Why We Need Redistricting Reform
By Keesha Gaskins & Sundeep Iyer
November 8, 2012
Brennan Center for Justice Blog
On November 7, Americans woke up again to a Republican-
controlled House of Representatives. And whether they like it
or not, Americans should get used to this leadership.
Republican control of the lower chamber could extend well
past the 113th Congress, thanks in part to the once-a-decade
process of redistricting.
What this means for federal lawmaking, we have yet to see.
But understanding how the Republican party locked in their
control of the House is instructive - especially as we
reflect on the election, and as we consider reforms that
allow voters to choose their leaders, instead of the other
First, we need to look back to 2010. When Republicans won big
in elections across the country that year - picking up 63
seats in Congress, six governorships and 675 state
legislative seats previously held by Democrats. Their
victories had a lasting impact. The GOP took control just at
the moment that Congressional lines were about to be redrawn.
Thanks to the 2010 midterms, Republicans had the power to
draw the lines for nearly four times as many districts as
The GOP took advantage of redistricting by shoring up
vulnerable incumbents who might have otherwise lost re-
election. The 2010 wave brought many new Republican faces to
Congress, many of whom represented districts that leaned
Democratic. For example, Rep. Lou Barletta (PA-11) was the
first Republican elected to represent his Scranton and
Wilkes-Barre-based district since 1980. Barletta's new
district gave President Obama about 10 percent less of the
vote than his old one would have. On Tuesday, Barletta
coasted to re-election. Other Republican freshmen, such as
Rep. Renee Ellmers (NC-2) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (TX-27),
saw similarly favorable changes to their districts and
handily won re-election.
Republicans would have had trouble holding onto these
districts before redistricting, and now they will control
these districts in 2013. The long-term implications of this
are important. Not only did redistricting make it easier for
Republicans to keep control of Congress this election, but it
also may have made it easier for them to keep control over
the next decade.
Of course, Republicans weren't the only ones who used
redistricting to their advantage. Democrats were just as
determined to tilt the political terrain. For example, they
drew incumbent Republican Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland into a
heavily Democratic district outside of Washington D.C.;
Bartlett was easily defeated on Tuesday. In Illinois, due in
large part to Democratic-controlled redistricting, there will
be five fewer Republicans in the state's Congressional
delegation this January.
This kind of partisan manipulation of redistricting by both
political parties is worrisome for our democracy. It takes
elections out of the hands of voters and puts them in the
hands of line-drawers and bureaucrats.
But the process does not always need to be conducted for
partisan gain at voters' expense. Recent reforms in some
states have reduced the ability of partisans to manipulate
California, for example, was one of five states to use an
independent commission to draw its districts. There, the
commission dismantled several incumbent-protecting
gerrymanders. As a result, when the final votes are tallied,
there could be as many as 14 new faces in California's
Congressional delegation this January - this in a state where
just one incumbent member of Congress had lost re-election
during the past decade.
Meanwhile, in Florida, responsibility for drawing new
districts still lies with the legislature, where Republicans
had a majority. But new criteria approved by ballot measure
in 2010 expressly prohibited the legislature from drawing
districts to "favor or disfavor an incumbent or political
party." On Tuesday, Democrats may have picked up as many as
four additional seats in the state. In abiding by the new
redistricting criteria, Florida was the only state where new
Congressional districts drawn by Republican legislators led
Democrats to gain seats in 2012.
Unless partisans are constrained by clear criteria or are
taken out of the line-drawing process entirely, they will use
redistricting to reshape the political terrain to their
advantage. It is still too early to know exactly what effects
the reforms in states like Florida and California had, but
these reforms suggest that redistricting need not always be a
case of politicians picking their voters.
For this past election, redistricting may not have seemed all
that consequential. Yet that belies the importance of the
process in shaping what happens for the next decade. Some
states have already made it harder for partisans to
manipulate the political terrain to their advantage. But
unless the rest of the country follows suit and moves to
reform the way the lines are drawn, politicians and
bureaucrats will keep on trying to prevent ordinary citizens
from having their voices heard.
[Keesha Gaskins is Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center's
Democracy Program. Sundeep Iyer the Center's Principal
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