Elections have a way of blowing up partisan conceits—see what happened to the Democratic Party’s Electoral College “lock” in 2016. This year Democrats busted one of their own cherished myths by proving that Republican gerrymanders weren’t preventing them from retaking the House of Representatives. There’s a lesson here for voters and judges.
State legislatures have been drawing congressional boundaries to favor one party or another since America’s founding. During the 40 years of sustained Democratic control of the House in the late 20th century, this worked in the Democrats’ favor. As political scientist Matt Grossmann has shown, Democrats sometimes enjoyed congressional majorities nearly 10 percentage points larger than their share of the House popular vote.
Then came the Republican romp of 2010, followed by the Census and the regular 10-year redistricting to reflect population ebb and flow across the U.S. The new GOP majorities in several states drew districts that increased their representation in the House, as Democrats also did where they had a partisan advantage.
For many commentators the post-2010 redistricting created a crisis of democracy by supposedly locking Democrats out of power. Days before the 2018 election the New York Times’ David Leonhardt cited Republican gerrymandering as evidence that the U.S. could “slide toward Hungarian autocracy.”
Well, so much for that. Democrats last week made their largest gain in House seats since 1974 and appear to be closing in on a 233-seat House majority with several races still not called. This means Democrats will hold about 53.6% of seats — a 7.1% edge. And, what do you know, Democratic House candidates nationwide have 52.8% of votes — 7.3% more than Republicans, according to the latest Cook Political Report tally.
More telling is that the Democrats’ popular vote edge is inflated by more than three dozen districts nationwide that had no Republican candidate on the ballot. By contrast, only a few GOP candidates were running unchallenged. Democrats will likely be better represented in the House than they would be if House membership were chosen by a nationwide generic ballot.
Liberals are still complaining that redistricting may have limited Democratic gains this year in states like North Carolina and Ohio because Democrats’ statewide vote share is greater than their share of representatives. But in states like New Jersey (which will have one GOP Congressman out of 12) and California, Republicans are wildly underrepresented by that same standard.
None of this should be surprising. Even a cleverly partisan gerrymander contains the seeds of its own undoing as political coalitions change. A district’s partisanship shifts by election based on public mood, changing demographics and the issues debated.
The other gerrymandering story from last Tuesday is the success of campaigns in Colorado, Michigan and Missouri (one in Utah is too close to call) to take redistricting power away from the political branches with the aim of creating a less partisan process.
Voters have every right to do this, but “independent” line-drawing may be no less polarizing or unfair.
All of this reinforces the argument that judges should keep out of fights over partisan gerrymanders. They would inevitably favor one party over another and cause more Americans to question judicial independence.
That’s what happened this year in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court rewrote the state GOP majority’s 2011 congressional map and helped Democrats flip four seats statewide. The U.S. Supreme Court can use the evidence of 2018 as reason to end its flirtation with ruling on partisan maps—and let the parties fight it out in elections as usual.
—The Wall Street Journal