Cities become pawns in redistricting game
For decades, since the U.S. Supreme Court modernized the redistricting process in the 1960s, the city of Nashville has had its own representative in Congress. That member has often represented some neighboring suburbs — today, Rep. Jim Cooper’s (D) district includes parts of Cheatham and Dickson counties — but the vast majority of his constituents live within the Nashville city limits.
That might change this year, as Republicans who control the new mapmaking process consider dividing Nashville between different districts for the first time in memory.
Around the country, the decennial redrawing of political boundaries is putting a spotlight on cities, often the major Democratic vote centers in any state. As legislators jockey for position and political advantage, they are increasingly considering ways to carve up those cities, either to dilute their influence or to bolster their power.
The phenomenon — and the outrage it has generated among minority parties in the states at play — is bipartisan.
“Republicans will oftentimes split cities in order to dilute the votes of Democratic voters in districts that will be heavily Republican, so they want a little piece to bury under the votes of people who vote the other way,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause, a government watchdog organization. “Democrats, on the other hand, want to split cities because they can vote in solid Democratic patterns and they want to use them as anchors in as many districts as possible.”
In Tennessee, Republicans are considering dividing Cooper’s safely Democratic seat between neighboring districts held by Reps. Mark Green (R), John Rose (R) and Scott DesJarlais (R), all of whom represent districts that went heavily for former President Trump in the 2020 elections.
The legislature began meeting to consider new redistricting options earlier this month, though they have yet to offer a formal proposal.
In Oregon, Democrats who control the process have proposed dividing Multnomah County, home of Portland, between three congressional districts that spread like creeping vines across the state. One would connect Portland’s Tony West Hills with logging communities on the coast, from Astoria to Tillamook; another would travel south along the Cascade foothills; and a third would stretch across the mountains to the growing city of Bend in the high desert.
Combined with a new district based in the Willamette Valley, the map would virtually guarantee Democrats control five of Oregon’s six seats for the next decade.
Republicans in Oregon’s state House boycotted a special session focused on redistricting over the weekend, denying Democrats the quorum they would need to advance their plans.
“Clearly they’re determined to adopt a gerrymandered congressional map for the state of Oregon,” said state Rep. Christine Drazan (R), the House minority leader.
Legislators in Arkansas, a state with a completely Republican congressional delegation, are considering ways to cement that control for another decade. One potential plan under discussion would divide Pulaski County, home of Little Rock and the state’s most reliable Democratic voters, between three districts for the first time in modern history.
Some of the early plans to carve up cities have run into roadblocks, even in states where one party controls the entire process. Nebraska’s state Senate, ostensibly nonpartisan but in reality controlled by Republicans, voted down a GOP proposal to split Omaha, the foundation of what is now a swing district held by Rep. Don Bacon (R), in order to solidify its Republican lean.
On Monday, Texas lawmakers proposed a new map that would actually reduce the number of split cities. Under current district lines, five members of Congress represent parts of Austin’s Travis County; the lone Democrat in the area, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, holds a seat that stretches south to San Antonio. The new proposal includes a district based entirely in Austin, with pieces of Travis County included in just two other neighboring districts.
The central role that cities are playing in the new round of redistricting is becoming more crucial as Americans sort themselves into ideologically homogenous neighborhoods. America’s big cities are becoming bluer; Democrats are gaining a larger share of the urban vote than ever before.
President Biden won 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, almost all of which gave him more votes than the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. At the same time, Republicans are claiming a higher share of the rural vote, while swing suburbs remain the fulcrum of American politics.
That means both Democratic and Republican cartographers can draw themselves an advantage by manipulating a city’s congressional or legislative district boundaries.
“It’s easier for map-drawers to predict the voting preferences of people living in their districts than it ever has been before, because of the accessibility of data and the kind of data they have about individuals,” said Doug Spencer, an election and redistricting law expert at the University of Colorado’s Byron White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law.
In Texas, new district lines in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston become heavily Democratic, while suburban and exurban counties are drawn to favor Republicans, albeit by slightly slimmer margins. The Oregon proposal makes an eastern, rural district held by Rep. Cliff Bentz (R) virtually unwinnable for Democrats — but solidifies the state’s remaining five districts and shores up Rep. Peter DeFazio (D), whose district has trended toward Republicans in recent years.
The most egregious gerrymanders are said to crack or pack a population — dividing them between districts to dilute their power or concentrating them in just one district to make neighboring seats more winnable.
“This is classic cracking and packing,” Spencer said.