Democrats’ Gerrymandering Dilemma

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S1: Over the last few weeks, Colorado political reporters have been listening in on these conference calls.

S2: At six oh one, I will call this Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission meeting to order.

S1: It is hard to fully characterize exactly what they’ve been hearing.

S2: I have to say that I am happy to be home and my book is happy not to be in the car all the time.

S1: These calls are actually some of the tiniest building blocks of democracy, but they sound like an old fashioned party line gone haywire.

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S2: Yoga the challenge for October, we should all be something so in.

S3: In Colorado, for the first time, they’re using a an independent redistricting commission.

S1: Nick Riccardi is one of the reporters who’s been listening in. He says the 12 people exchanging workout tips here. Other times they were guessing each other’s birth order or showing off their cats. They were just trying to burn time. Their real job was figuring out what Colorado’s political maps should look like.

S2: We’ll just go with what I see, and I see Commissioner Coleman at the top with with her hand up. Mr. Coleman, thank you, Jerome. And just want to say that this is this process is a little crazy, but.

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S3: They’re just kind of regular folks who have volunteered and gone through the application process for the commission,

S2: the two maps we’re considering. This is it’s my time.

S3: Suffice to say that the professionals who deal with them get a little frustrated there. Nobody ever done this before in Colorado. They had to kind of create this system from scratch.

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S2: Gentlemen, that’s enough. Let’s not devolve any further. Thank you all. We’ve had a lively discussion. Let’s do another round of voting and we’ll come back and let’s come back with cool heads.

S1: Congressional districts get remade every 10 years after the census comes out. So each state is going through a process that sounds something like this right now. Ideally, the districts that get created, they’re supposed to bundle people together based on shared interest and geography. But if you look at some congressional maps, you can see the gerrymandering, the way lines get drawn to protect incumbents or to pack opposition into one place or disperse it.

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S3: I mean, there’s always the telltale signs, right? If there’s like a little wiggly line or really weird shapes, you get to look at the spoon

S1: going into a

S3: city there, you know, becomes kind of like that old definition of pornography, right? I know when I see it.

S1: Yeah, I was just thinking that

S3: sometimes you look and you just see a shape on a map and you go like, Oh yeah, something went wrong here.

S1: Having a commission of regular people do this work. It was supposed to make the process fairer today on the show. We’ll ask Fairer for who? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So let’s say you were on this redistricting commission in Colorado. What kind of map would you draw? Here are some facts to juggle. Colorado seems to be trending solidly democratic. Joe Biden won here by thirteen point five percentage points. But this state is also home to one of the most conservative House representatives out there. Lauren Boebert, who’s known for carrying her gun onto the floor of Congress and oh yeah, population’s growing. So you’re going to be creating a whole new congressional district this year.

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S3: It does become tricky to draw these maps. I mean, there is kind of an infinite number of decisions you can make

S1: in most states. It’s the state legislature that determines what a congressional map will look like. And that creates a political problem. Representatives can work together, carve out districts to benefit their own party. Nonpartisan commissions like the one in Colorado. They’re a solution to this problem. Nick says it was a Colorado conservative who pushed this idea.

S3: He was the CEO of the Dallas company, Davida Ken Theory, who pushed this ballot measure. And he said, Basically, you know, we’ve got in this state, we’ve got a, you know, it’s becoming a straight line democratic state. And that’s not what Colorado’s all that we want to have this redistricting process be nonpartisan. And the Democratic Party here kind of was trying to figure out what to do. And they they hopped on it. They said, Yeah, that matches up with kind of our general national message that we don’t like gerrymandering and well. And they also, you know, we’re hoping that they could shape it if they got in on the ground floor a little bit more. But there’s no question that it it 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.

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S1: Yeah, I wonder if you’ve talked to Democrats who are regretting their decision. Oh yeah, Democrats are regretting this decision because a nonpartisan commission is basically the opposite of what their Republican colleagues around the country have been up to the last time district lines were up for debate. Republicans were, for the most part, brutal. They gerrymandered without regret. That has given the GOP the upper hand. This time around, ‘95 congressional seats that would have otherwise been drawn by Democrats are now being drawn by a nonpartisan commission. Commissions are only deciding on 13 Republican seats. And that explains why Nick was on this conference call. There’s a lot riding on what these commissions do. Their considerations are both hyper local but have big national consequences. When it came time to decide the 12 commissioners, four Democrat, four Republican and four independent, they were on the line until past midnight, trying to find something. Eight of them could agree on. I know that there was a map where you said you were texting with a Democratic strategist who thought, Oh, this isn’t what we want, that’s what did that look like.

