The Supreme Court had a chance to apply some kind of judicial reason to the practice of drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries for partisan gain, but it punted. In a decision released today, the Court held that the federal judiciary has no role in deciding when a state had offended democracy by diluting the power of one political party’s voters inappropriately.
The only recourse? State courts and state legislatures — the former often controlled by the party that gerrymandered in the first place, the latter certainly, or the bad map wouldn’t have passed in the first place. So if your party is out of power, the majority can keep you there — potentially permanently.
The Court’s decision means that Democrats in Republican-controlled states must hold at least one chamber of their legislature (or the governorship) to have any real chance to a keep their political influence from being redistricted to death. Likewise Republicans in Democratic states, though with Democrats losing hundreds of state reps and state senators during the Obama era, conservatives control far more state governments than liberals today.
Legislators elected in 2020 will draw district lines for the coming decade, so we can expect fierce fights for state senate and house seats across the country this election cycle. Democratic groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee have built their lists and raised significant cash for candidates since the 2018 elections with redistricting as a hook. Not surprisingly, an email from the Democratic training group Arena arrived soon after the Court’s ruling this morning, highlighting the Grassroots Redistricting Project, which aims to flip legislative chambers in nine states. We’ll surely see similar work on the Right, particularly considering their ruthless gerrymandering after the 2010 elections — something a few of us warned about at the time.
My first substantive political experience was working as a legislative staffer during a redistricting special session in Texas in 1992, when at one point I quite literally walked into a smoke-filled room. Drawing district lines is a raw political exercise in the best of times, and now that the Supreme Court has removed one potential check, we can expect gross violations of basic democratic principles to abound in areas where one party has full control. Federal courts can still rule on racially motivated gerrymanders, but surely state officials will now claim they were motivated by partisanship and had no thoughts of race.
If you don’t want to see that happen, donate now and donate regularly — early money counts more than late money. Budgets for state legislative campaigns are often in the tens of thousands of dollars, so even a small gift can make a big difference. Likewise training, putting a premium on the work of groups like the DLCC and Arena to help local campaigns use the latest tactics and tools to reach, persuade and mobilize voters.
Democrats ceded too much ground at the state level in the Obama era, but enthusiastic voters help to can change that situation in 2020. If they don’t, Mitch McConnell-style win-at-all-costs politics will be enshrined in states across the country for at least a decade. And Democrats will have no one to blame but ourselves.