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The decision that could condemn Democrats for a decade

NSemocrats wanted to play fair, and they tried to lead by example. In the decade-long battle over who gets to draw the districts that determine control of Congress, the party has even given up some of its power in the name of good governance. Now Democrats are discovering the potential cost of that attempt at pride: their majority in the House and, perhaps, the presidency.

To rid the country of partisan gerrymandering, Democrats have spent years working with electoral reformers to take responsibility for the reshuffle of politicians from politicians and transfer them to independent, impartial committees. The effort didn’t start out as an entirely altruistic project; both parties did what they could, but the Democrats had more to gain by scrapping the practice. They won the argument in a number of places: Voters in states like California, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan and Virginia have approved reclassification committees over the past 15 years, protecting more than one in five congressional seats from the threat of extreme gerrymandering.

Republicans largely refused to go along. They refused to relinquish control of the reclassification process in the biggest red states (such as Texas) and fought committees that could have cost them seats (Arizona) up to the Supreme Court. In Congress this year, they blocked legislation that would have created impartial committees across the country. The GOP’s reward for its defense of gerrymandering is a national card tilted further in its favor than it would have been had Democratic pressure on independent committees flopped on its face.

The stakes in the redistribution following the ten-year census are always huge; the realignment process draws lines for Congress and the state legislature that will last ten years. But the ramifications in the coming years could extend far beyond the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda or whether a particular state’s taxes go up or down: given former President Donald Trump’s continued dominance over the GOP and the possibility that he will run again, which party controls the House and the state’s major legislative chambers can determine the next presidential election. That stark reality gives Democrats who favored impartial committees a second thought. “As a matter of policy, I think we should pursue this one because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Morgan Carroll, the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, told me. “But as a matter of politics, if across the country every Dem is for independent committees and every Republican is playing cards aggressively, then the result is still a Republican takeover of the United States of America with a modern Republican Party that is fundamentally authoritarian and anti-democratic. And that’s not good for the country.”

Democrats have not given up gerrymandering everywhere. In big blue states such as New York, Illinois, and Maryland, the party is expected to draw cards that maximize its partisan advantage. But Republicans are controlling the reclassification process that secures more seats, and given the narrow majority of Democrats in the House, the GOP could take back power by gerrymandering alone. By giving up their map pins in just a few states, the Democrats might have also given away their gavel.

No state illustrates Democrats’ predicament better than Colorado, where the party has the governorship and firm control of the legislature. That power could have enabled Democrats to win a favorable new congressional seat, bolster their four incumbent members of the House and target the re-election bid of freshman GOP Representative Lauren Boebert, who supported Trump’s bid to support last year’s election. year to undo. In 2018, however, Democrats supported a ballot initiative to transfer power over the Congressional reshuffle to an impartial committee. The map proposed by the panel would instead render the new Eighth District north of Denver a mess, potentially endanger at least one of the Democratic incumbents, and ease Boebert’s path to another term, Carroll told me. The difference between the committee card and what the Democrats themselves could have drawn could be almost enough to tip the balance of power across the House. “It’s a problem,” a high-ranking Democrat from Colorado told me, on condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment.

In Virginia, Democratic leaders initially supported the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission, but they reversed course when the party won control of both chambers of the legislature in 2019. However, voters rejected them in 2020 and supported the commission by wide margins in a constitutional amendment to the ballot. The commission has gotten it so far: Its members announced last week that they couldn’t agree on a legislative map of the state and instead kicked the job to the Virginia Supreme Court. A similar failure is possible when the panel turns to the congressional map, and the right-leaning court is unlikely to draw lines as favorable to Democrats as they themselves would have drawn without a committee.

Democrats can take advantage of some of the reclassification panels. In Arizona, now closely divided between the parties, the map the independent commission produces will likely be much fairer than the lines drawn by the state’s Republican legislature. The story in Michigan is more complicated. An impartial commission is drawing maps there for the first time, and an analysis of the state’s proposed legislative districts found them skewed toward the GOP. “It was frustrating to watch,” Democratic Party chairman Lavora Barnes told me. “Right now I’m afraid we won’t end up with fair cards.” Still, Barnes said the committee is still much preferable to letting the Republican-controlled legislature run the process as it has in the past. “It would definitely be worse,” she said. “Of course I’d be happy to accept maps that are more Democratic than they are, but I think fair is a much better bargain for us than where we are and where we would have been if the Republicans had signed these maps.”

The Democratic dilemma over reclassification commissions puts legislators like Maryland Representative John Sarbanes in an awkward position. As chairman of the party’s Democratic Reform Task Force in the House, Sarbanes helped write the For the People Act, which requires states to establish independent redistricting committees. But Sarbanes is in no rush to put his home state first. Maryland is one of the most notorious gerrymandered states in the country. A judge once described Sarbanes’ own district as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying on the ground over the center of the state.” A federal court threw out its Democrat-signed card before the Supreme Court upheld the rules in a 2019 ruling. Reclassification commissions are really fair, Sarbanes told me, only if every state has to use them. “I have been pushing for a national solution from day one,” he said. (When I asked him if he agreed that Maryland’s current districts were gerrymandered, he dodged. “Maryland has a strange shape to begin with. You don’t get pretty maps,” Sarbanes replied. A Democratic state, and there is always politics in between.”)

Another leader in the Democratic campaign for election reform, California Representative Zoe Lofgren, once shared Sarbanes’ views. She initially opposed the creation of an independent redistricting commission when it was launched as a statewide referendum in 2008. “My theory was why California, which has a Democratic majority, would relinquish this authority to an impartial commission if other states haven’t?” Lofgren told me, but after the Democrats took seats on the California delegation, even after the committee signed its first cards, Lofgren changed his mind: “I have to say the voters were right and I was wrong,” she admitted. “This works much better.”

Along with Colorado, California now serves both as a model for the kind of reclassification committees Democrats across the country want to establish and as a hindrance to their hopes of holding on to power long enough to do so. The party controls 42 of the state’s 53 seats in Congress — easily the largest Democratic delegation in the country — but an aggressive Democratic gerrymander probably could have gotten a few more.

In Washington, Democrats have removed the proposal to demand redistricting commissions from the latest draft of their electoral reform bill, as part of an effort to narrow the measure and win the support of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Lawmakers and advocates say the decision was about timing — commissions couldn’t be established before 2022 in states that didn’t already have them — and not about rethinking the idea. “Democrats made no mistake,” said Kelly Burton, the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder to counter Republican gerrymandering. “By setting up committees, Democrats are saying, ‘We’re not afraid of voters, and we’re not afraid of a fair trial, and we don’t have to cheat to win.'”

Most of the Democrats I spoke to agreed with Burton — at least in principle. They hoped that, as Sarbanes told me, voters would reward the party that championed good governance and set aside party politics. But the new cards are set for a decade, and as these Democrats weighed in on the massive ramifications of the next two national elections, doubts about its ramifications began to creep in again. “If the result is that we have 10 years of Republican majorities under this current party,” said Carroll, “then I think the Congressional institution is dead.”