The following is a symposium contribution from Nick Stephanapoulos (Harvard):
The following are a number of tentative thoughts about what the 2020 election means for redistricting—for both the plans currently in effect and the ones soon to be enacted.
1. At the moment, it appears that Democrats will win the House popular vote by 2-3 percentage points along with 225 or so seats. If that’s right, the 2020 House election will exhibit an impressive level of partisan fairness—an efficiency gap of less than 1 percent, to pick one common metric. This would be a substantial improvement over recent elections, when the House was significantly biased in a Republican direction. Even in 2018, the House as a whole had a pro-Republican efficiency gap of around 4 percent, since Democrats didn’t win as many seats as one would expect given their overwhelming popular vote margin (around 8 points). Before Tuesday, many observers would have thought that a Democratic popular vote advantage of only 2-3 points would lead to Republican control of the House.
2. The House’s diminished partisan bias probably has three explanations. One is the redrawing of certain plans (North Carolina and Pennsylvania) that had been exceptionally skewed in a Republican direction. These gerrymanders’ replacement with fairer maps helped make the House as a whole more balanced. Second, even under today’s polarized conditions, House incumbents enjoy a modest edge (around 2-3 points). This power of incumbency (while far from what it used to be) may have saved some Democrats swept into office in 2018, enabling them to eke out narrow wins in a much less favorable environment. Third, and most interestingly, the non-uniform vote shifts between 2016 and 2020 may have improved Democrats’ geographic position. Some of the most heavily Democratic areas (urban cores and black and Latino neighborhoods) swung in a Republican direction, thereby unpacking Democrats to some degree. At the same time, exurban and rural areas remained as red as in 2016 (or even redder), thereby packing many Republicans. And suburbs, home to a plurality of American voters, moved substantially toward the Democrats, benefiting them in the country’s biggest political battleground. This shows how simplistic the narrative is of a “natural” Republican redistricting advantage. Even modest vote shifts can negate much of this supposed edge.
3. Democrats are gnashing their teeth over their failure to flip legislative chambers in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas (among others). This failure, though, is unlikely to have severe redistricting consequences. Arizona and Michigan have independent redistricting commissions, so control of the political branches is irrelevant to the plans that are eventually enacted. North Carolina and Pennsylvania have state courts that have recently demonstrated their ability to police gerrymandering under state constitutional provisions. And as for Texas (and other states where political actors draw district lines without serious judicial limits), it’s important to be realistic about how effective a flipped chamber would have been. Odds are, it would have led to a court designing the map after the political branches deadlocked. But this court would likely have been a conservative state court or a federal court stacked with Trump appointees. Such a court may well have produced a plan almost as pro-Republican as the ones we’re now going to get from elected (and unchecked) Republicans.
4. Relatedly, the 2020 election largely confirms the redistricting picture that was already coming into focus before Tuesday. Thanks to Rucho, when a single party controls the line-drawing process, we’re likely to see unprecedented abuses: extreme and durable gerrymanders, frequent re-redistricting, non-contiguous districts, and so on. But thanks to developments over the last few years, there will be significantly fewer states where a single party enjoys unfettered control compared to the 2010 cycle. In previously gerrymandered states like Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia, a commission will draw the lines. In North Carolina and Pennsylvania, state courts will police the output of the political branches. In Wisconsin, divided government will probably yield a court-drawn map. Surveying the entire country, the only major states where Republicans will be able to freely gerrymander seem to be Georgia, Missouri, and Texas. For Democrats, the only such states are Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts. So the redistricting story of the 2020s may well be fewer—but more egregious—gerrymanders.