While it seems early to many to be thinking already about the 2018 midterm election cycle, Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Cooper v. Harris to overturn the redistricting in two North Carolina districts stands as a reminder of the importance of the gubernatorial races in 2018 and their impact on the political landscape for the next decade or more. This blog will briefly explore the history of redistricting in the US, touch on current conversations around racial and partisan gerrymandering, and set the stage for the importance of the 2018 gubernatorial elections and the 2020 Census in determining the course of our political future through 2032.
In our post on our representative democracy, we established that the US government is based on a smaller number of officials elected by the population they represent. In the case of the US Senate, the population represented by elected officials is determined by state boundaries and does not change. In the case of the US House of Representatives, however, representatives are allocated to states based on proportional population across the entire United States through a process called apportionment. The total population is determined by the decennial Census, which is mandated in Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution.
Originally, states were to have one Representative in the House for every 30,000 residents (citizens and noncitizens). The Apportionment Act of 1911 capped the total number of Representatives at 435 to keep the size of the body functional, which has resulted in the average number of citizens represented by each seat increasing to about 710,000 following the 2010 Census. States with larger populations are apportioned more Representatives and states with lower populations are apportioned fewer. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat, however; there are seven states with only a single representative in the House following the 2010 Census.
Each state government is notified of the number of Representatives it is entitled to for the decade following each Census by January of the year immediately following the completion of the Census. Each state is responsible for determining their internal districts, maintaining approximately equal total population within each district. States have a variety of processes by which they determine the boundaries of their districts, though the most common remains with the state legislature. In the 43 states with more than one Representative, they must engage in examining and, if necessary, redrawing the boundaries for their districts every ten years.
As shown in this short video from the Washington Post, there are many ways district boundaries could be drawn to give advantage to one group of voters or another. The process of intentionally creating voting districts that such that a statistical minority within a state nonetheless controls a majority of the elected positions in a governing body is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a term coined in 1812, but, as you can learn from this slideshow from The Atlantic, the practice is far older.
In the US, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal for states to draw district boundaries such that the race of the constituents within the district is the primary consideration for the placement of the boundaries. Partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of district boundaries based on the party affiliation of the constituents within the district, has been much harder to pin down, however, and because the standard of proof set by the Supreme Court in the 1986 case Davis v. Bandemer is so high, is largely considered legal.
On Monday, May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Harris to overturn the district boundaries for two districts in North Carolina because the Justices found evidence supporting the claim that “state legislators had illegally packed the districts with African-American voters, which in turn reduced the influence of African-American voters in other districts”. The decision focused specifically on the question of whether race was the primary consideration in drawing the district boundaries, which is illegal. However, as noted by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. in his dissent in the case,
“Politics and political considerations are inseparable from districting and apportionment, and it is well known that state legislative majorities very often attempt to gain an electoral advantage through that process. While some might find it distasteful, our prior decisions have made clear that the jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering.”
In many states, particularly in the south, race and party affiliation are strongly correlated, so the decision may create a way to fight some gerrymandering, but as the law allows for gerrymandering on the basis of party affiliation, control of the state government during times of redistricting will still be an important factor.
This brings us to the 2018 gubernatorial elections and the role the governors elected then will play in redistricting following the 2020 Census. Governors elected in 2018 will oversee the redistricting that will occur after the 2020 Census. After the 2016 election, Republicans held the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature in 25 states. Many of those states – 36 total states across the nation – will hold gubernatorial elections in 2018 and the victors in those elections, taking office in 2019, will oversee redistricting in 2021. While the balance of control in many state legislatures may also be in question during 2018, it is those elected during the next Presidential election cycle in 2020 that will be the final determinant in who will be in control during the 2021 redistricting. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities estimates that post-2020 Census redistricting will influence state and federal political power until 2032.
Political media have been focusing much of their attention on Congressional races for 2018, but it’s important to remember that state actions and elections are often more influential on a day-to-day level. State governments have sole control over redistricting, which has a direct impact on Congress and can significantly influence election outcomes. As mentioned in our post on your role in our representative democracy, learning about and engaging with the issues facing your local community and state can be a powerful way to affect change.
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