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S3: So that was the last meeting and the very last night. There’s there’s stumbling. It’s like eleven o’clock and somebody says, What about this map? And they reach into their huge box of other maps that they’ve tinkered with and people submitted and they’ve made changes to. They pull this one out.

S1: Do they literally have a box of maps?

S3: It was a digital box, but yeah, I mean, it was it was a long list of, you know, hyperlinks to all these different maps. And what about this one you hear say you don’t like it because it puts this community over here in this community, here in this committee over here? Well, here’s one that does all those things and they pull this one out. And that map was like it was. I called it the chaos map. I mean, it was it was. 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. I mean, we’re 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. And they were actually coming a little close to it. And so, yeah, I did. I was texting with the Democrat and I kind of teased him. I said, Boy, I want this one and this guy was like, Are you? I mean, to could turn out great for Democrats. They could have won. But you don’t know. But you don’t know. There’s uncertainty. And you know, people don’t like uncertainty in politics. But in the end, the commission veered away from that. And that’s an interesting thing. There was a a study that came out that actually still haven’t had a chance to read, but that found that commissions tend to protect incumbents just as much as, you know, legislative bodies do.

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S1: Well, so what do you make about that?

S3: You know, I don’t know, but in the end, they didn’t take the chaos map. And they took this other map that the commission staff had done that they had tweaked that was. Fine, but did not put any incumbent at risk.

S1: Listening to you talk, I kind of wonder if you think the chaos map would have actually been more fair.

S3: So I mean, I told, you know, the various operatives that I texted with him was joking around with that evening that like, I wanted that nap because I’m a political reporter, right? The cast map would have been fun. It would have been chaotic. You would never know who is up and who was down. It would. It would scramble the states lines in a way that we really haven’t seen before. Arguably, it could have. It would have been more fair, depending on kind of what you think redistricting should do, right? If your argument is, well, everyone’s to say if you need to draw these lines so people have to compete well, there would have been a lot of competition with that 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 you know, citizens are kind of arguing about on Zoom, like just at the drop of a hat, right? Like it was not. That map was never like a big focus of this commission. Not a lot of people like weighed in on it. And you know, it was if that had been implemented at the last minute, I think there would have been a legitimate line of criticism that you guys have just completely scrambled the state and literally decades worth of political government. Lines have been scrambled at the last minute because you were just, you know, because you guys were all tired

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S1: 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?

S3: Yeah. Yeah, the swing district is really evenly split it. 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 five percentage points. It voted for the Democrat in the US Senate race by one point seven percentage points in 2020. It’s a very competitive area. It’s the only one that’s competitive. The other, 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 don’t have a lot to worry about.

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S1: I mean, I read I think in your article, you quoted a Republican strategist who said they looked at this map as a gift from the gods because we didn’t deserve it.

S3: Yeah, I mean, it is something of a gift for Republicans. They’re there. I had a Republican reach out to me actually yesterday saying, Hey, you know, 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. And yeah, that’s true. Like, you can make an argument from kind of a good government perspective that a slight democratic edge for safe seats compared to three safe seats than one tossup seat is. You know, it’s in the ballpark of what a state that’s maybe 13 points democratic should look like. If it’s kind of partisan equity is one of your top priorities, but it’s definitely a gift from the gods for Republicans. Because again, if Democrats had gerrymandered and and don’t be misled, Democrats will gerrymander when they have the opportunity to and they’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again this cycle in other states. But if Democrats had been able to gerrymander here, they could have drawn a map that would have only had two Republicans probably

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S1: counted or raises all these questions for me about like, what do we want out of these maps like competitiveness or representativeness of the whole state as a bloc? And it seems to me that these 12 people were just sort of figuring that out as they went.

S3: This is one of the great challenges in redistricting, right? Like everybody knows, gerrymandering is bad, right? We know gerrymandered bad, but don’t gerrymander. 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 if you do that, we’ve all kind of what’s, you know, we’ve all self sorted nowadays. Democrats live with Democrats, Republicans live with the Republicans. If you keep communities interest whole, 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 car’s map was competitive, but like I say, it would have really broken up a lot of decades old governmental relationships where this county in that county just presume that they’re going to be in the same congressional district forever and that they get money allocated in the same way. And 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 because some jaded political reporter in Denver wants, you know, more exciting congressional races

S1: when we come back. How does this new map in Colorado stack up against the maps in 49 other states? Not every state has a nonpartisan commission in place to handle drawing district lines. So in blue states where Democrats are holding the reins, they 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 versus pragmatism, and in a lot of places, Democrats are struggling to strike a balance without getting their hands dirty, like in Oregon.

