Experts: Once-a-Decade States Redistricting Process Seeing 'Supercharged Gerrymandering'

Recent redistricting in North Carolina could result in what experts are calling "supercharged gerrymandering," the Associated Press reported.

The Republican-majority state finalized its redistricting process last week, which happens every decade. However, it drew major criticism for the way it divided majority-Democratic cities so that the number of Republican-voting districts could increase. This type of supercharged gerrymandering is said by experts to be the result of fewer legal restraints and higher political stakes.

"In the absence of reforms, the gerrymandering in general has gotten even worse than 2010," said Chris Warshaw, who analyzed redistricting maps across the United States for decades as a political scientist at George Washington University.

Fourteen states have passed new congressional maps, with North Carolina's the most recent. With Republicans controlling the line-drawing process in states that have 187 seats in the House, a surge of gerrymandering could come from the GOP.

"Across the board you are seeing Republicans gerrymander," Kelly Ward Burton, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, told AP. "They're on a power grab for Congress for the entire decade."

However, Democrats are just as likely to attempt gerrymandering, such as the case with Illinois. Its recent map has drawn criticism for being a potential gerrymander. Maryland Democrats are also considering a new map that could make it easier for Republican Representative Andy Harris to be voted out.

Gerrymandering is largely known as the process in which politicians draw out district lines that either pack districts close together or crack them across several. The process can also deprive communities of representatives at the state and national levels.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Alabama Redistricting
With fewer legal restraints and amped up political stakes, both Democrats and Republicans are pushing the bounds of the tactic of gerrymandering, long used to draw districts for maximum partisan advantage, often at the expense of community unity or racial representation. Above, state Senator Rodger Smitherman compares U.S. Representative district maps during the special session on redistricting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery on November 3, 2021. Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP, File

North Carolina remains a perennial battleground, closely split between Democrats and Republicans in elections. In the last presidential race, Republican Donald Trump won by just over 1 percentage point—the narrowest margin since Barack Obama barely won the state in 2008.

Republicans dominated redistricting last decade, helping them build a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past 50 years.

Just three months into the map-making process, it's too early to know which party will come out on top. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control of the U.S. House and effectively freeze President Joe Biden's agenda on climate change, the economy and other issues.

But Republicans' potential net gain of three seats in North Carolina could be fully canceled out in Illinois. Democrats who control the legislature have adopted a map with lines that squiggle snake-like across the state to swoop up Democratic voters and relegate Republicans to a few districts.

The cumulative effect is essentially a wash for Republicans and Democrats, leaving just a few toss-up districts. That could change in the coming weeks, as Republican-controlled legislatures consider proposed maps in Georgia, New Hampshire and Ohio that target Democratic-held seats.

Ohio Republicans have taken an especially ambitious approach, proposing one map that could leave Democrats with just two seats out of 15 in a state that Trump won by 8 percentage points.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who leads the Democrats' effort, has called for more states to use redistricting commissions, and a Democratic election bill stalled in the Senate would mandate them nationwide. Democratic-controlled states such as Colorado and Virginia recently adopted commissions, leading some in the party to worry it is giving up its ability to counter Republicans.

After a power-sharing agreement with Republicans in Oregon stalled, Democrats quickly redrew the state's congressional map so all but one of its six districts leaned their way.

The legal landscape has changed since 2010 to make it harder to challenge gerrymanders. Though using maps to diminish the power of specific racial or ethnic groups remains illegal, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that several states no longer have to run maps by the U.S. Department of Justice to confirm they're not unfair to minority populations as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The high court also ruled that partisan gerrymanders couldn't be overturned by federal courts.

"Between the loss of Section 5 and the marked free-for-all on partisan gerrymandering in the federal courts, it's much more challenging," said Allison Riggs, chief counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is suing North Carolina to block its new maps.

Newly passed congressional maps in Indiana, Arkansas and Alabama all maintain an existing Republican advantage. Of the combined 17 U.S. House seats from those states, just three are held by Democrats, and that seems unlikely to change. In Indiana, the new map concentrates Democrats in an Indianapolis district. In Arkansas, a GOP plan that divides Black Democratic voters in Little Rock unnerved even the Republican governor, who let it become official without his signature. In Alabama, a lawsuit from a Democratic group contends the map "strategically cracks and packs Alabama's Black communities, diluting Black voting strength."

On Wednesday in Utah, the Republican-controlled state legislature approved maps that convert a swing district largely in suburban Salt Lake City into a safe GOP seat, sending it to Governor Spencer J. Cox for his signature.

Though gerrymanders may not always be checked by the courts, they are limited by demographics.

In Texas, for example, the U.S. Census Bureau found the state grew so much it earned two new House seats. Roughly 95 percent of the growth came from Black, Latino and Asian residents who tend to vote Democratic. The GOP-controlled Legislature drew a map that, while creating no new districts dominated by these voters, maintained Republican advantages. Civil rights groups have sued to block it.

North Carolina Republicans took a different approach, much as they did a decade ago. Last cycle, courts first found that Republican lawmakers packed too many Black voters into two congressional districts, then ruled that they illegally manipulated the lines on the replacement map for partisan gain.

The new North Carolina map, which adds a 14th district to the state due to its population growth, already faces a lawsuit. Experts say it's unlikely it would have been approved by the Department of Justice if the old rules were in place, especially because it jeopardizes a seat held by a Black congressman, Democratic Representative G.K. Butterfield.

"It raises a boatload of red flags," said Michael Li, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, says he's confident the maps "are constitutional in every respect."