The Blue State Gerrymander Walk-Back
After this week’s release of decennial Census apportionments, the 2022 redistricting battles are underway. If you’ve been reading the press, you know what to expect: Republicans will gerrymander relentlessly to squeeze more GOP House seats out of red and purple states, while Democrats will model high-minded good governance and draw maps without regard to politics.
OK, maybe not exactly. The post-2010 liberal zeal for nonpartisan map-drawing seems to be abating in places where Democrats are in power. See how the political winds are blowing in two blue states, Illinois and New York, that each lost a congressional seat in the latest Census count.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
campaigned in 2018 against partisan gerrymandering, saying he would “pledge to veto” any 2022 map drawn by the state Legislature. He insisted on “an independent commission to handle creating a new legislative map.” Last month Republicans in the Legislature proposed to create a redistricting commission appointed by the state’s Supreme Court.
But as the partisan pens meet paper, Gov. Pritzker now says he’ll be satisfied with a map drawn by his legislative allies. In a recent press conference he walked back his veto pledge and scored Republicans for objecting to Democratic-controlled redistricting. “I hope the Republicans will choose to work with Democrats on the map. Right now it looks like they’re just saying no,” he said.
Democrats control more than 60% of seats in one Illinois legislative chamber and nearly 70% in the other. They occupy 13 of 18 seats in its federal House delegation. The Democratic-controlled redistricting will naturally seek to preserve those state-level majorities and ensure that the House district lost to the new Census apportionment is majority-GOP.
Campaign promises against gerrymandering don’t mean much when a state government is under one-party control. In New York, Democrats are hard at work neutering the bipartisan commission set up in 2014 to limit partisan manipulations of the electoral map.
Democrats in Albany first tried to withhold funding from the commission, which is composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and two independents. Now it’s placed an opaque constitutional amendment on the ballot this November designed to tilt the balance of power on the commission ahead of its deadline to submit a map in January.
The amendment would eliminate the requirement that the commission’s co-directors have support from commissioners appointed by the minority party, and weaken bipartisan vote requirements for the commission to send a map to the Legislature. It would also eliminate the supermajority requirement for the Democratic-controlled Legislature to approve any map, further boxing out the GOP.
These changes to the delicate compromise that made the “independent” commission politically palatable increase the chance that it will fail to vote on a map at all. If that happens, Albany Democrats would have free rein to carve up districts as they please. Democrats are looking to expand their 19 to 8 majority in the Empire State House delegation.
None of this should be surprising to observers of the gerrymandering debate. Both parties try to exploit their dominance in states to give their candidates an edge. The special cynicism comes from those who claim to be high-minded in supporting an “independent” commission that delivers similar partisan results. Ditto for the media who wink at such shenanigans.
District-drawing is a political process no matter which body does it. But perhaps the country can be spared the usual volume of Democratic and media howls about how any progressive weakness in House elections is the result of singular Republican deviousness.
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Appeared in the May 1, 2021, print edition.
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