Did Republicans Gerrymander Their Way to Victory?

The question we should be asking is not “Did my party lose seats?” but “Was the redistricting fair?”

Red and blue geometrical shapes spread out over a yellow map of the United States.
The Atlantic

Republicans have gained control of the House of Representatives, but their majority will be tiny. Such close division has triggered many what-if discussions. Some have focused on New York, where Democrats performed poorly. The Democratic legislature had drawn a map in early 2022 that was designed to give the dominant party its best possible performance, even in a bad year. However, a court-ordered replacement map undid this gerrymander, shifting the outcome in multiple seats.

Did this single action cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives? Some political operatives and journalists in New York think the answer is yes. But that’s not the most important question. Better to focus on whether the New York map is fair—and, in the larger view, to ask whether maps nationwide yielded a representative result overall.

Looking first at New York: The map drawn by the Democratic legislature was found to be a partisan gerrymander. (Disclosure: The court-appointed redistricting master, Jonathan Cervas, is an affiliate of the Gerrymandering Project at Princeton and my academic collaborator.) Under the remedial map that was put in place, Republicans won 11 seats, an increase of three seats over their performance in 2020, even after the census count reduced the overall delegation by one seat.

Given the pattern and lean of the statewide vote, I estimate that the map that was overturned would have elected no more than eight Republicans. This redrawn map, then, brought Republicans a net gain of three seats. But that is not the whole story. Republicans’ three closest wins were decided by an average margin of less than two points. These wins could easily be reversed in 2024. If New Yorkers return to their 2020 voting habits, Republicans will be reduced once again to eight or even fewer seats. The old map would have all but guaranteed that result, every year. This suggests that the New York replacement map is more competitive, a key measure of fairness.

Every decade, the forces of partisan self-dealing and occasional good government converge in a frenzy of redistricting. Think of it as a closely contested game of tug-of-war, in which the outcome depends on every participant. Measured from the standpoint of power, the advantages in each state can cancel one another out. In large part, that’s what happened in this year’s redistricting.

One contributor to the Republican majority was the Supreme Court. Lower courts found that to satisfy federal law, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana each had to draw one more majority-Black district. But without explanation, the Supreme Court blocked those rulings, resulting in three Republican seats that likely would have gone to Democrats.

Also in Republicans’ favor: Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida drew a map that nearly ensured Florida Republicans at least 18 out of 28 congressional seats. The effects of this map were compounded by an extremely strong performance in that state by Republicans, leaving the governor’s party with 20 seats.

Countering these actions, however, Democrats made their own gains in court. In North Carolina, a partisan gerrymander that would have given Republicans as many as 11 out of 14 seats was overturned. The replacement map elected seven Republicans and seven Democrats. In Maryland, a state court struck down a Democratic gerrymander but accepted a replacement map from the general assembly. This compromise elected seven Democrats, at least one more than what computer simulations suggested as a party-neutral outcome.

The New York legislature might now regret that it did not offer a Maryland-style compromise. Any of these redistricting battles could be said to be determinative of the House majority in 2023. So could partisan gerrymanders favoring Republicans that were allowed to stand in Ohio and Texas, and another favoring Democrats in Illinois.

These and other granular what-ifs leave out the bigger picture that emerges when they are assembled into a whole. The 2022 election appears to be headed toward the simplest measure of partisan fairness: The party that gets more votes will also get more seats. In the past 25 years, this majoritarian principle was violated once, in the Great Gerrymander of 2012. This year’s redistricting produced a considerably more majoritarian result than that dismal year. Calculating the 2022 election results, the average district margin so far is a Republican win by 1.7 points. (Some current totals put the margin higher, but those estimates do not include late-reporting votes.)

Another way to quantify fairness is by comparing the outcome with a perfectly evenhanded map, in which each party would have above-average performance in 217 or 218 districts. Republicans had above-average performance in 214 districts, a disadvantage of three seats. As a comparison, in 2012, Republicans had 241 above-average districts, an advantage of 23 seats. This year’s nearly symmetrical treatment of the two parties is a remarkable accomplishment.

Also, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the number of competitive congressional districts has increased since 2012. Based on calculations by the Gerrymandering Project and metrics available on Dave’s Redistricting App, I estimated that 47 districts would have a partisan margin of seven points or fewer, a zone that serves as a measure of competitiveness. Preliminary election results show 53 such districts. Contrast this with 2012, when only 33 districts met this criterion. Much of the increase can be attributed to the work of newly independent redistricting commissions in Michigan and Colorado, as well as court actions in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

None of this analysis contradicts the pernicious influence of gerrymandering. Nor does the concept of interstate partisan cancellation apply in individual legislatures such as those in Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republican legislators are nearly immune to changes in public opinion. And unless Congress finds a way to revitalize the Voting Rights Act after court attacks, fair representation for racial minorities and other minority communities is in considerable danger. These problems could create serious challenges in the years ahead.

They can be addressed by new reforms along multiple paths of attack. In the near term, reformers must continue to target state courts. This is not confined to lawsuits. An upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April has the potential to open new paths to change there. Citizens can also make a difference through ballot initiatives. Despite a constitutional amendment intended to limit gerrymandering in Ohio, the state Supreme Court has ruled that Ohio is not allowed to replace the offending maps. But citizens there have the power to amend the constitution yet again—as they do in several dozen other states.

In the long term, reforms can even build on the progress made in this cycle’s redistricting. Competition creates an incentive to fight for voter support. When voters have more choice, candidates must fight for support, sometimes across partisan lines. House elections in Alaska and Maine, as well as the reelection of Senator Lisa Murkowski, will be settled by an instant-runoff process in which some voters may cross partisan lines to determine the winner. Establishing such reforms in other states will make it easier for voters to express complex preferences. In this way, the newly level playing field can be a foundation for making maps that are not only fair but more responsive.