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S3: Oregon’s great example, actually, because in Oregon, the the Democratic speaker of the House actually cut a deal with the Republicans. I mean, Democrats of a supermajority, they’re Oregon’s very blue. But they cut a deal with the Republicans because the Republicans were delaying bills in the state legislature. And so she said, Look, guys, if you can agree to stop delaying these bills will actually give you 50 50 split on drawing maps. OK, the committee that votes the maps, it will be 50 50. The Legislature 70 30, but we will give you 50 50. That was a great deal. So a lot of Democrats nationally were looking at that and kind of gnashing their teeth and 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, right? The Republicans wanted one map and the Democrats want 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 they Oregon picked up a seat. And it’ll probably be a Democratic seat now because they got to draw the map. And so, yeah, they can be very, you know, Democrats can be just as ruthless about this when push comes to shove. Hmm.

S1: I mean, the reason we’re talking about the states we did and the reason this is important especially to Democrats, is that Democrats control the House of Representatives currently, but only by the slimmest of margins. And these maps will apply for 2022. So they will matter very soon. 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 who they might benefit.

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S3: So the big question I think right now in redistricting is New York.

S1: I don’t think of New York as like a gerrymandering place.

S3: New York’s one of the biggest winners out there. So. But the thing is, is it’s not a gerrymander in the way that people have kind of been taught to think about 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 New York state Senate. One reason is because it was so heavily gerrymandered and because they couldn’t take back the New York state Senate. It meant that Republicans had a say in all the maps. So they kind of reached a detente where New York state’s maps were often drawn just to preserve the incumbents of both parties. Right? 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, except for, of course, the twist that back in 2014, when they didn’t think they could get that state Senate get the Republicans out, they decided to back the commission model. Hmm. Right. Because they thought, Well, the commission will be more fair and will maybe, you know, population’s changing. And so if we don’t have gerrymandered maps, they’ll be more competitive. And Democrats are to win a competition in New York state generally

S1: looks good when you’re the underdog.

S3: Right, right. Or not even the underdog, but just blocked their right like they were just blocked in that one house. But now New York’s got a commission, but it’s one of these soft commissions where the majority in the Legislature can overrule it. So the question is, will the Democrats in the state legislature overrule that commission?

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S1: Do you think they will?

S3: I mean, I’m guessing they will, because its history shows. I mean, as Oregon shows, right? It’s pretty hard. You can you can talk about fairness and you can talk about trying to get along with the other party. But when push comes to shove, it’s pretty hard to resist the chance to do this. And I also think Democrats are feeling a huge amount of pressure about the ability to control the House and that they know that this is a really good way to give themselves much better odds in 2022. But you know, the thing about registering they’re all big, right? All 50 states matter in redistricting.

S1: Yeah, because there’s just so many of these seats.

S3: 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 it 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 watch Florida if you’re really interested.

S1: You’ve outlined basically how this process is unfair, almost inherently, it seems, because you’re making choices and you might not agree with the way you’re dividing up a space because you have a different idea of what is fair. But it seems to me like part of the problem here is that after 2010, seeing these Republican gerrymanders, a lot of progressives embrace the idea of commissions as a fix for that. But then they weren’t able to put those commissions in place nationally, just in a few states. And I wonder if you think if there were commissions everywhere? Would that address some of the issues here with fairness?

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S3: I had a conversation with Democrats about this very subject, actually. He was pointing to England. There’s in the UK, there is a national body that draws the maps, non-partisan body that draws the maps for parliamentary districts, and it’s a national right. Same criteria every part of the country. Same criteria in Scotland and Wales. And, you know, I remember this Democrat said like that would make sense for us, like that is what I would like, but we’re not going to get through through this piecemeal attempt and all we’re doing is disarming places like Colorado. The rejoinder to him came from another Democrat who who’s followed the the commission closely and whose grumbled to me many times about how they’ve been doing things and the outcome and stuff. But you know, his argument is also a pretty good argument. He says, you know, look, if you’re going to push for something, you’ve got to walk the walk. And if we don’t say, yeah, we’re willing to take the risk of not gaining that one or two extra House seats this cycle because of this decision, if we’re not willing to say that, then nobody should take our argument seriously and we’ve got to

S1: lead by example.

S3: You got to lead by example.

S1: Nick Riccardi, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Hey, thanks for having me.

S1: Nick Riccardi is a Western political writer for the AP. And that is our show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Elaina Schwarz, Mary Wilson, Davis Land and Carmel Delshad. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter and say, Hi, I’m at Mary’s desk. I’ll be back in your feed tomorrow.