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Reform, interrupted: The new mapmakers mainly face the old partisan rules

By Sara Swann, The Fulcrum on

Published in News & Features

This was despite a $4 million campaign by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, to end or limit GOP remapping power in nine states. Most of the money was spent in North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — but the returns were marginal.

Democrats picked up enough seats in Madison to back up Gov. Tony Evers if he vetoes lines drawn by the GOP Legislature. Oregon elected a Democratic secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, who would take over redistricting if the Legislature reaches an impasse. Democrats gained the majority on the Michigan Supreme Court and cut the GOP majority to 4-3 on the Ohio Supreme Court, two tribunals that may well be called on to step in and set the final boundaries in battleground states.

"Even in what we now know is an incredibly challenging political environment, we are in a profoundly better position than we were in 2011 to achieve the most fair redistricting possible," the NDRC said in an email following the election.

"The last decade of targeted voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering has given an advantage to conservatives going into the 2021 redistricting process," Holder asserted in a fundraising appeal after Election Day. "In some states, our grassroots movement will be the last line of defense to achieving fair maps."

Such efforts largely came to naught this year: Citizen-led redistricting initiatives failed to get on the ballot in six states. Campaigns in Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Oregon all either fell short of signature requirements or their workarounds failed to surmount legal challenges. COVID-19 also caused legislative sessions to end prematurely, cutting off efforts to get additional redistricting measures on the ballot in many states, most notably Illinois.

Although such campaigns came up short, state courts may well step in if next year generates a fresh stack of partisan gerrymandered maps.

"Just like we saw a lot more litigation about voting issues ahead of this year's election, we'll see similar litigation about fairness of maps," Tausanovitch said.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the federal courts have no constitutional reason to referee disputes over maps drawn to be way more red or blue than a state's electorate. But the justices said state courts could set limits on partisan cartography.


By that point, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had already thrown out congressional maps drawn by Republicans in Harrisburg for violating the rights of Democrats under the state constitution — resulting in new maps where Democrats now hold half the 18 seats, up from just five.

A year ago, state judges in North Carolina ruled that GOP-drawn maps similarly violated that state constitution's guarantee of fair elections, and new maps of 13 congressional districts used in November resulted in two new Democrats getting elected to join just three others.

Fair elections clauses can be found in about half the states' constitutions, suggesting an opening for citizens aggrieved after the next wave of mapmaking ends.

"In 2010 people knew about partisan gerrymandering, but the number of people really getting proactively involved has significantly increased since," said Katie Fahey, who led the grassroots campaign to create Michigan's independent commission and now runs the democracy reform group The People. "No matter what there's going to be a lot more people paying attention this time."

Even if a state doesn't have an independent process, citizens can make their voices heard in public hearings, which are mandatory in half the states and common practice in the other half.

"No matter what issue you care about the most, you have to care about redistricting first," said Chris Lamar, a redistricting expert at the Campaign Legal Center. "Because that will determine whether or not you are represented fairly or if your representative will listen to you."

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