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How gerrymandering could worsen polarization
The image of armed intruders forcing their way into the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the election results was only an extreme example of the deep divisions and distrust that define American politics today.
One major driver of political polarization is gerrymandering — the redrawing of districts to make them less competitive for the ruling party. And as our reporters Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti point out in a new article, many of the Republicans in the House who have most vociferously backed Trump’s false claims about election fraud represent heavily gerrymandered districts.
Reid took a moment to chat about gerrymandering’s impact, and how the problem could get worse with the nationwide redistricting process set to take place this year.
Is it safe to say that gerrymandering has helped radicalize a considerable part of the House’s Republican caucus?
This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, but all the incentives of a gerrymandered legislature — both in Washington and in state capitols — are to pay the most attention to primary electorates. During the Trump era, that was less about radicalizing Republican members than it was about maintaining their loyalty to Trump no matter what.
You chose to focus on Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio as an example of an extremely pro-Trump Republican in a wonky district. What does he symbolize about this issue?
Take a look at Jordan’s district — it looks like a duck. Stretching across parts of 14 counties in five media markets, the district appears designed to make it virtually impossible for any kind of challenger to gain traction. Add to that Jordan’s aggressive fealty to Trump, and he is easily one of the members of Congress most incentivized to play only to the Republican base.
Democrats didn’t gain control of a single state legislature in the November elections. Republicans now control both the legislature and the governorship in 23 states. When states redraw their congressional district lines later this year in that once-in-a-decade redistricting process, are we likely to see gerrymandering grow even more severe in some places?
Yes. Florida and Texas are likely to gain seats in Congress, and in each state Republicans will have sole authority to draw the new district lines. Democratic states like Illinois and New York will lose seats and have newly empowered Democratic legislatures that may draw fewer Republican seats than have existed in the 2010s.
Some states are looking to curtail the practice of partisan maps. Voters in Michigan and Virginia have passed independent redistricting commissions (joining Arizona, California and Iowa, which already have them). But only the courts can put a stop to the worst gerrymanders — and the Supreme Court has been disinclined to do so.
Beyond the House of Representatives, what kind of ripple effect does gerrymandering have on state politics in those places where a single party controls the entire state government?
Since the election, we’ve seen Republican-controlled state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin hold hearings to amplify false claims of voter fraud that led to Biden winning their states. In each state, Republicans drew the legislative maps after sweeping victories in 2010, effectively cementing themselves 10-year majorities.
Those lawmakers then made it harder to vote and, ahead of last year’s pandemic-era election in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, wrote the very vote-counting rules that Trump and his allies later falsely claimed had led to a fraudulent outcome. It all comes full circle.
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