Blue Wave Obscures Successful GOP Gerrymanders

The ever-increasing blue wave from last Tuesday’s midterms is a remarkable rebuke to Trumpism and a necessary victory for Democrats and the country. Because of the enormity of that victory, however, it is easy to overlook just how brutal some of the existing extreme gerrymanders were for Democrats, both congressionally and statewide.

In Michigan, Democrats managed to flip all three of the major statewide offices and split the state’s 14 US House seats with 50.7% of the statewide vote, a pickup of two seats. But, remarkably, despite apparently once again getting more votes than Republicans, Democrats remained a clear minority in the Michigan House and Senate. Democrats ended up with a 58–52 deficit in the House and a 22–16 one in the Senate, and that’s after pickup up five seats in both chambers. This is the legacy of Republican gerrymandering in 2011 that precisely targeted Democrats with the intention of ensuring GOP legislative dominance for the rest of the decade. Thankfully, Michigan also passed a ballot initiative that will put redistricting after the 2020 census in the hands of an independent commission.

A similar situation exists in Wisconsin. Democrats won four statewide races and managed to unseat the Koch Brothers puppet, Governor Scott Walker. Yet, despite an enormous Democratic surge, Republicans managed to expand their majority in the state Senate and maintain their enormous 63–36 advantage in Wisconsin House. Back in 2012, Democrats actually won 53% of the vote but won only 40% of the seats in that chamber. That result has not changed dramatically since then, largely because of the post-2010 gerrymander put in place by Republicans.

It’s even worse in North Carolina. There, Democrats once again won the majority of votes across the state for the US House of Representatives, but they won only three of the thirteen seats available. And, as in Wisconsin, despite that enormous Democratic turnout that gave Democrats the majority of the votes, Republicans still maintained firm control of both houses of the state legislature, with an eleven vote advantage in the House and an eight vote advantage in the Senate. Democrats did manage to break the Republicans’ supermajority in both chambers and won a 5–2 majority on the state Supreme Court by adding a voting rights advocate.

Probably one of the bigger disappointments of the night for Democrats was Ohio. Richard Cordray went down to defeat to the ancient Mike Dewine and Democrats flipped no House seats, leading to the conclusion that the state was slipping away from Democrats. The reality is that Republicans barely got more than 50% of the votes for the US House across the state but won 12 of the 16 seats available. Even more remarkably, however, Republicans managed to maintain their majority in the Ohio Senate and 11 of 17 seats with just 48% of the vote. In the Ohio House, Republicans won 52% of the vote but won 62 of the 99 seats. Again, this is the result of an extreme 2011 gerrymander. The congressional gerrymander is being challenged in the courts and there will be new rules in place for redrawing state election districts in 2021 that may mitigate the Republican advantage.

As an example of how much a fair and impartial redistricting plan would change the political landscape in these states, take a look at Pennsylvania. In 2016, Democrats won 48% of the statewide vote for the US House, but only won 27% of the available seats. Before the 2018 election, the state Supreme Court ruled that the congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered and unilaterally drew fairer districts after the legislature could not provide their own alternative. With those new maps in place for 2018, Democrats won 53% of the vote and ended up with exactly half of the 18 House seats. The GOP gerrymander, however, remained in place for state elections. There, again, Democrats won a majority of the votes statewide for both houses of the legislature but Republicans still maintained their majorities, although by slimmer margins, in the House and Senate.

Pennsylvania is one of the rare cases where judicial intervention has been effective, primarily because of the uniqueness of the state’s constitution that requires “free and equal” elections. In states like North Carolina and Texas, gerrymanders have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts due to racial bias but those states have largely managed to keep those districts in place for most of this decade either by redrawing them with slight modifications in a process that never mentions race, or by constantly appealing those decisions up the appellate court ladder and drawing them out long enough so that new maps could not be in place for the next election.

In 2017, Democrats trounced Republicans in Virginia, winning the statewide vote by 11%, yet they still could not take control of the House of Delegates, losing that chance when the coin flip that decided a race that ended in a tie provided the Republicans with the final, swing seat. The gerrymander that created this situation was additionally ruled unconstitutional on racial grounds, requiring the maps to be redrawn for the next round of state elections in 2019. That job is currently in the hands of a special master appointed by the federal district court.

But now Virginia Republicans are once again trying to use the gambit of an ongoing court case in an attempt to once again delay any change to the existing, illegal, gerrymandered maps. Virginia Republicans have appealed the decision to redraw the maps to the Supreme Court and the Court has agreed to hear the case. Republicans are now openly contemplating asking the Court to delay the redistricting until their case is heard in a clear attempt to prevent them from being in place for next fall’s elections.

Democrats are not entirely blameless on this issue either. Maryland is a prime example of a partisan Democratic gerrymander. But, because of the make-up of the party and the packed nature of its voters, Democratic gerrymanders are a lot harder to create.

With the election of Democratic governors and secretaries of state, some of these egregious gerrymanders will not exist after 2020, assuming the Trump administration doesn’t corrupt the census. But, as North Carolina and Ohio illustrate, the blue wave in the House might have become a tsunami with potentially another half dozen seats for the Democrats under fairly drawn maps and the lopsided GOP majorities in these red state legislatures would not exist.

Originally published at on November 16, 2018.

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