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The redistricting wars have begun. Who’s winning so far?

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray speaks at a lectern near redistricting maps.
Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray speaks during a news conference Sept. 21 about his state’s redistricting plan.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Of all the political exercises that shape people’s lives in the U.S., redistricting may take the prize for the most unbalanced ratio between the stakes and the amount of attention the public pays.

Political professionals, and those committed partisans who carefully follow them, hang on every squiggle of the maps that define legislative and congressional districts. But the great majority of Americans mostly tune out the battles each decade over the drawing of legislative boundaries.

That’s too bad because at root, redistricting isn’t complicated: It’s about power and how that gets divvied up. The less the public pays attention, the more the outcomes will reflect narrow, partisan interests.

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That’s even more true than usual this time around because the redrawing of the nation’s district lines is on a compressed schedule. The census numbers needed to do the work weren’t ready until mid-August, months later than normal, as a result of the pandemic and former President Trump’s efforts to disrupt the count.

When the census figures did come out, they illuminated a paradox, as Elaine Kamarck, an expert on American politics at the Brookings Institution, recently noted: “Republican legislatures control the process in the most states, but Republican counties lost population while Democratic counties gained.”

How those two conflicting facts interact will go a long way to determining political power for the next decade.

A Republican advantage, with limits

Ten years ago, Republicans made big gains through redistricting. The party had carefully prepared for the 2010 legislative elections, and the tea party backlash against President Obama fueled Republican victories that year, which gave them control of multiple statehouses.

Republicans used that power to draw map lines that for a decade have entrenched their legislative majorities and delivered congressional seats to them in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, even when they have tallied fewer votes overall than Democrats.

In Wisconsin, for example, Republicans drew districts to favor their side so much that after the 2018 election, even though the Democrats won statewide and elected a Democratic governor, the GOP ended up with 63 of 99 seats in the state Assembly. Two years later, when President Biden carried the state, the GOP majority in the Assembly shrank by only two seats.

How did they do it?

Since at least 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed off on a map with a district shaped like a salamander, bequeathing the word gerrymander to future generations, the basic idea used by both parties has been to crack and pack: Either crack your opponent’s strongholds into multiple districts, where their voters can be outnumbered, or pack as many of your opponent’s voters as possible into one district to give your party a majority in the remaining places.

In a lot of states, Wisconsin being an extreme example, Democrats are already packed into a few urban areas. Republicans were able to take advantage of that to draw a small number of districts into which they could dump most Democratic voters. That allowed them to crack the remaining Democratic communities, distributing those blue voters into overwhelmingly red districts.

Over the last decade, Democrats tried several ways to roll back those Republican gerrymanders. In 2019, they failed to persuade the Supreme Court to limit partisan line drawing. In November, they failed to win races that might have given them control of a legislative chamber in some of the most heavily affected states.

Then, in January, when Democrats won control of the Senate, some in the party dreamed of passing legislation to end partisan gerrymanders. But so far, that’s failed, too, victim of the unwillingness of some Democratic senators to do away with rules allowing filibusters.

That’s the bad news for Democrats. The good news for them is that even though Republicans continue to control the process in more states, they likely won’t be able to use this year’s redistricting to greatly improve their position.

Political reality limits how much mileage a party can get out of redistricting.

The risk for the majority lies in spreading its voters too thin, allowing a shift in the political tides to overwhelm them.

That happened in Georgia over the last decade, where the growth of Democratic voters in the Atlanta suburbs allowed Democrats to flip seats that Republicans had drawn to be safely theirs. A similar leftward shift in the suburbs has threatened to do the same in Texas, where David Wasserman, the redistricting expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, estimated that nine of the GOP’s 23 incumbents were potentially at risk.

When Republican lawmakers released their new map for Texas this week, it was clear that they had decided to put a priority on shoring up those endangered incumbents rather than trying to capture a lot more Democratic territory, Wasserman said.

Republicans could try to more aggressively win ground from the Democrats in other states — Tennessee and Florida are leading possibilities — but other factors may limit them.

Florida, for example, is one of several states where the state constitution limits partisan gerrymanders — the result of a voter-passed referendum. Ohio, where a proposed map heavily favoring the GOP is already being challenged, also has a rule limiting partisan line-drawing. In both states, the outcome will depend on how state supreme courts with majorities of Republican judges interpret the rules.

