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Democrats have to end gerrymandered districts — eventually

Democrats can't unilaterally disarm until Republican-drawn election maps can't disadvantage minorities.

A lot of time and attention have already been devoted to what happens when voters attempt to cast their ballots in next year's midterm elections. While access to the ballot is definitely at risk in many states, the fight over whether those votes matter is also underway.

Which brings up a question that I'm struggling to answer. What should be more important for Democrats: leveling the playing field now — getting rid of drawing partisan election maps altogether — to negate the GOP's advantages? Or winning the long game, even if it means being as vicious as the GOP in winning elections before they even begin, by drawing maps that prevent Republicans from winning seats?

An extra seat could make or break control of the House in 2022.

That question is being asked both in Washington and around the country. Ahead of the 2020 elections, state-level political operatives were confident that a looming blue wave in the presidential race would also give Democrats control over a number of state legislative chambers. Instead, almost no state legislatures flipped, leaving the census-mandated redistricting process firmly in the hands of the same GOP that masterfully used the 2010 process to its advantage.

That has left Democrats in states where they do control the legislatures with the dilemma noted above. Making things more fraught is that Democrats have over the years moved to embrace nonpartisan redistricting commissions to alleviate the gerrymandering that has plagued elections since 1812. It's a positive step in favor of good governance — but one that worries some people that the party is unilaterally disarming instead of playing to win.

New Mexico is one state that has recently set up a commission to handle redrawing boundaries. But as Dave Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report, noted Friday, New Mexico Democrats have a chance to lock in all three seats in the congressional delegation ahead of 2022 — if they override the commission's probable recommendations:

An extra seat could make or break control of the House next year. As things stand, the Democrats' majority is hanging by a thread, with only five seats preventing a GOP takeover — and the minority party traditionally makes gains in the midterms.

Even a small shift in national sentiment can have a huge impact post-gerrymander. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, when the Democrats took control of the House, Michael Li and Laura Royden of the Brennan Center for Justice made it clear how the GOP had tried to screw over Democrats with their intense gerrymandering:

In 2006, a roughly five-and-a-half-point lead in the national popular vote was enough for Democrats to pick up 31 seats and win back the House majority they had lost to Newt Gingrich.

But our research shows that a similar margin of victory in 2018 would most likely net Democrats only 13 seats, leaving the Republicans firmly in charge.

Democrats actually won by 8 points in 2018, an advantage of over 8.6 million votes, allowing them to overcome the hurdles to taking the majority. But even though President Joe Biden won the popular vote by millions of votes last year, that didn't translate into more seats for Democrats — in fact, they lost seats.

So when you have folks like Rep. Ronny Johnson, R-Texas, saying redistricting "alone should get us our majority back," you can see the cause for concern among Democrats who think giving up the ability to gerrymander GOP House seats out of existence is an unforced error. And thanks to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, federal courts no longer have the authority to step in and order state governments to fix overly gerrymandered districts.

This all means there's nothing stopping Democrats from playing hardball, too. But gerrymandering in most states where Democrats already have control won't ultimately be enough to hold the House. Why? The GOP controls the majority of states' governments.

Gerrymandering in most states where Democrats already have control won’t ultimately be enough to hold the House.

The biggest threat comes from states like Texas, where significant gains among Democratic voters could be quashed depending on how electoral lines are drawn. And this will be the first time in over 50 years that states in the South that once had to submit their revised districts to the Justice Department for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act will no longer have to do so. Couple that with the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling and it's a recipe for some truly wild maps.

For a preview of how this may play out, look at North Carolina, which has about a 50-50 voter split. But because of aggressive redistricting after 2010, the North Carolina congressional delegation had 10 Republicans and three Democrats after the 2016 elections — exactly the outcome the map was designed to produce.

The North Carolina maps have been the subject of intense scrutiny, with several iterations scrapped by first the Supreme Court and then the state courts for disenfranchising minority voters. The map put into place ahead of the 2020 election still favored Republicans, but Democrats were at least able to gain two seats, bring their total to five out of 13. That's still not half — and there's no guarantee that next year's map will do anything to improve that balance.

And that's just one state. Ahead of the midterms, some Republicans are considering running the same play as in North Carolina, "cracking" cities in red states to further dilute the Democratic votes concentrated there and hoping that the maps avoid similar scrutiny.

None of this would really matter if the For the People Act, currently stalled in the Senate, were passed. Its anti-gerrymandering provision is one of the most important, if overlooked, parts of the bill. If enacted, the bill would mandate that all states hand over control of federal House districts to nonpartisan commissions like the one in California.

It would be as though a global electromagnetic pulse disarmed every nuclear bomb at once, ending the threat of mutually assured destruction. I'm not surprised that, until then, some Democrats — wanting to cling to any safe majority-minority districts they've created— are loath to put down one of the few weapons they have to counter the Republicans' assault on voting rights.

This may sound naive, but there shouldn't have to be a choice between doing the right thing — drawing truly fair election maps — and putting democracy at risk with only Republicans gerrymandering districts. On that front, I think partisan legislators should be stripped of the ability to draw the boundaries of their own districts as a matter of principle. It makes sense to me that once Democrats capture power, they should then turn redistricting over to nonpartisans.

But that works only if the rules are the same around the country. I can't be against New Mexico's carving out a third Democratic seat when Republicans are moving to restrict voting rights nationwide. Preventing abuses of power at the state level requires Democrats to use the power they have now at the national level. The provisions in the For the People Act can't be allowed to die a quiet death in the Senate at the hands of the filibuster, especially when the alternative is a world where it's literally impossible for minorities' votes to matter in states under GOP control.