Over the past few weeks, Nick Riccardi, a Western political reporter for the Associated Press, has been listening in on some conference calls in Colorado. The purpose of these calls has been figuring out figuring out what the state’s political maps should look like. Congressional districts get remade every 10 years, after the census comes out, so each state is going through a process like this right now. In most states, it is the state legislature that determines what a congressional map will look like, but that creates a political problem—representatives can work together to carve out districts to benefit their own party. Ideally, the districts they create are supposed to bundle people together based on shared interest and geography. But if you look at some congressional maps, you can see how lines get drawn to protect incumbents, and to pack opposition into one place or disperse it. And when there’s gerrymandering, you can eyeball it. Nonpartisan redistricting commissions composed of ordinary citizens were supposed to be a solution to this problem. And it was Colorado conservatives who pushed this idea, which was then adapted by the state for this round. The new independent commission was supposed to make this whole process fairer—but fairer for whom? On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Riccardi about the problems this long-sought reform is facing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nick Riccardi: The CEO of the dialysis company DaVita, Kent Thiry, pushed this ballot measure for an independent redistricting commission. He said, basically, Colorado is becoming a straight-line Democratic state. And that’s not what Colorado’s all like. We want to have the redistricting process be nonpartisan. The Democratic Party hopped on it and said, That matches up with our general national message that we don’t like gerrymandering. But there’s no question that this hurts them more than Republicans, because it’s a state where otherwise they would be in charge. And if they could do whatever they wanted with redistricting, they could really draw some outrageous T-shaped congressional districts that would increase their number of seats in Congress.
Mary Harris: I wonder if you’ve talked to Democrats who are regretting their decision now.
Democrats are regretting this because a nonpartisan commission is basically the opposite of what their Republican colleagues around the country have been doing. The last time district lines were up for debate, Republicans were, for the most part, brutal. They gerrymandered without regret. That’s given the GOP the upper hand this time around. Ninety-five congressional seats that would have otherwise been drawn by Democrats are now being drawn by a nonpartisan commission. There’s a lot riding on what these commissions do—their considerations are hyperlocal but have big national consequences. When it came time to decide, the 12 commissioners—four Democrats, four Republicans, and four independents—were on the line till past midnight, trying to find something eight of them could agree on. I know that there was a map you were texting a Democratic strategist about who thought, This isn’t what we want.
That was the last meeting on the very last night. It’s like 11 o’clock and somebody says, What about this map? I called it the chaos map. It was kind of what you would expect to come out of a nonpartisan redistricting process in that it would have thrown Democratic representatives together into one district, and there were going to be two swing districts in that part of the state. It was just crazy. No member of Congress would have been safe in that map, except for maybe the folks who represent Colorado Springs and Denver. So it would have been like three swing seats. They were actually coming a little close to it. But there was uncertainty, especially about who would win those seats, and in the end, the commission veered away from that. They didn’t take the chaos map and they took this other map the commission staff had tweaked. That was fine, but did not put any incumbent at risk.
If your argument is that you need to draw these lines so people have to compete, well, there would have been a lot of competition with the chaos map. I mean, it would have been insane. On the other hand, there’s probably a good argument that you shouldn’t decide a state’s political geography, and throw it all into chaos at 11 p.m. at night based on what 12 citizens are kind about on Zoom. If that had been implemented at the last minute, I think there would have been a legitimate line of criticism that these guys have just completely scrambled the state and literally decades worth of political lines because they were all tired.
In terms of the split of the map that Colorado settled on, it’s kind of a toss-up, right? Like, there’s one new district and that’s a swing district, and then it’s a little bit split between Republicans and Democrats, right?
The swing district is really evenly split—by the commission’s metrics, it’s 1.3 percentage points more Democratic than Republican. It voted for Trump in 2016 by a percentage point and for Biden in 2020 by 5 percentage points. It voted for the Democrat in the U.S. Senate race by 1.7 percentage points in 2020. It’s a very competitive area. It’s the only one that’s competitive. The rest of the state is kind of status quo. You’ve got four Democrats who don’t have a lot to worry about, and three Republicans who don’t have a lot to worry about.
In your article, you quoted a Republican strategist who said the party looked at this map as a gift from the gods because it didn’t deserve it.
