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seat at the table

How Obama’s fight against unfair Republican electoral maps could backfire

Mark Wilson/Getty

Hillary Clinton looks well on her way to winning a landslide victory next month over Donald Trump, and current polls show a strong chance that Democrats will also regain control of the Senate. But it’s unlikely that they’ll win control of the House of Representatives for one simple reason: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral maps to help a particular group or political party. The U.S. Constitution requires electoral districts to be redrawn after every census; but in most states, the maps are drawn by legislators, so there’s an irresistible temptation to lock in any current partisan advantage. That said, several states and most foreign countries have assigned redistricting to independent commissions or non-partisan civil servants. Independent redistricting can result in more competitive elections, a more representative legislature, and ultimately, better public policy.

Now, after years of Republican obstruction in the House of Representatives, Democrats—led by President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder—are fighting back.

Earlier this week, Politico reported that Holder will chair the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), a new political action committee focused on state-level redistricting reform. By organizing ballot initiatives and legal challenges to gerrymandered state electoral maps, the NDRC aims to “ensure Democrats have a seat at the table to create fairer maps after 2020,” Holder told Politico. Obama also said he’ll work closely with the NDRC after leaving office.

The creation of a central clearinghouse for Democratic strategy on redistricting and reform is long overdue. In 2010, Republicans introduced a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) to win several key state legislative seats to gain control over the redistricting process. Democrats, focused on keeping control of the House of Representatives and oblivious to how technological advancements had made gerrymandering easier, were caught by surprise. The resulting maps in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other states helped Republicans keep their large majority in the House—despite getting 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats in 2012.

Democrats now intend to use the NDRC to do something similar in the lead-up to redistricting after the 2020 census. but pro-Republican gerrymandering is so extensive that the best Democrats could hope for is a seat at the table the next time maps are drawn. That’s why the NDRC will also focus on reforming the redistricting process, which would take map-drawing out of politicians’ hands.

Pro-Republican gerrymandering is so extensive that the best Democrats could hope for is a seat at the table the next time maps are drawn.

It all sounds good from the Democratic perspective. There’s just one problem: Politicizing redistricting reform could make it much more difficult to achieve.

In 2005, voters in California and Ohio rejected ballot initiatives that would’ve created independent redistricting commissions, largely because the proposals were (rightly) seen as partisan.

Then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger supported the plan to break Democratic power in the state legislature. Unsurprisingly, the many Californians who consider themselves Democrats weren’t happy about this, so it failed.

The Ohio plan, however, was supported by Democratic-leaning labor groups and progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org as part of measures designed to fix issues that arose during the 2004 election. At the time, Ohio voters complained of hours-long lines to vote caused by a lack of voting machines in urban districts, machines that showed more votes than registered voters in the precinct, and many uncounted provisional ballots (given to voters when there’s doubt around their eligibility to vote). But Ohio Republicans vehemently opposed the 2005 redistricting initiative, so it also failed.

Voters rejected both the California and Ohio plans because they were seen as attempts by the minority party to steal control. Particularly unpopular were provisions in both initiatives that would’ve redrawn electoral maps before the 2006 elections. Electoral maps are normally redrawn every 10 years after the census; redistricting at any other time is highly unusual (though not illegal) due to the perception that maps are being redrawn for purely political reasons. By trying to change the rules in the middle of the game, California Republicans and Ohio Democrats looked like spoil sports.

Since these twin failures, proponents of redistricting reform have downplayed partisan issues, focusing instead on fundamental fairness. Revised—and less overtly partisan—plans passed in California in 2008 and in Ohio last year. A key difference from earlier failed initiatives was that maps wouldn’t be redrawn until after the next census. Both were also limited to state legislative seats, reducing concerns that local reform could affect control of Congress (though in 2010, Californians passed a separate plan requiring congressional districts to also be drawn by independent commission). By making the initiatives less overtly partisan, advocates were able to build bipartisan support for reform.

Politicizing redistricting reform could make it much more difficult to achieve.

But redistricting reform has failed where it’s seen as partisan. This year, Republicans in Illinois backed a redistricting plan with the express purpose of reducing Democrats’ power in the state legislature. They were able to collect enough signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot, but the Illinois Democratic Party challenged it in court. In a decision that split along party lines, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed with Democrats, and the plan was tossed.

Non-partisan pushes for reform, however, have had some success even in strongly Republican states. For example, this week, a legislative study committee in Indiana endorsed the creation of an independent nine-member commission to draw electoral maps after the next census.

But with the recent NDRC announcement, there’s a very real risk that redistricting reform—which the Indiana study committee had largely treated as a non-partisan matter—will instead be seen as a partisan issue designed to help Democrats. (Republicans now hold 71% of state house seats and 80% of state senate seat.)

America’s highly polarized politics only makes things worse. In a 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll, Republicans were dramatically less likely to favor a policy if told it was supported by Obama than if told it was supported by Trump. Citing Obama’s support for redistricting reform could be a convenient excuse for Republicans skittish about reform to back out, making it less likely to happen.

But this doesn’t mean the NDRC is a bad idea. By drawing Democrats’ attention to redistricting, it’ll help develop strategies to avoid a replay of the 2010-11 disasters that kept the House of Representatives in Republican hands. The committee could also play a major role in helping Democrats win control of state legislatures—a boon for progressive policy more broadly.

Just don’t expect redistricting reform to be an easy sell after it’s been politicized.