Republicans Discover the Horror of Gerrymandering

The GOP learns what it’s like to be on the losing side of a redistricting power grab.

An illustration of an elephant broken into pieces
Getty; The Atlantic

The wails of protest began almost immediately after the lopsided votes concluded in the New York legislature earlier this month. Lawmakers in Albany had redrawn the state’s congressional map to create what instantly became perhaps the nation’s most brutal gerrymander. The “most brazen and outrageous attempt at rigging the election,” a party chair cried. “Egregious, unfair, and unconstitutional,” a senior member of Congress proclaimed. “It’s the voters who should be choosing their representatives, not the other way around,” declared another lawmaker who had been targeted for defeat in the reshuffling.

Voters are surely familiar with these complaints; Democrats have been making them—verbatim, in many cases—for years, accusing Republicans of using extreme partisan gerrymandering to tilt elections in their favor and entrench themselves in the majority. This time, however, Republicans were the victims of a supposed power grab, and they were the ones grousing about it.

The Democrats who control New York politics had drawn maps that could essentially wipe out half of the GOP’s eight congressional seats in the state before a single vote is cast. “It is wrong, and it is illegal,” Representative Elise Stefanik, the upstate New Yorker who serves as chair of the House Republican Conference, told me last week. She is supporting a lawsuit that Republicans nationally and in New York have filed against the Democratic-drawn map, alleging that it violates a prohibition in the state’s constitution against partisan gerrymandering.

Although the new districts could indeed be ruled illegal under New York law, they are not illegal under federal law. That’s because Stefanik and her party have opposed Democratic proposals to ban the practice nationwide. From a purely political standpoint, the GOP’s recent resistance is understandable: Thanks to its dominance of state legislatures and governorships after the 2010 Republican-wave election, it benefited more from gerrymandering than Democrats in the previous round of redistricting.

Heading into the once-a-decade reapportionment process, Democrats and political forecasters warned that Republicans could capture the House majority—now held by Democrats with a mere five-seat margin—through gains won by gerrymandering alone. Yet with maps completed for more than two-thirds of the nation’s 435 House seats, the biggest surprise has been how well Democrats have done. They have fought Republicans at least to a draw and, according to one prominent forecaster, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, they might have even gained a few seats overall. “It’s just going to be another election cycle when the prognosticators are wrong,” Stefanik said. (She neglected to mention that those same shaky prognosticators still predict Republicans will take back the House.) Former President Donald Trump offered his own assessment of the national landscape, complaining in a statement that “Republicans are getting absolutely creamed by all the phony redistricting going on all over the country.”

Democrats have fared better for a number of reasons. Victories in competitive 2018 gubernatorial races gave Democrats veto pens in some states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Republicans control the legislature. Democrats also began laying the groundwork for the redistricting fight years in advance with the formation of groups like the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, launched by former Attorney General Eric Holder with the support of former President Barack Obama. In GOP-controlled states such as Texas and Georgia, Republicans have pursued a more defensive mapmaking strategy, seeking to consolidate their power rather than attempting a maximalist (but riskier) approach of knocking out Democratic seats. State courts have struck down more aggressive GOP gerrymanders in North Carolina and Ohio. A major factor, however, is that despite their anti-gerrymandering rhetoric, Democrats have been at least as ruthless as Republicans in the biggest states where they have unfettered power to draw new districts. In Illinois, Democrats approved a map that will likely wipe out two of the GOP’s five current congressional seats. Their haul could be twice as big in New York.

Democrats controlled the mapping process in New York for the first time since before World War II, and they engineered the deadlock of a bipartisan redistricting commission to ensure that they could maximize their advantage. The result was a map that contains many of the hallmarks of a classic gerrymander. Democrats packed more Republicans into Stefanik’s rural upstate district and split a large Army base on the Canadian border, Fort Drum, into two districts. Farther south, they combined the most conservative part of New York City, Staten Island, in a single district with perhaps its most liberal community, Park Slope, in an obvious attempt to oust the city’s lone Republican member of Congress, Representative Nicole Malliotakis. The district now belonging to Representative Jerry Nadler—quickly dubbed the “Jerrymander”—slices down the west side of Manhattan, takes a ferry ride across the East River, cuts a horseshoe-shaped path through a half-dozen neighborhoods on its way to Prospect Park, then wraps around a cemetery containing the earthly remains of Boss Tweed and Horace Greeley before swallowing a huge section of central and south Brooklyn.

One might think that the taste of victimhood might cause Republicans to reconsider the nationwide truce that Democrats have offered on gerrymandering. Not so much. “This is an inherently political process, and it always has been,” former Representative John Faso of New York, who now works with the National Republican Redistricting Trust, told me. “It’s just the Democrats are ultimate hypocrites about it because they want to be pure when it’s the Republicans drawing lines, but they’re very quiet about their own impurity when they are drawing the lines.”

Stefanik told me the federal government “should not oversee elections.” The fourth-term lawmaker has become a rising Republican star, having recruited a new generation of winning GOP women candidates before deposing Representative Liz Cheney to secure a place in the party’s House leadership. But when I asked her whether she would also condemn the gerrymandered maps that Republicans have proposed in states such as Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, Stefanik swiftly shed her national profile. “I’m speaking out specifically on New York’s gerrymandered maps,” she replied. “I’m a resident of the state of New York. I’m speaking as a citizen, not just as an elected official, but as a citizen about how these maps do not abide by the New York state constitution. And if you want to talk about hypocrisy, get on the phone with any Democrat member of the New York delegation who has railed against gerrymandering.”

Democrats have indeed been quiet about New York’s map, observing the unspoken rule that gerrymandering is to be discussed only by its victims, never by its perpetrators. Holder last week convened a virtual press conference to tout his group’s success in securing fairer maps and challenging Republican attempts to gerrymander in the states they control. He offered a mild defense of New York’s district lines, saying that Democrats had followed census data and noting that even the maps proposed by Republicans on its redistricting commission would have resulted in Democratic gains. Yet in a state where Joe Biden won just over 60 percent of the vote in 2020, Democrats have enacted a map that likely will give their party 85 percent of its House seats. Was Holder contending that New York’s map did not represent a partisan gerrymander? I asked him. He gave a long answer that studiously avoided any use of the G-word. “New York is a decidedly blue state,” he said. “There might have been things I would have done differently, but that map is far more defensible than what Republicans did in Texas, than what they tried to do in North Carolina, what they tried to do in Georgia.”

The real losers of this year’s gerrymandering arms race might be the voters themselves. In their zeal to protect and expand their political turf, both parties have slashed the number of competitive districts across the country, meaning that millions fewer Americans will have a meaningful say in who represents them in Congress. Even Holder lamented the lack of competition in the map Democrats drew in New York. Yet for Democrats, the broader goal of their redistricting effort was not competitive maps but a fair fight for the House, and in the end, the key to achieving some level of parity with Republicans was not less gerrymandering, but more of it.