Yeah, I mean, it is something of a gift for Republicans. I had a Republican reach out to me actually yesterday saying, This map isn’t that much of a gift for us. We only lost the state by 13 points, not by 30 points. We probably should have at least a shot at splitting it evenly. You can make an argument, from a good government perspective, that a slight Democratic edge for safe seats compared with three safe seats and one toss-up seat is in the ballpark of what a state that’s 13 points Democratic should look like. But it’s definitely a gift from the gods for Republicans because if Democrats had gerrymandered—and don’t be misled, Democrats will gerrymander when they have the opportunity to, they’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again this cycle in other states—they could have drawn a map that would have only had two Republicans, probably.
Colorado raises all these questions about, what do we want out of these maps— competitiveness, or representation of the whole state as a bloc?
This is one of the great challenges in redistricting, right? Like, everybody knows gerrymandering is bad, but what should guide how these lines are drawn? Well, communities of interest kind of became the main priority here. You wanted to draw lines that linked places that had things in common. But we’ve all self-sorted nowadays. Democrats live with Democrats, Republicans live with the Republicans. If you keep communities of interest, you might not have competitive districts. You might just have the same extreme polarization that you have under gerrymanders. So maybe they should be competitive. Well, the chaos map was competitive, but like I said, it would hav broken up a lot of decades-old governmental relationships, where this county and that county just presume they’re going to be in the same congressional district forever and have money allocated in the same way. They’ve built water projects and roads and bridges together. And now suddenly they find it’s all scrambled because somebody decided they’d like competition.
Not every state has a nonpartisan commission in place to handle redistricting. So in blue states, Democrats face a difficult choice: practice what they’ve preached about the importance of an equitable map and risk Republican victories, or gerrymander the hell out of their state and protect their national power. It’s a difficult calculus of principles vs. pragmatism. And in a lot of places, Dems are struggling to strike a balance without getting their hands dirty. Like in Oregon.
Oregon’s great example, actually, because the Democratic speaker of the state House actually cut a deal with the Republicans. Democrats have a supermajority there, Oregon’s very blue, but they cut a deal with the GOP because Republicans were delaying bills in the state Legislature. So the speaker said, Look, guys, if you can agree to stop delaying these bills, we will actually give you a 50–50 split on drawing maps.
A lot of Democrats nationally were looking at that and kind of gnashing their teeth, saying, We’re not ruthless enough. We’re not tough enough. What is this? It’s ridiculous. So then that committee, unsurprisingly, was unable to agree on a map: The Republicans wanted one map and the Democrats wanted another one. There was no middle ground to be had. So the Democrats said, fine, we’re dissolving the committee and we’re just going to implement it ourselves. And they just implemented their blue map and Oregon picked up a seat. It’ll probably be a Democratic seat now.
Democrats control the House of Representatives currently, but only by the slimmest of margins. And these maps will apply for 2022. Are there other states you think we should be keeping our eyes on that will give some indication of how the maps might change and whom they might benefit?
The big question, I think right now in redistricting, is New York.
I don’t think of New York as a gerrymandering place.
Oh, New York’s one of the biggest gerrymanders out there. But it’s not a gerrymander in the way people have been taught to think about it since 2010. For a long time, the New York state Senate was controlled by Republicans, and even as the state became pretty reliably Democratic in the 21st century, Democrats just could not take back that state Senate. One reason is because it was so heavily gerrymandered, and because they couldn’t take back that state Senate, Republicans had a say in all the maps. So they kind of reached a detente where New York’s maps were often drawn to preserve the incumbents of both parties.
Well, in 2018, Democrats finally took over the state Senate. No gerrymander can last forever if other trends are against you, and in New York, there was just no way it was going to hold. So now Democrats have, for the first time in a century, complete map-drawing power in New York—the twist that back in 2014, when they didn’t think they could get that state Senate, they decided to back a commission model. Now New York’s got a commission, but it’s one of these soft commissions where the majority in the Assembly can overrule it. So the question is, will the Democrats in the state legislature overrule that commission? I’m guessing they will, because its history shows. I mean, as Oregon shows, right?
I also think Democrats are feeling a huge amount of pressure about the ability to control the House, and they know that this is a really good way to give themselves much better odds in 2022. New York could come in and eliminate five Republican seats, and Tennessee could eliminate one Democratic seat. Florida could gain a Republican seat and eliminate two Democratic seats. Montana could come in, and it has a commission, but maybe the commission draws the lines that creates a new Republican seat and suddenly, boom, you’re at parity again. So there are a lot of different moving pieces, but I’d say watch New York and Florida if you’re really interested.