Toting Up the Net Partisan Effects of Redistricting Reform

Last month, Dave Wasserman, a redistricting expert, caused a stir when he predicted in a tweet that reforms which had created redistricting commissions in several states would end up costing Democrats 10-15 House seats if they could have ruthlessly gerrymandered commission states in which they controlled the legislature and Governor’s office.  That tweet quickly went viral, with Seth Masket immediately picking it up in a Washington Post piece that accused Democrats of “unilateral disarmament.”

               Put to the side that, in most of these states, it was the voters through the initiative process, not Democratic legislatures, that enacted these redistricting reforms.  More importantly, there are two types of redistricting reforms, and Wasserman’s tweet focused on only one of them.  The first takes the power to redistrict out of the hands of legislatures and shifts it to commissions of one type or another.  The second leaves the power in the legislatures, but imposes substantive limits on partisan gerrymandering (the two reforms can also be combined).  Wasserman’s tweet only addressed the first type of reform.  But in any full analysis of redistricting reform, both types of reform must be part of the assessment.

               That point is driven home by the Ohio Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down, under the state constitution, the legislature’s congressional maps.  As part of redistricting reform there, voters adopted a constitutional amendment that prohibits a plan “that unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents.”  When new plans are enacted and approved, estimates right now are that Democrats will net 2-3 additional seats. 

               Similarly, Florida voters in 2010 adopted a constitutional amendment (the “Fair Districts” Amendment) that precludes plans or districts from being drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”  In the last round of redistricting, the Florida Supreme Court struck down plans based on this amendment, with Democrats netting an additional two seats when the Republican gerrymander was overturned.  This time around thus far, the state senate has adopted a congressional plan that is predicted to be 16R-12D (the additional seat Florida received after the 2020 Census would go to a Democrat).  But Gov. DeSantis has proposed a much more aggressive partisan gerrymander, which is projected to produce a 20R-8D congressional map.  It’s unclear how much the less aggressive Senate map is that way due to the constitutional prohibition on partisan gerrymandering, and concerns about whether the Florida Supreme Court might again invalidate an extreme partisan gerrymander (though some expect the current state supreme court to be less likely to do so than its predecessor).  We will have to see how things play out in FL, and unless there is an actual court decision, it might still be difficult to determine at the end of the day how much the Fair Districts Amendment affected the final plan.

               On top of this, Wasserman himself now says his initial projection was too strong.  The commission-drawn maps in NJ and CA turned out to damage Democratic prospects less than he had initially anticipated. 

               Once an idea gets out there and becomes viral, it can be difficult for people to update their understanding.  But when it comes time to assess redistricting reform this cycle, analysis has to take into account both reforms that have created commissions and those that have imposed substantive constraints on partisan gerrymandering even when legislatures draw the maps.

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