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Aggressive gerrymandering may make elections far less competitive, experts say

Redistricting has become a partisan death match as lawmakers in both parties seek political advantages in many states.
Illustration: Parts of the redistricted maps of Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
Here's how five states aggressively gerrymandered and who the plans will benefit. NBC News

As states across the country draft and enact political boundaries for the next decade, experts say Americans can expect far fewer close, competitive contests.

"Competition is one of the big victims of this round of redistricting," said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy organization.

Redistricting is a routine political process, one that’s needed to adjust political lines for population growth and ensure equal representation around the country. But in an increasingly polarized country, the process has become a partisan death match as lawmakers in both parties seek political advantages in many states.

Gerrymandering increases that polarization, too, with lawmakers more regularly chosen in primaries instead of competitive general election contests that incentivize more moderate candidates.

Republican state legislators, who control far more of the redistricting process than Democrats this year, have already started to secure themselves a sizable advantage, but Democrats, who already are expected to face a tough midterm season, are eyeing or enacting some gerrymanders of their own.

Here’s how five states aggressively gerrymandered and who the plans will benefit.

1. North Carolina ignored race data

North Carolina lawmakers spent years defending the last decade’s gerrymandered maps in court, which they freely admitted were partisan gerrymanders; state courts forced them to redraw the congressional maps in 2016 and 2019, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts couldn’t police partisan gerrymandering.

By the end of the decade, the redrawn map still appeared to disproportionately boost Republicans: In 2020, Republicans won less than 50 percent of the statewide vote in statewide races but secured eight of 13 congressional seats. Next year, recently enacted maps are expected to extend that advantage, electing 10 Republicans and four Democrats in a deeply purple state, according to an analysis of the map by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan team of researchers analyzing redistricting maps.

"Their map was taken to the Supreme Court in Rucho because it was one of the worst gerrymanders in the history of our country," said Doug Spencer, a redistricting expert and a law professor at the University of Colorado, adding that the new maps appear to be an even-worse gerrymander than the one litigated in front of the Supreme Court.

He pointed to the "efficiency gap" metric, a measure of partisan gerrymandering. "The last map that was challenged was 9 percent in favor of Republicans. The current map is 20 percent" in favor of the GOP, he said.

Civil rights advocates including the North Carolina NAACP have already sued over the new maps, arguing the Legislature’s decision to draw maps without considering race data violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states to not dilute minority votes.

The map effectively cracks Democrats. Take Guilford County, for example: The 2019 maps included the entire county — including the majority in one district, which elected Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning in 2020. The new maps split the county into three different congressional districts, cracking urban residents of Greensboro and parts of High Point to create three safe Republican seats.

2. Illinois drew wild-looking districts

Illinois offers a prime example of a Democratic gerrymander, with a map that looks more like a series of inkblot Rorschach tests than a group of compact political districts. The map gives Democrats control of 14 of the state’s 17 seats, according to a Princeton Gerrymandering Project analysis that gave the state an F grade on the map, particularly singling out its lack of geographic compactness, partisan fairness and competitiveness. President Joe Biden won the state by 17 points in 2020.

The 13th District, for instance, starts in St. Louis before running three hours northeast, picking up parts of Springfield, Decatur and Champaign. The Chicago area is split between seven congressional districts, one of which looks like a misshapen lobster claw.

"You can't always tell a gerrymander by its shape, but sometimes you can," Li said. "Illinois is an example of where the fact that districts look funny actually does flag the fact that they not only look funny, but they are extremely politically biased."

3. Ohio sidestepped a new commission

In recent years, Ohio has made changes to the state's constitution aimed at making the redistricting process fairer, including forming a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw the maps when lawmakers fail to reach a bipartisan compromise. But the commission created to assist with map drawing came up short this fall, sending the congressional maps back to the GOP-run Legislature, which created maps that experts say are extremely gerrymandered in their favor.

The final map splits Cincinnati and its diverse suburbs in Hamilton County into three different districts, pairing urban, Democratic voters with more rural, conservative areas. Democrats are expected to win approximately three seats out of the 15 Ohio was apportioned this year, according to political data. Former President Donald Trump won the state by 8 points in the 2020 election.

Experts said many states attempting to use redistricting commissions faced growing pains. While some states, including Michigan, created independent redistricting commissions, others, like Virginia and Ohio, have attempted bipartisan commissions with partisan players still in the mix. As the state became more Republican in recent years, the incentive to avoid gerrymandering lessened.

"The thinking was, 'Well, everyone will want to compromise and get a 10-year map, because you won’t know who is in control of the commission in four years,'" Li said. But, he added, "it’s proven really hard for people to take off their partisan hats."

While some are frustrated with legislators' continued gerrymandering, there are some notable changes: Without Democrats' support, the maps will only last four years. The GOP will also have to prove the maps don't "unduly" favor them if the issue comes up in court. On Monday, the Democratic-aligned National Redistricting Action Fund filed a lawsuit charging that the maps give the GOP an unfair advantage.

4. Georgia turned a competitive district into a deep blue vote sink

Georgia's Republican-controlled Legislature approved new maps Monday, paving the way for the GOP to secure another seat in Congress.

Republicans currently hold eight of 13 congressional seats in the state. The proposed map, which still needs the governor's signature to be enacted, would give Republicans an additional seat, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, leaving Democrats with just five seats in the state that recently voted to send Biden and two Democratic senators to Washington.

The map won a C grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which noted there are no competitive seats in the state.

The new congressional map makes big changes to two districts north of Atlanta, making the 6th District — currently held by Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath — very conservative while packing Democrats into the 7th District. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped the 7th District last year by less than 3 points, but the seat now has a 25-point Democratic advantage, according to the Princeton analysis.

The 7th District is what election experts call a "vote sink" — a district where voters from one party are packed into a single district to make the surrounding districts more favorable to the opposite party. On Monday, McBath said she'd run for office there.

Ken Lawler, chair of nonpartisan group Fair Districts GA, said the map appeared to reduce Black representation in the state.

"Today we have four Black majority districts. This map has two," Lawler, citing data released by lawmakers with the new maps, said. "In some districts, like the 2nd, the voice of Black voters has been diminished."

5. Texas ‘neutralized’ the suburbs

Texas’ new maps will give Republicans two additional seats, while eliminating many of its competitive House contests. The maps will likely elect 13 Democrats and 25 Republicans to Congress, according tothe Princeton Gerrymandering Project analysis, which rated the map with an F grade.

Spencer, the University of Colorado law professor, said the maps appeared to be an effort to maintain long-term gains, instead of drawing more aggressive gerrymanders the party would lose before the decade ended. The result is a loss of some of the most competitive House races in the country.

"Texas has 14 seats that are some level competitive right now that goes down to three. Texas has six highly competitive seats that goes down to one," Li said.

Li said Texas' and Georgia's maps appear to be trying to "neutralize" fast-growing, increasingly diverse suburbs that have boosted Democrats in recent years.

"The suburbs have rebelled," he joked, "and the empire is striking back against the suburbs."

CORRECTION (Nov. 28, 2021, 11:07 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of legislation cited in the lawsuit in North Carolina and misstated the margin by which Biden won Illinois in the 2020 presidential election. The legislation is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not 1964, and Biden won Illinois by 17 points, not 7 points.