State University who works with Common Cause, an advocacy group that is a lead plaintiff in the case.

The AP’s analysis found North Carolina Republicans won two or three more congressional seats than would have been expected based on their share of the vote. Republican candidates received 51 percent of the two-party vote compared to Democrats’ 49 percent. Yet Republicans won a 9-3 seat advantage over Democrats, with one seat still undecided because of allegations of vote fraud.

Democrats say that illustrates the effect of Republican gerrymandering and point to Caesar’s university, a historically black college in Greensboro, as an example. Republicans in the General Assembly divided the school when they drew the congressional map, dispersing a Democratic-leaning voting bloc among two Republican-leaning districts that extend from Greensboro into more rural areas.

The congressional districts that split the campus are both represented by Republicans.

“It’s hard to explain to students who are already skeptical about the voting process ... that the state intentionally diluted their power in voting by putting this line back here in between our campus,” said North Carolina A&T student Kylah Guion, who also works with Common Cause.

Republican lawmakers concentrated Democrats in other congressional districts. In the only three districts Democrats won last November, they carried at least 70 percent of the two-party vote.

The efficiency gap test offers a way to assess the effects of redistricting strategies — packing voters of one party into some districts, or spreading them out among others to make it easier for the other party to win seats. It compares a party’s average district vote share to the share of seats it wins.

For the 2016 and 2018 elections, North Carolina had the highest pro-Republican tilt among the roughly two dozen largest states that determine the bulk of the seats in the U.S. House, according to the AP’s analysis.

Other states that had consistently sizable Republican advantages in both congressional elections included Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Alabama and Texas — all places where Republicans were in charge of redistricting after the 2010 Census. Although Democratic victories mounted nationally in 2018, the AP’s analysis showed that the Republicans’ efficiency gap advantage became more pronounced in those states.

Massachusetts showed a consistent Democratic tilt in its congressional districts, though not at the same magnitude as the most pro-Republican states.

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court redrew the congressional map for the 2018 elections after striking down the previous Republican-drawn version as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The AP’s analysis found the Republican tilt was cut by more than half from the 2016 to 2018 elections as the state’s congressional delegation went from a 13-5 GOP majority to an even split of nine seats each for Republicans and Democrats.

The analysis shows Pennsylvania Democrats could have expected to win a 10-8 congressional majority based on getting about 55 percent of the total two-party vote. The fact they didn’t might be explained by the high concentration of Democrats in urban areas, which diminishes their votes elsewhere.

The AP’s analysis also found a persistent Republican advantage in state House or Assembly districts in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and South Dakota and a consistent Democratic edge in Nevada.

There were five state legislative chambers where Republicans retained the majority in 2018 even though Democratic candidates won more votes overall — Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The efficiency gap analysis showed more states with a Republican edge than a Democratic one in their U.S. and state House districts.

Yet “when you look at the nation as a whole, it’s not just a radically tilted map,” said Eric McGhee, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California who developed the efficiency gap model. “It’s more that in these certain key states, they’re paving the way for things to be much worse in the future” through gerrymandering.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which has mounted an aggressive campaign to elect Republican-led legislatures ahead of redistricting, dismisses the efficiency gap analysis as “a political and intellectual sham” used to try to advance the fortunes of Democrats. The formula assumes a party has a right to win seats based on its statewide vote even if its candidates in particular districts aren’t that good, said the group’s president, Matt Walter.

“This is not a real formula. This is not a real theory,” he said. “This is ivory-tower nonsense.”

Republicans’ success during the last round of redistricting led top Democrats such as former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a counteroffensive leading up to the 2020 Census. Part of the Democrats’ strategy has been to challenge Republican-drawn maps in court and support voter initiatives that shift redistricting duties away from state lawmakers.

Democrats contend their candidates are good but face long odds in districts where the boundaries have been manipulated.

“The value of the efficiency gap is it puts some data behind what we see is evident from election results,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “It’s clear that Republicans have an unfair advantaged based fully on gerrymandering.”

Gerrymandering lawsuits are ­pending in a dozen states

By David A. Lieb
Associated Press

Gerrymandering is on trial as the U.S. Supreme Court and judges in a dozen states consider whether mapmakers — typically state lawmakers — have gone too far in manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts for their own advantage.
The high court is to hear arguments Tuesday on a pair of cases alleging unconstitutional political gerrymandering. One claims Maryland Democrats gerrymandered a U.S. House district to defeat a Republican incumbent. The other claims North Carolina Republicans gerrymandered the state's congressional map to give their candidates a better chance of winning seats.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a separate case alleging unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in Virginia based on the way the Republican-led Legislature drew some of the state House districts.

The gerrymandering lawsuits challenge districts drawn based off 2010 Census data. They seek to force new district boundaries before the next legislative elections. But the cases also could set precedents for states to follow during the next round of mandatory redistricting that will occur after the 2020 Census.

Here's a state-by-state look at pending redistricting lawsuits.



The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The case: A trial is scheduled for September on a federal lawsuit alleging the U.S. House maps approved in 2011 by the state's Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor illegally limit the voting influence of black residents. The lawsuit is backed by a national Democratic redistricting group.



The claim: Prison gerrymandering.

