After years of declining to take up the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court finally weighed in on partisan gerrymandering last month. But the ruling -- that the question of political gerrymanders is “beyond the reach” of the federal judiciary -- doesn’t settle the fight over voting maps. It shifts the battle from the courts to elections -- especially for state legislatures, where those political boundaries are typically drawn after the once-a-decade Census.
Republican groups cheered the decision.
"The Supreme Court has seen through the Democrats’ latest desperate lawsuit and confirmed that courts have no business deciding partisan political disputes over redistricting," said Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), in a statement after the ruling.
But Democratic groups condemned it and refocused their attention toward winning state legislative races, which have been dominated by Republicans for the last decade.
“The only way we’ll end partisan gerrymandering is by voting Republicans out of power in state legislatures,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), in her own statement after the ruling.
The question is whether the Supreme Court outcome will motivate donors and voters. That may be more likely on the Democratic side, which has more to gain.
“Donors are more responsive to this issue than they ever have been, and hopefully the Supreme Court decision will light even more of a fire under them,” says Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the progressive news site Daily Kos. “When we reach out to our progressive community members and ask them to contribute money to a candidate, one of the issues that gets them the most fired up is partisan gerrymandering. It’s very effective as a fundraising message.”
One of the biggest of those fundraisers is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and supported by President Barack Obama. NDRC is targeting a dozen states this year and next to elect Democrats who support redistricting reform. Those states include Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. The organization's focus is primarily on state legislative races but also on gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana and New Hampshire.
The group is asking candidates to sign a Fair Districts Pledge to “end gerrymandering … [and] support fair redistricting that ends map manipulation and creates truly representative districts.” So far, a handful of Democratic state legislators in North Carolina and South Carolina as well as 22 of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have signed it.
The recent GOP dominance of state legislative politics began ahead of 2010, when Republicans launched the Redistricting Majority Project.
Patrick Rodenbush, spokesperson for the NDRC, which was founded in 2016, says it's about time Democrats caught up.
"Democrats for too long have not focused on these state and local elections that determine who has a seat at the redistricting table. The result of that is we have all of these Republican-drawn maps in a handful of states that have really tilted the playing field and locked us out of power."
Republicans currently enjoy full legislative control in 30 states. For the first time since 1914, only one state has a divided legislature: Minnesota, which didn’t hold legislative elections last fall.
Democrats are determined to challenge the GOP’s dominance in the states. Aside from winning elections, they also hope to do that through redistricting reform.
The NDRC advocates for voting maps to be drawn by independent redistricting commissions -- with members of both parties and nonpolitical members -- instead of the state lawmakers in charge. The U.S. House passed a bill in March that would require states to create independent redistricting commissions, but it has no chance of passing the Senate.
But the NDRC's GOP counterpart, the National Republican Redistricting Trust (NRRT), rejects the idea that politics can be taken out of the process.
David Daley, a senior fellow for the election reform group FairVote, says Republicans want to change the nature of the redistricting process in a different way.
"That's why we see so much attention being paid to the citizenship question on the Census," Daley says. "The Republican redistricting strategy in 2021 is going to be redistricting state legislatures on the basis of citizen voting-age population, rather than total population."
For their part, Republicans -- who already hold legislative control -- seem more focused on gaining judicial control.
"It’s more important than ever that we have strong, conservative judges, instead of liberal activists in robes, in state courts across the country," said RSLC's Chambers. "The RSLC will continue to lead that fight, and do everything we can to ensure we win the legislative and judicial elections needed for fair and accurate redistricting."
For some Democratic candidates, redistricting is now a campaign issue.
“We’re going to be talking about redistricting constantly. There is an added urgency. There’s a new talking point,” Joanna Cattanach, who's running for the Texas House, told The New York Times after the Supreme Court ruling.
But not all Democrats will mention it on the trail.
“As far as wonky issues go, I think people do get it, but I wouldn’t expect to see paid mail, TV or radio around the issue of gerrymandering,” says Matt Harringer, DLCC’s press secretary.
Rita Bosworth, executive director of the Democratic redistricting reform group Sister District, agrees: “I don’t think it’s going to be a big sticking point for the average voter.”
Still, the issue is driving some big donors.
In Virginia -- where all 140 state legislative seats are on the ballot in November and where Republicans control the House by a mere three seats and the Senate by just one -- the national Democratic group EMILY's List is spending heavily to swing the balance of power. One of the reasons EMILY’s List gives for its investment? “Redistricting [is] around the corner.”
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