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How Redistricting Became a Never-Ending Battle

Redistricting used to happen every 10 years. Now, thanks to lawsuits and partisan competition, it's an ongoing battle throughout the decade.

Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate
Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate. Members of his chamber will be running in newly-redrawn districts this year. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Spring 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

People who work in redistricting used to be likened to cicadas — they’d pop up, make a lot of noise, do their jobs and then disappear for a decade. Now, thanks to widespread litigation, redistricting staff are much more like mosquitos — a constant, sometimes unpredictable annoyance.

Gone are the days of mid-decade lulls outside a handful of states. The 2024 elections may yield much higher rates of turnover than we have come to expect, due to the amount of court-mandated, mid-decade legislative redistricting. Georgia, Ohio, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina already had new maps in place for the 2024 elections by the end of last year. Michigan’s redistricting commission was forced to redraw the state’s House map after losing an emergency application for a stay at the Supreme Court. Most recently, legislative districts in Wisconsin have been redrawn.

The potential election district upheaval doesn’t just stop with those states. Numerous others have pending litigation or potential process changes that could lead to new maps later this decade. Lawsuits are seeking to force new legislative maps in multiple states. New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon could have initiatives creating redistricting commissions on the ballot this fall. Not all of those lawsuits will succeed, and even some ballot measures may come up short, but the takeaway is clear — redistricting isn’t just a once-a-decade undertaking anymore. For better or worse, it’s now a permanent, ongoing component of our national electoral rhythms.

Both parties identified this new reality almost a decade ago. Democrats founded a permanent organization to address their redistricting needs in 2016 and Republicans followed suit a year later. Democrats focused on their campaign infrastructure, while Republicans targeted their efforts on data and litigation support. Both parties have seen their investments pay off, but the biggest impacts have been on the sheer volume of redistricting litigation and the ensuing instability in both blue and red states.

This political arms race should be unsurprising to anyone paying attention. The U.S. House and Senate are narrowly divided, the number of presidential swing states is at a historic low and several state legislatures have razor-thin majorities. Every state, every office, every district matters. The two parties are fighting for every advantage to break the stalemate, yet so far that deadlock largely persists.

Perhaps the parties’ impasse is most evident when looking at the partisan alignment of our state legislatures. Of the 49 states with bicameral legislatures, only two have divided legislatures. Michigan’s is due to a pair of Democratic vacancies in the House, which will be filled in special elections on April 16. Prior to those vacancies, Democrats held a 56 to 54 majority in the chamber. The other split legislature is in Pennsylvania, where Democrats have had to repeatedly retake their single-vote state House majority in special elections, due to a series of vacancies. Republicans cling to a three-seat majority in the state Senate. Every state other than these two pivotal presidential battlegrounds have single-party control of their legislatures.

This is the context for dozens of high-stakes redistricting lawsuits. More than half the states have seen litigation since 2020 and the pace shows little sign of letting up.

Thanks to mid-decade redistricting, the number of seats changing hands could be higher than usual, but few legislative chambers are more likely to flip because of it, with two major exceptions: Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan Democrats and Wisconsin Republicans will defend house majorities using maps less favorable than the ones they ran on in 2022. Mid-decade redistricting makes those two states worth watching for more than just the presidential election this November.

Adam Kincaid is president and executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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