The case: A federal lawsuit filed last June by the NAACP alleges unconstitutional prison gerrymandering in the drawing of state House and Senate districts. It challenges the state's decision to count prisoners as residents of the district where they are incarcerated instead of their home districts. The lawsuit says prisoners are disproportionately black and Latino and from urban areas, but they are often placed in prisons in rural areas that otherwise are overwhelmingly white. The districts were drawn in 2011 by a bipartisan commission. No trial date has been set.



The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The cases: A federal lawsuit filed last June and backed by a national Democratic redistricting group alleges that a U.S. House district was redrawn in 2011 by the state's Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor to illegally limit the voting influence of black residents. No trial date has been set.



The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The case: A federal lawsuit filed last June and backed by a national Democratic redistricting group alleges the U.S. House maps approved in 2011 illegally limit the voting influence of black residents by packing a large number into one majority-minority district and spreading other black voters out among multiple districts. Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and the governor's office at the time the redistricting plan was approved during a special legislative session. No trial date has been set.



The claim: Partisan gerrymandering.

The case: The U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments Tuesday on an appeal of a ruling that western Maryland's 6th Congressional District is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that diluted the voting power of Republicans. The district had been held by a 20-year Republican incumbent, but the Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew it in 2011 to extend into suburban Washington, D.C. That added tens of thousands of Democratic voters while dropping Republican voters. Democrats have won the district in each election since then.



The claim: Partisan gerrymandering.

The case: A federal court panel held a trial in February on a lawsuit by Democratic voters alleging that Michigan's U.S. House and state legislative districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of Democrats. The panel has not yet ruled on the lawsuit. Michigan's U.S. and state legislative districts were enacted in 2011 by a Republican governor and Republican-led Legislature.



The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The case: A federal judge ruled in February that one of Mississippi's 52 state Senate districts violates federal law because it doesn't give black voters an "equal opportunity" to elect a candidate of their choice. A federal appeals court panel has given the Republican-led state Legislature until April 3 to come up with new boundaries for Senate District 22, which was originally drawn in 2012. The deadline to qualify for this year's legislative primaries was March 1, but the appeals court panel said candidates can have until April 12 to qualify to run in any Senate district affected by the yet-to-be-finalized new map. Mississippi's legislative primaries are scheduled for Aug. 6



The claims: Partisan and racial gerrymandering.

The cases: The U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments Tuesday on an appeal of a federal court ruling that the Republican-led state legislature engaged in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering when it redrew congressional districts in 2016. (Lawmakers were redrawing the districts in response to a previous court ruling that some 2011 districts were an unconstitutional racial gerrymander).

Separate lawsuits have challenged state House and Senate districts. A federal court ruled in 2016 that 28 state legislative districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The legislature redrew the districts the next year, and federal judges in early 2018 required additional changes. On Nov. 2, a state judicial panel struck down four of those redrawn House districts, ruling that it wasn't necessary to change them to comply with the earlier rulings. The legislature is to redraw those districts by this summer. Last November, the state Democratic Party and other plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in state court contending the state's House and Senate districts are partisan gerrymanders that disadvantage Democratic voters in violation of the state constitution. A trial is scheduled for mid-July.



The claim: Partisan gerrymandering.

The case: A federal court panel held a trial earlier in March on a lawsuit by Democrats alleging that unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering has disadvantaged Democratic voters in Ohio's U.S. House districts. The panel has not yet ruled on the lawsuit. The current map was enacted in 2011 by a Republican governor and Republican-led Legislature.


The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The case: U.S. and state House maps enacted in 2011 by the Republican governor and GOP-led Legislature were tossed out in 2012 by a federal court, which produced new interim maps. Those maps were permanently adopted by the Legislature and governor in 2013. But in 2017, the federal court ruled that some districts were racially gerrymandered to weaken the electoral power of growing minority populations. The U.S. Supreme Court largely overturned that decision last June, striking down only one state House district in Fort Worth. A lower court deferred redrawing that district to allow time for the Legislature to do so during the 2019 session. But the Legislature has not approved new district boundaries, and the court now is considering alternative proposals submitted by the attorney general's office and by Latino and Mexican-American groups.



The claim: Racial gerrymandering.

The case: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on claims of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering involving 11 Virginia state House districts. A lower court panel ruled last June that the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 had packed black voters into certain districts so that surrounding ones would have more white and Republican voters. In January, the federal court panel adopted a plan to redraw 26 legislative districts, including the 11 at issue and others adjacent to them, that would shift some districts toward Democrats. While the Supreme Court considers the case, the state is using the new court-ordered boundaries for candidates who are filing to run in the June 11 primary elections. The candidate filing period is schedule to run until March 28.



The claim: Partisan gerrymandering.

The case: A new federal trial is scheduled to begin July 15 on a partisan gerrymandering lawsuit involving the state Assembly. It had been scheduled to start in April, but a federal court delayed the trial to allow time for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the North Carolina and Maryland cases, which could provide a precedent.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2018 overturned a November 2016 lower court ruling that had struck down Wisconsin's state Assembly districts as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The lower court had said the map adopted in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature and Republican governor violated Democratic voters' rights to representation by packing Democrats into some districts and spreading them among others, thus diluting their voting power. The U.S. Supreme Court said plaintiffs failed to prove they had the right to sue on a statewide basis. It sent the case back to the lower court for plaintiffs to attempt to prove that their personal voting rights were infringed by the way specific districts were drawn.