Republicans Have a New Plan to Thwart the Will of the People
A Missouri initiative would undo voters’ preference for nonpartisan legislative districts — and perhaps shift representation itself.
By David Daley
Mr. Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”
May 21, 2020
When Karl Rove laid out the Republican plan to win back power by weaponizing redistricting in a March 2010 op-ed, Democrats failed to pay proper attention.
The vision set forth — called Redmap, short for the Redistricting Majority Project — proved simple yet revolutionary: In most states, legislatures control the decennial redistricting that follows the census. So in November 2010, Republicans invested tens of millions of dollars in these ordinarily sleepy local races and swept elections.
Through gerrymandering, they drew themselves huge advantages in Congress and state capitals, firewalls that have allowed Republicans in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan and elsewhere to survive wave elections in which Democratic state legislative candidates won hundreds of thousands more votes.
It’s a census-year election again, and this time both sides understand the stakes. Democrats know down-ballot elections this fall are the last opportunity to close the redistricting gap before next decade’s maps are drawn.
Republicans appear to have a different strategy for 2020 — subtler, more technical and instructed by successful legal challenges that overturned Republican-drawn maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.
Last week, Republicans in Missouri presented a dress rehearsal of this plan. If left unchallenged, it could once again dye many states red for a decade or more.
In 2018, nonpartisan movements in five states, including Missouri, won redistricting reform via ballot initiative. (Oregon, Oklahoma and Arkansas are attempting to follow suit.)
So last week, Missouri lawmakers looked to dismantle the initiative — called Clean Missouri and supported by 62 percent of the state’s voters — that would have taken mapmaking authority away from politicians and handed it to a nonpartisan state demographer. If Republicans have their way, that demographer won’t draw a single line and control over maps will be returned to a commission of party insiders.
That’s not all they want to do, and it’s entirely likely that the fine print tucked inside this proposal will make its way into redistricting bills in Republican-controlled state capitals nationwide.
First, the new bill would add language to the state constitution that makes it harder for Missouri citizens to gain legal standing to challenge a gerrymandered map in court. Voters living in districts intentionally “packed” with members of one political party — which allows a mapmaker to hand the surrounding seats to their own side — would not be eligible to argue that their rights have been harmed by a statewide plan, because they were still able to elect a member of their choosing within their own specific district.
Second, under the new plan, if a legal challenge did make it into the courts, the state constitution would limit the remedies available to judges. A judge would not be able to throw out the entire map as unconstitutional but merely to order smaller changes to individual districts — essentially retaining most of the advantages embedded into the map by partisans.
The Clean Missouri proposal required the state demographer to draw a map that reflected Missouri’s overall political balance. The legislature’s new plan would have insiders drawing a map that prioritized compactness. In a state like Missouri, where Democratic voters are concentrated in two cities at opposite ends of the state, weighting the criteria in favor of compactness would artificially benefit the party whose voters are spread more efficiently across the state.
While the Clean Missouri plan required a map that achieved “partisan fairness” as closely as practical, the Republican plan allows for a much looser calculation of partisan fairness — which would allow for a map that is more gerrymandered than some of the nation’s most one-sided maps in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Perhaps most dramatically, the Republican plan would open the door to drawing state legislative districts in a way that could shift the essence of representation itself. The longtime standard has been to count everyone — the total population — when drawing up equally populated legislative districts.
Republicans, however, have urged states to redistrict based on voting-age population instead — and so count only American citizens over the age of 18. What impact would this switch have? Before his death in 2018, the Republican redistricting mastermind Thomas Hofeller completed a study to assess the impact of drawing political maps that were based not on a state’s total population — the current practice virtually everywhere in the nation — but on citizens of voting age. Looking at Texas, he concluded that the switch would pull power away from cities and toward older, rural populations. It would also, he said, “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
Last summer, at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s gathering of conservative lawmakers, a panel of Republican election experts urged state legislators to redistrict based on voting-age population as well.
The redistricting wars of 2021 will not be the same as 2011. The effort in Missouri should ring alarm bells that failed to go off after what amounted to a warning from Mr. Rove 10 years ago.
Republicans are looking ahead and planning carefully. If Democrats look to win last decade’s battle and fail to fight this one, they’ll be staring at another decade in the wilderness — and America’s creep toward anti-majoritarianism will accelerate.
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