Dems control the House by only 3 seats. Here’s how redistricting efforts could affect that

Political lines are changing, as states across the country redraw their congressional maps — a process with huge implications for the balance of power in Washington, especially heading into 2022 elections. Lisa Desjardins explores.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Political lines are changing as states across the country redraw their congressional maps, a process with huge implications for the balance of power in Washington.

    Lisa Desjardins has more.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The congressional redistricting process that takes place every 10 years is in full swing, and the stakes are even higher than usual because the margins in Congress are so tight. Democrats control the House of Representatives by just three seats.

    Due to population changes, this year, six states, most in the South, gained a congressional district, with Texas adding two more seats. In turn seven states, largely in the Rust Belt, will be losing a seat.

    Adding to that drama, consider, these maps are being made in a pandemic and amidst razor-sharp political divide.

    To dive in, I'm joined by two redistricting heavyweights, David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, and Colby Itkowitz of The Washington Post.

    Let me just start by setting the table for the two of you. In just a few words, can you describe this redistricting process right now, David?

  • David Wasserman, The Cook Political Report:

    It's an arms race. And Republicans have an upper hand in it. They're likely to benefit in terms of seats by a modest amount.

    But the biggest victim in all of this gerrymandering is competition. We're likely to see the number of competitive seats in the House reduced by as much as a third.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, Colby?

  • Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post:

    I would add to that disappointing for voting rights advocates, for voters who over the last decade had approved ballot initiatives by huge margins asking for politics and partisanship to be taken out of this process.

    And, in so many states, it still remains to be the case that politicians are drawing lines and choosing voters, instead of voters choosing them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    OK, let's dive in first with the where, looking at some of the maps.

    We have picked to illustrative states, and we're going to start with Illinois, first of all. Here is what the state congressional maps look like at this moment before they are changed. You see, red and blue divide, red Republican, blue for the Democrats, and, of course, yellow for competitive states.

    Then here is the new map as it stands right now. You see a change with that more blue growing and that new blue district through the middle in the bottom.

    David, what's going on in Illinois?

  • David Wasserman:

    This is pretty aggressive Democratic gerrymander.

    And, currently, Illinois' 13 Republicans and five Democrats, Governor J.B. Pritzker just signed a map into law that aims to give Democrats 14 seats to just three for Republicans. Now, of course, just because you draw a map doesn't win you — doesn't mean you automatically win the seats.

    Democrats could still see a couple of districts backfire on them if they have a bad cycle. But it just goes to show the lengths to which parties go to, to try and entrench their advantage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, let's talk about the Lone Star State with the two-seat pickup, Texas.

    Here is what the Texas congressional map looks like right now. You notice those competitive seats there down around Houston and a little bit north. Here is where Texas is moving to, the new map. You see now more blue states and not just one strip of yellow becoming more partisan.

    Colby, Texas is a state that has gained largely because of the gain in its most diverse population. What do these seats mean? What's happening there?

  • Colby Itkowitz:

    So, of the about four million new population found in the census in Texas, more than two million of that came from Latinos, and Latinos did not gain a new district in this map.

    And so there's a lot of litigation going on about that particular issue. Now, when you look at the map, it looks like it's pretty fair to Democrats. To your point, there is more blue. Of the two seats that Texas gained, one is going to Democrats around Austin. Republicans are taking the other.

    What the Republicans have strategically done is, they have shored up their incumbents, and they have also taken away competitive seats. There's only that one competitive seat left. And what that means is that the demographics of Texas continue to change as more Latinos continue to move into the state. They're trying to ensure that those competitive seats wouldn't have turned blue.

    Now they're safe for Republicans for the better part of the next decade.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, of course, both of these states, like many, are going to see a number of lawsuits over all of these maps.

    In the meanwhile, I also want to ask you all about the who. Who is drawing these maps, the mapmakers? We have seen something changed this year that's really interesting.

    I want to show our viewers which states have independent redistricting commissions. You sum all that up, as I know you have, David, and more than a quarter of congressional seats are being mapped out by these independent redistricting commissions.

    David, what do the maps made by those independent commissions look like so far? And what do we think that means in the end?

  • David Wasserman:

    So, Colorado and Montana, both of which are gaining a seat, have commissions. They have passed maps that create districts that could be competitive next year.

    But commissions are a big reason why Democrats are at a disadvantage here, because a number of blue states, like California, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington state, they have adopted these reforms, whereas redder states, like Texas, have not.

    And so Republicans have the power to draw more than twice as many congressional districts as Democrats. And that's a reason why they're favored for House control next year.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Colby, one thing about these commissions I'm not sure everyone understands, the idea of an independent commission doesn't necessarily mean the map will be nonpartisan.

    Where are we seeing examples that perhaps the state legislature still is intervening in here, when perhaps voters wanted something outside of the legislature to act?

  • Colby Itkowitz:

    Well, one state that we're still waiting to see what they do is New York.

    New York voters passed what was called an advisory commission. An advisory commission went around the state of independent actors that were put on this commission. They went around New York, holding public hearings. They put together maps, and they went around holding hearings again on those maps.

    But it's not binding. And so the map that they put together, the Democratic legislature in New York, with a Democratic governor can just override what they did, and draw a map to their advantage. And like Dave said, the Democrats are at such a disadvantage in this process overall, is that you look to places like Illinois and New York, and you think, do you think do the Democrats unilaterally disarm, or do they try to draw lines as much to their advantage as possible, so that they can try to keep the House?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One last question for you both.

    Can you talk about the arms race, as I think you called it, David, here? How much money is going into all of this? How much does this process impact who is in charge in our government vs. other things we talk about, like voting rights, all of those debates?

    Can you explain to viewers what's involved and the stakes right now, David?

  • David Wasserman:

    Yes, redistricting tends to get less attention than fights over voting procedures, but it's much more consequential to outcome. That's why the parties are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into legal fights and strategy over redistricting.

    Keep in mind that, because neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has acted to put up any guardrails against gerrymandering, state supreme courts could be the last backstop against the most extreme impulses of partisans who are in charge of drawing maps, essentially choosing their own voters to benefit their own party's electoral prospects.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Colby, what stakes do you see?

  • Colby Itkowitz:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, Nancy Pelosi is holding on to the House, like you noted, by a very, very slim margin. And so when you draw these lines, any little bit, a shift of the seat here or a seat there, could mean the Republicans take control in 2022.

    And so there is so much at stake. There legal fights in almost all of the states that have drawn maps. The Republicans are going to fight in places like Illinois, in places like Maryland and New York. And the Democrats are going to hype everywhere else. And you're going to see this thing play out for years and years and years just to try to get back a seat or two, because that's how fraught this process is.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Not getting a lot of sleep right now, and we appreciate it.

    David Wasserman and Colby Itkowitz, thank you both.

  • Colby Itkowitz:

    Thank you.

  • David Wasserman:

    Thanks, Lisa.

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