While those cases get fought out in state courts, federal judges will also get into the fray. Although the U.S. Supreme Court said the Constitution doesn’t limit partisan gerrymanders, the federal Voting Rights Act requires that states draw districts to give minority populations a chance to elect representatives of their own choice.

In Texas, Latino groups say they’ll challenge the Republican maps for cracking heavily Latino areas in and around Dallas, rather than creating a new Latino-majority district. Other Voting Rights Act lawsuits are almost inevitable in several southern states.

Those are the issues facing Republican map-makers. What of the Democrats?

Some of the biggest blue states, notably California, have taken the power to draw district lines away from elected officials and given it to independent commissions. The fact that most of the commissions are in blue states is one big reason why Republicans control the fate of many more districts than Democrats do.

How the California commission will conduct its work remains a big unknown — and likely will until early November, when the panel is scheduled to release its first draft maps.

The state is slated to lose one congressional seat in this redistricting cycle, and that will almost certainly come out of heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, which grew more slowly than other parts of California.

That could help the GOP. It’s also possible, however, that the new lines will put more Democratic voters into districts currently held by Republican Reps. Mike Garcia, who represents the northern end of the county, and Young Kim, whose district straddles parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, potentially making their futures precarious.

Democrats also control what Wasserman calls the “biggest weapon” in this year’s redistricting fight: New York. It’s the first time in more than a century that the Democrats have had that power in the state, and they’ve made clear they intend to use it aggressively.

Like California, New York will lose a seat, but there, the lagging growth was in the more rural and Republican Upstate region. Several Democratic-held seats in and around New York City currently have too many people, so Democrats will be able to move some of those voters into districts that extend into the suburbs and beyond. The net result could be to undermine as many as five Republican incumbents.

In all, redistricting likely will still give Republicans a boost going into the midterm elections next year, but it’s likely to be a small one, perhaps as little as one or two seats.

If Biden’s standing with voters continues its current slump, the GOP probably won’t need that edge to win back a majority of the House. But a lot could change over the next year, and if Biden’s fortunes recover, the outcome of the redistricting fights could be consequential, indeed.

The battle over Biden’s agenda

House and Senate Democrats have been trying for weeks to come to a consensus on Biden’s legislative program, which is tied together in two bills — a $1.2-trillion, 10-year infrastructure package that passed the Senate in August and awaits action in the House, and an even larger package of measures to aid families.

The key question has been how big that second bill will be. Because the Democrats have just 50 votes in the Senate and a four-vote majority in the House — and Republicans unanimously oppose the bill — they need pretty much everyone to agree. So far, they don’t.

As Jennifer Haberkorn reported, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) late on Thursday postponed a vote on the infrastructure bill. The party factions will continue negotiations, likely through the weekend and perhaps well beyond.

“A lot is hanging in the balance — this whole agenda that President Biden has put forth,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).

One element currently not in the bill — immigration reform.

Democrats had hoped to wrap a major immigration reform measure into the package. But because they’re using the special budget procedures known as reconciliation, which allow them to avoid a Republican filibuster, they need to fit within the rules that control that process, chiefly one that limits reconciliation to spending and tax measures.

Earlier in September, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the immigration measure didn’t fit within those rules. On Wednesday, Haberkorn reported, MacDonough ruled against the Democrats’ fallback plan. Democratic leaders say they have several other proposals that they’ll try.

The Senate sets its own rules, so a majority could overrule the parliamentarian, but Democrats don’t have 50 votes to take that step.

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The latest from Washington

Although Biden has harshly criticized Trump’s immigration policies, he’s kept a key tool from the last administration in place — using a public health law known as Title 42 to close the border and expel most migrants without giving them a hearing. On Thursday, a federal appeals court allowed the administration to continue the expulsions, Andrea Castillo reported.

Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles, announced this week that she’s running for mayor. Nolan McCaskill looked at the ways her mayoral run will affect Washington.

The federal government’s response to wildfires needs to change, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore told a congressional panel. Climate change combined with the government’s practice for years of suppressing every fire has created forests with dangerous amounts of brush, which has fueled explosive fires in recent years, Erin Logan reported.

Vice President Kamala Harris has been seeking solutions to the root causes of the migration crisis. As Noah Bierman reported, she’s finding promise in coffee beans, credit cards and Wi-Fi.

The latest from California

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has been working through a huge pile of bills approved by the Legislature in the closing days of the session. On Thursday, Newsom approved sweeping reforms to law enforcement in California, Patrick McGreevy reported.

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