Here’s the Problem With Obama’s Plan to Redraw the Political Map
Policy + Politics

Here’s the Problem With Obama’s Plan to Redraw the Political Map


It created a bit of a stir last week when former attorney general Eric Holder announced that he will be chairing a new umbrella group aimed at giving Democrats more leverage in statehouses across the country the next time election districts are redrawn. More surprising was the announcement that President Obama intends to be very active in the effort to draw more Democrat-friendly districts in his post-presidency.

It has long been accepted by Democrats in general that part of the reason why they have been relegated to long-term minority status in the House of Representatives and in the legislatures of most states is that Republicans who controlled many state houses in 2000 used their power to gerrymander election districts to such a degree that Democrats would find it practically impossible to win majorities.

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The formation of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which Holder will chair, is an explicit effort to get out ahead of the next redistricting, which will take place after the 2020 census is completed.

However, research from Pro Publica, published this week, suggests that even the combined star power of a former president and a former attorney general likely won’t be enough to leverage Democrats into control of many more state houses than they already have. And what’s worse for Democrats is that, even in states where they do manage to wrest control away from Republicans in advance of 2020, redrawing district lines probably won’t have as much of an impact as they think.

That’s because, as Pro Publica’s Alec MacGillis writes, Democrats are already geographically self-segregating to such a degree that no credible redistricting plan could distribute their votes sufficiently to change election outcomes.

For example, he finds, the “hyper-concentration of Democratic votes has long hurt the party in the House and state legislatures. In Ohio, for instance, Republicans won 75 percent of the United States House seats in 2012 despite winning only 51 percent of the total votes for the House. That imbalance can be explained partly by Republican gerrymandering.

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“But even if district lines were drawn in rational, nonpartisan ways, a disproportionate share of Democratic votes would still be clustered in urban districts, giving Republicans a larger share of seats than their share of the overall vote. Winning back control of state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Michigan could help Democrats in redistricting in 2020. But it would help more if their voters were not so concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Detroit and Ann Arbor.”

Indeed, as Nate Cohn has pointed out in The New York Times, Democrats are becoming more concentrated in urban areas, not less.

Discussing the Democratic effort last week, Holder said, “American voters deserve fair maps that represent our diverse communities — and we need a coordinated strategy to make that happen. This unprecedented new effort will ensure Democrats have a seat at the table to create fairer maps after 2020.”

The problem for Democrats is that, at least politically speaking, communities aren’t nearly as diverse as they seem to believe.