The gerrymandering ruling and the risk of a monopoly on power

It’s even possible to imagine a future in which Republicans could effectively claim a monopoly on federal power despite continued weakness in the national vote.

The gerrymandering ruling and the risk of a monopoly on power

(The Upshot): At some point or another over the last decade, Democrats have won the most votes but lost national elections for the presidency, the House and the Senate.

Partisan gerrymandering is just one of the reasons the Democrats are at such a disadvantage. But the Supreme Court’s decision on gerrymandering Thursday came as long-term political and demographic trends threaten to put Democrats at an even greater disadvantage in the Senate and perhaps also the presidency.

It’s even possible to imagine a future in which Republicans could effectively claim a monopoly on federal power despite continued weakness in the national vote.

Sustained minority rule — within the bounds of the Constitution — is not an imminent peril. After all, Democrats recaptured the House in November despite partisan gerrymandering. But the risk is real, and even if it does not materialize it might strain American democracy.

So on one hand, the ruling — which said federal courts can’t bar partisan gerrymandering — merely preserves the status quo. But it also closes off one way, arguably the easiest way, that the risk of minority rule might have been reduced.

Over the last few decades, American politics has become increasingly polarized along geographic lines. Cities now overwhelmingly back Democrats; the countryside increasingly backs Republicans, although by less lopsided margins. This kind of polarization strains representative democracies with winner-take-all voting systems, since even modest alternations in district or state lines can produce very different results.

These biases can be unintentional. Democrats, for instance, lost the 2016 election by the margin of the Florida Panhandle and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the 2000 election by the margin of the Panhandle. It’s an accident of 19th-century history that these regions did not end up being part of Alabama and Wisconsin instead.

But even more consequential shifts can result from the intentional manipulation of district lines for partisan gain.

Either party can benefit from partisan gerrymandering. But Republicans generally have an easier time of it than Democrats, who waste millions of votes by winning lopsided margins in urban districts that pad their popular vote tallies without yielding additional seats. The GOP, in contrast, wastes fewer votes in the countryside, where Republicans generally win by smaller margins.

There is no guarantee that this bias will persist. If Republicans keep gaining in rural areas and Democrats keep gaining in the suburbs, Republicans might find themselves at an underlying disadvantage in the House.

And Democrats have one advantage of their own, in translating their votes to seats in the House: their ability to win districts with relatively few voters, often in heavily Latino areas with low citizenship rates, high numbers of children and low turnout. This advantage seems likelier to endure after the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration on adding a citizenship question to the census, which might have allowed states to draw districts based on the number of eligible voters, not the total population. (The administration has not given up in this effort, with President Donald Trump saying the census may be delayed.)

But for now the overall bias benefits Republicans, and partisan gerrymandering often increases this effect. In blue-leaning states, it is easy enough for Republican governments to draw heavily Democratic districts, anchored in cities, then divvy up the rest of a state to their advantage, as they did in Pennsylvania or Michigan. In red-leaning states, they can break up cities into multiple Republican-leaning districts, as they have in Utah or Ohio. Overall, gerrymandering probably gives the Republicans about 10 more seats than they would have otherwise.

In an era of growing geographic polarization, these gerrymanders can be quite durable and can even become more effective over time. In 2018, Republican state legislative maps easily survived a Democratic wave election in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Large states’ disadvantage

At the same time, the American electoral system disadvantages the party of populous states through the Senate and, to a lesser degree, the Electoral College. Every state gets two senators, regardless of population.

That has wound up disadvantaging Democrats as American electoral politics have polarized along geographic lines, since they tend to excel in the relatively populous states with big cities.

The Republican Senate advantage is similar to the Republican edge in the U.S. House, even though there’s no gerrymandering involved. The Democrats failed to take the Senate in 2018 despite favorable political conditions in part for this reason.

The Democratic Electoral College disadvantage is more a product of bad luck than geography. In a decade or two, perhaps the oddities of state lines might wind up working to Democrats’ advantage. If Texas turns blue, for instance, they’ll benefit from the fact that it didn’t decide to divide itself into five states. But just because it’s bad luck for the Democrats doesn’t mean it’s not a real disadvantage.

Let’s suppose that Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016. With the typical midterm headwinds for the party in power (in this case the Democrats), it’s possible that Republicans could have won a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2018 by reaching 60 seats.

In that kind of political environment, they would have also most likely controlled the redistricting process in the crucial states again in 2020 and probably held full control of state government in nearly two-thirds of states, placing them close to what they would have needed to unilaterally amend the Constitution, had they then won the presidency in 2020. They could have even probably succeeded in awarding electoral votes by congressional district, as was common fairly early in the country’s history and as some Republicans proposed doing after President Barack Obama’s 2012 victory.

Republicans could gain an even greater edge in the Senate and the Electoral College than exists today. All it would take is a continuation of current trends, with the Rust Belt turning Republican before the Sun Belt turns blue. Total Republican control of government — say, all three branches with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — wouldn’t be hard to imagine even with a fairly competitive national vote. Democrats could find themselves locked out of the Senate for prolonged periods and perhaps take only fleeting control of the House in midterm election years.

It would be hard for partisan gerrymandering to completely lock Democrats out of control of the House of Representatives, but you couldn’t rule it out. In terms of gerrymandering, there are certainly states where Republicans could go even further than they do today.

Trends can end

Democrats have incentive to broaden their appeal and break the cycle of partisan polarization, as they did in the 2018 midterm election. Perhaps they will do so, or maybe something else will change the balance.

The long-predicted “emerging Democratic majority” may never actually materialize, but the same trends could be enough to break an inexorable slide toward a large Republican structural advantage, whether it’s a breakthrough in Texas or even a blue Montana and blue Alaska brimming with West Coast expatriates by 2040. Stranger things have happened.

But it is also possible that partisan and racial polarization deepen further. The leftward drift of Democratic voters, and the party’s growing diversity and level of educational attainment, make it harder for them to reach out to white, conservative working-class voters. The demographic pressures facing Republicans could push them to take more extreme steps to preserve power, like even harsher gerrymanders.

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, Democrats have alternative, potential remedies to partisan gerrymandering, whether through referendums or state courts. This has already happened, to some extent, in a number of states, like California, Pennsylvania and Florida. It is likely to happen in even more states in the coming years, but it might not always be a realistic short-term option for reformers, depending on state laws and courts.

Partisan gerrymandering is far from the only thing that drives the risk of persistent structural imbalances in American elections. You could even make the case that it’s the least important factor. But it is one factor, and it was the factor that was easiest to imagine disappearing, until Thursday’s ruling.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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