Analysis: What makes a fair election? Recent redistricting the most politically balanced in years

Jun 9, 2023, 9:04 PM | Updated: Jun 10, 2023, 5:30 am

Democrats have for years bemoaned partisan redistricting plans that helped Republicans win far more congressional seats than expected. But that advantage has disappeared.

In the first elections held with 2020 census data, Democrats battled back with their own gerrymandering that shaped districts to their advantage and essentially evened the outcome. Though Republicans won control of the House from Democrats, the closely divided chamber more accurately reflects the ratio of Republicans to Democrats among voters nationally than at any time in recent years, according to a new Associated Press analysis.

“On the one hand, we have fairer, more representative outcomes. But it looks like we have more gerrymandering happening,” said Doug Spencer, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who administers the All About Redistricting website.

The AP’s analysis found that Republicans won just one more U.S. House seat in 2022 than would have been expected based on the average share of the vote they received nationwide — an insignificant edge in determining the GOP’s 222-213 seat majority.

A similar situation played out in state capitols in the 2022 elections. The AP found that Democrats and Republicans notched a nearly equal number of states with House or Assembly districts tilted in their favor — a sharp contrast to the sizable Republican edge during the previous decade.

The difference is not just that Republicans gerrymandered less but that “more Democrats picked up the practice,” Spencer said.

A lot is at stake. Districts drawn to the advantage of one party can help it win, maintain or expand majorities, which in turn can affect the types of laws enacted on divisive topics such as abortion, guns, taxes and transgender rights. That’s evident this year, as Republican- and Democratic-led states move in opposite directions on many of those issues.

The dissatisfaction once voiced most loudly by Democrats in states gerrymandered by Republicans is now also rising from Republicans in such places as rural Macoupin County, Illinois. A Republican represented the former coal mining county in Congress during the past decade. But a Democrat won the redrawn district in 2022 after it got transformed into a slender snake-like shape — with a head in the twin university cities of Champaign and Urbana and a new tail in the Democratic suburbs of St. Louis.

Republican-leaning Macoupin County resembles a bulge in the middle — the only entire county remaining in the 13th District.

“We’re tied now to people – boat anchors up to the north and boat anchors in the south – that we have very little in common with, and we’re not happy,” said Tom Stoecker, the Macoupin County GOP chairman.

Illinois’ congressional districts had the largest partisan slant nationally, helping Democrats win three more seats than expected based on their percentage of votes, according to the AP’s analysis. Among statehouse chambers, the largest partisan tilt was in the Nevada Assembly — again favoring Democrats.

Republicans still reaped rewards in some places. Texas Republicans won about two more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on their percentage of votes. A long-running GOP tilt also continued in the Wisconsin Assembly.

The AP analyzed the effect of redistricting on the 2022 elections using an “efficiency gap” formula intended to spot cases of potential gerrymandering. The test — designed by Eric McGhee, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, and Harvard Law School professor Nick Stephanopoulos — identifies states where one party is extraordinarily efficient at translating votes into victories. That can occur when politicians in charge of redistricting pack voters for their opponents into a few heavily concentrated districts or spread them among multiple districts to dilute their voting strength.

Previous AP analyses found that Republicans benefited from a strong edge under districts drawn after the 2010 census. The GOP won about 22 more U.S. House seats than expected based on its share of the votes in 2016 — about 16 extra seats in 2018 and about 10 excess seats in 2020. By comparison, the one-seat GOP tilt in the 2022 election was essentially a political wash.

“By many metrics, we had the fairest congressional map and the fairest state legislative map in decades, and that’s a truly great thing for democracy,” said John Bisognano, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has challenged Republican-drawn maps in court.

Bisognano attributes the change primarily to four states — Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Under congressional maps drawn by Republicans, those states combined in 2016 to elect 39 Republicans and just 17 Democrats — about nine more Republicans than expected based on their share of the votes. But in 2022, under maps adopted by courts and Michigan’s new independent commission, those states combined to elect 26 Republicans and 29 Democrats. In a reversal, Democrats carried about one more seat than expected based on their share of the votes.

In each of the two most recent midterm elections, the AP’s analysis identified 15 states where a political party won at least one more congressional seat than would have been expected based on its votes. Twelve of those favored Republican in 2018.

But the redistricting gains were more evenly split last year. Democrats gained at least one more congressional seat than expected from their vote percentage in eight states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington. Meanwhile, Republicans gained at least one extra seat in seven states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New York, Texas and Wisconsin.

The new Illinois districts were drawn by the Democratic-dominated state Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, despite a pledge during his 2018 campaign to veto any maps drawn by politicians. Pritzker said the maps — which added a second predominantly Latino district while maintaining three predominantly Black districts — would “ensure all communities are equitably represented.”

Under the new districts, Illinois Democrats widened their 13-5 congressional advantage to a 14-3 majority — flipping one Republican seat and merging others. The state lost one seat due to declining population.

Republican Rep. Rodney Davis was drawn out of the 13th District he represented for a decade and placed in the heavily Republican 15th District. He lost in a GOP primary to Rep. Mary Miller, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. The reshaped 13th District was won by Democrat Nikki Budzinski, a former aide to Pritzker and President Joe Biden.

“That district was drawn in a very gerrymandered way to maximize the Democrat turnout,” Davis told the AP.

Numerous more politically neutral alternatives could have been drawn, said Sheldon H. Jacobson, director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“This was just a horrendous situation and really doesn’t represent the people of Illinois,” Jacobson said.

Fair representation also has been called into question in Nevada, where the Democratic advantage from redistricting was so large that it could have swayed control of the state Assembly. Though Republican candidates received more total votes, Democrats won a 28-14 majority last fall — seven more Democratic seats than would have been expected, according to the AP’s analysis.

A lawsuit brought by affected residents and several Republican elected officials alleged the new districts were “an intentional extreme partisan gerrymander” that illegally diluted votes. But a judge said there was no clear standard to weigh partisan gerrymandering claims under the Nevada Constitution — echoing a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal courts also have no business deciding partisan gerrymandering claims.

The Reno area’s Somersett golf community had been part of a Republican-controlled Assembly district, but the new maps split it into two. A Democrat now represents part of the subdivision while the rest was placed in a rural Republican-led district that stretches hundreds of miles to the Oregon and Idaho borders.

“It was really bad for our community,” said Jacob Williams, president of the Somersett Owners Association, who ran unsuccessfully in a Republican primary for the state Assembly. “It was quite deflating.”

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Analysis: What makes a fair election? Recent redistricting the most politically balanced in years