Now that the Census has announced how the Congressional House seats will be reapportioned, the task falls to the affected states to redistrict, meaning redraw the boundary lines for their congressional districts. Many eyes are on Texas, which is gaining two House seats and has a history of gerrymandering in favor of the GOP.
Texas's population is booming, with growth coming largely from the Latino and African American communities. But the make-up of its state government doesn't reflect this demographic trend. Since 2003, power has remained firmly in the hands of the GOP after Rep. Tom DeLay began a concerted and unprecedented effort to redraw the state's representative districts.
When the 2010 census came out, it showed that Texas had grown by 4 million people in ten years, with ninety percent of that growth from Black or Latino residents, according to NBC News. Despite the racial make-up of its residents, the new maps that created in 2011 did not have a single district that would represent those communities because they were gerrymandered in such a way as to dilute the voting power of these groups.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that since 2010 there have been 59 seats in the House of Representatives that were tipped because of unfair gerrymandering. It gave Michigan as an example:
"From 2012 to 2016, the people of Michigan cast more than 50 percent of their ballots for Democratic Party legislative candidates. They voted for Democrats 52 percent of the time for the Michigan House of Representatives; a little more than 50 percent of the time for the Michigan Senate; and 51 percent of the time for the U.S. House of Representatives. So one would expect that slightly more than half of Michigan elected officials during this time were Democrats.
Instead, Republicans held a decisive advantage at every level of government. Despite earning a majority of the vote, Democrats received only 44 percent of seats in the Michigan House of Representatives; 31 percent of the seats in the Michigan Senate; and 35 percent of the seats in Michigan's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives."
It's not just the GOP that gerrymanders. As the CAP report noted, the practice affects both parties. "In Maryland, for example, Republicans received 37 percent of the votes for the U.S. House of Representatives but won only 13 percent of the congressional seats. And in North Carolina, Democrats received 48 percent of the vote for the U.S. House of Representatives but won only 26 percent of the congressional seats."
The GOP, however, uses gerrymandering far more aggressively and with greater political success than the Democrats. The CAP report indicates that the GOP swung 19 additional seats in their favor because of districts that were drawn with a bias in their favor:
They sometimes achieve swings by drawing districts so that minority voters are overwhelmed by white voters, making it very difficult for minority communities to ever elect one of their own. This chart helps show how the drawing of districts can change the number of representatives from each party, even when there are more "blue" voters.
In response to this apparent unfairness, many states such as California have turned to independent commissions to redraw their Congressional districts. But states that continue to use partisan gerrymandering have little incentive to do the right thing, especially if other states with more equitable practices are effectively handicapping themselves politically.
In 2011, Obama's Department of Justice rejected Texas's redrawn maps, as it had the power to do under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the 5-4 Shelby County decision by the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the "pre-clearance" section of that law, with Chief Justice John Roberts essentially claiming that the problems of racial unfairness in elections had been solved and that such oversight was outdated. (In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg observed, "Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.")
Shelby County leaves minority voters at the mercy of the GOP-controlled legislatures which can draw maps that dilute their votes. It also often leaves liberal Democrats with little recourse and less power. Take the mostly Democratic suburbs around Houston. As noted by The Fulcrum, GOP Representative Dan Crenshaw can win in such an area only because his district is very carefully drawn.
Indeed, it is one of the oddest shaped districts anywhere, snaking its way through otherwise blue zones:
Similarly, the state's capital, Austin, is a deeply "blue" city and liberal to its core. But the GOP has chopped it up into six different congressional districts, concentrating liberal votes into a single blue one while lumping the rest in with wide swaths of GOP heavy voters:
Though is is growing increasingly difficult to do given the growth in minority voters, the GOP-controlled legislature and State House in Texas will likely try to squeeze out two more GOP-controlled House districts from this round of apportionment. That is why many Democrats have pressed for the passage of the For The People Act, which would mandate that redistricting be performed by independent commissions instead of by partisan legislatures. Because that law is unlikely to get past a Senate filibuster, such a reform is not likely before this next round of redistricting.
That leaves litigation as the only effective tool to block gerrymandering, and the Democrats have already begun to file preemptive suits, but the legal terrain is admittedly unfavorable given the Supreme Court's current 6-3 conservative majority.