The Decision That Could Doom Democrats for a Decade

They predicted that nonpartisan redistricting commissions would make elections more fair, but Republicans might reap the benefits.

An image of the dome of the U.S. Capitol broken into pieces against a blue background
Getty; The Atlantic

Democrats wanted to play fair, and they tried to lead by example. In the decade-long battle over who gets to draw the districts that determine control of Congress, the party even relinquished some of its power in the name of good government. Now Democrats are discovering the potential cost of that attempt at high-mindedness: their House majority and, perhaps, the presidency.

To rid the country of partisan gerrymandering, Democrats for years joined with election reformers to take the responsibility for redistricting away from politicians and hand it to independent, nonpartisan commissions. The effort did not begin as an entirely altruistic project; both parties gerrymandered where they could, but Democrats had more to gain by scrapping the practice. They won the argument in a number of places: Voters in states including California, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, and Virginia have approved redistricting commissions over the past 15 years, protecting more than one in five congressional seats from the threat of extreme gerrymandering.

Republicans, to a large degree, declined to go along. They refused to cede control of the redistricting process in the biggest red states (such as Texas) and fought commissions that could have cost them seats (Arizona) all the way to the Supreme Court. In Congress this year, they blocked legislation that would have created nonpartisan commissions across the country. The GOP’s reward for its defense of gerrymandering is a national map tilted further in its favor than it would have been if the Democratic push for independent commissions had flopped on its face.

The stakes for the reapportionment that follows the decennial census are always enormous; the redistricting process draws lines for Congress and state legislatures that endure for a decade. But the consequences over the next few years could stretch far beyond the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda or whether a particular state’s taxes go up or down: Given former President Donald Trump’s continued dominance over the GOP and the possibility that he will run again, whichever party controls the House and key state legislative chambers could determine the next presidential election. That stark reality is giving the Democrats who championed nonpartisan commissions second thoughts. “As a matter of policy, I think we should pursue these, because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Morgan Carroll, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, told me. “But as a matter of politics, if across the country every Dem is for independent commissions and every Republican is aggressively gerrymandering maps, then the outcome is still a Republican takeover of the United States of America with a modern Republican Party that is fundamentally authoritarian and antidemocratic. And that’s not good for the country.”

Democrats have not abandoned gerrymandering everywhere. In large blue states such as New York, Illinois, and Maryland, the party is expected to draw maps that maximize its partisan advantage. But Republicans control the redistricting process governing more seats, and given the Democrats’ narrow House majority, the GOP could take back power through gerrymandering alone. By giving up their mapping pens in just a few states, Democrats might also have given away their gavel.

No state illustrates the Democrats’ predicament better than Colorado, where the party holds the governorship and solid control of the legislature. That power could have allowed Democrats to draw a favorable new congressional seat, shore up their four House incumbents, and target the reelection bid of freshman GOP Representative Lauren Boebert, who supported Trump’s bid to overturn last year’s election. In 2018, however, Democrats backed a ballot initiative to hand power over congressional redistricting to a nonpartisan commission. The map that the panel has proposed would instead make the new Eighth District north of Denver a toss-up, potentially jeopardize at least one of the Democratic incumbents, and ease Boebert’s path to another term, Carroll told me. The difference between the commission map and what Democrats might have drawn themselves could be nearly enough to tip the balance of power in the entire House. “It is a problem,” a high-ranking Colorado Democrat told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

In Virginia, Democratic leaders initially supported the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission, but they reversed course once the party won control of both chambers of the legislature in 2019. Voters, however, overruled them in 2020, backing the commission by wide margins in a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The commission has whiffed so far: Its members announced last week that they could not agree on a state legislative map and kicked the job up to the Virginia Supreme Court instead. A similar failure is possible when the panel turns to the congressional map, and the right-leaning court is unlikely to draw lines as favorable to Democrats as they would have drawn themselves without a commission.

Democrats do stand to benefit from some of the redistricting panels. In Arizona, which is now closely divided between the parties, the map that the independent commission produces is likely to be far more fair than lines drawn by the state’s Republican legislature. The story in Michigan is more complicated. A nonpartisan commission is drawing maps there  for the first time, and an analysis of its proposed state legislative districts found that they skew toward the GOP. “It’s been frustrating to watch,” the state’s Democratic Party chair, Lavora Barnes, told me. “Right now, my fear is that we do not end up with fair maps.” Yet Barnes said the commission is still far preferable to letting the Republican-controlled legislature run the process as it did in the past. “It would definitely be worse,” she said. “I would obviously happily accept maps that are more Democratic than they are, but I think fair is a much better bargain for us than where we are and where we would have been if the Republicans had been drawing these maps.”

The Democratic quandary over redistricting commissions puts lawmakers like Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland in a tricky position. As the chair of the party’s Democracy Reform Task Force in the House, Sarbanes helped write the For the People Act, which requires states to establish independent redistricting commissions. But Sarbanes is in no rush for his home state to lead the way. Maryland is one of the most notoriously gerrymandered states in the country. A judge once described Sarbanes’s own district as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.” A federal court threw out its Democrat-drawn map before the Supreme Court upheld the lines in a 2019 ruling. Redistricting commissions are truly fair, Sarbanes told me, only if every state has to use them. “I’ve pushed for a national solution from day one,” he said. (When I asked whether he agreed that Maryland’s current districts were gerrymandered, however, he dodged. “Maryland’s got a strange shape to begin with. You’re not going to end up with pretty maps,” Sarbanes replied. “But clearly Maryland is a Democratic state, and there’s always politics that are mixed in.”)

Another leader in the Democratic push for election reform, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, once shared Sarbanes’s view. She initially opposed the creation of an independent redistricting commission when it came up as a statewide referendum in 2008. “My theory was why should California, which has a Democratic majority, cede this authority to a nonpartisan commission when other states haven’t done it?” Lofgren told me. But after Democrats picked up seats in the California delegation even after the commission drew its first maps, Lofgren changed her mind. “I have to say the voters were right and I was wrong,” she conceded. “This does work much better.”

Along with Colorado, California now serves both as the model for the kind of redistricting commissions Democrats want to establish nationwide and as an impediment to their hopes of retaining power long enough to do so. The party controls 42 out of the state’s 53 seats in Congress—easily the biggest Democratic delegation in the country—but an aggressive Democratic gerrymander probably could have yielded a few more.

In Washington, Democrats removed the proposal to require redistricting commissions from the latest version of their election-reform bill, as part of an effort to narrow the measure and win the support of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Lawmakers and advocates say the decision was about timing—commissions couldn’t be set up before 2022 in states that didn’t already have them—and not a reconsideration of the idea. “Democrats did not make a mistake,” says Kelly Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group formed by former Attorney General Eric Holder to fight gerrymandering by Republicans. “By putting commissions in place, Democrats are saying, ‘We’re not afraid of voters, and we’re not afraid of a fair process, and we don’t need to cheat to win.’”

Most of the Democrats I spoke with agreed with Burton—at least in principle. They hoped that voters would, as Sarbanes told me, reward the party that stood up for good government and put aside partisan politics. But the new maps stand for a decade, and as these Democrats considered the enormous ramifications of the next two national elections, doubt about its consequences began to creep back in. “If the result is that we have 10 years of Republican majorities under this current party,” Carroll said, “then I think the institution of Congress is dead.”