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GOP Uses Redistricting to Retain Outsized Statehouse Power

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GOP Uses Redistricting to Retain Outsized Statehouse Power
Georgia district map debate
Georgia state senators debate new district maps in November. Redistricting in fast-growing, diversifying states such as Texas and Georgia is protecting Republican majorities even as the Democratic vote share grows.
Hyosub Shin Atlanta Journal-Constitution via The Associated Press

This year’s redistricting of state legislatures is shaping up as extremely partisan across the country, as the parties in power seek to hold onto sometimes-thin statehouse majorities with creative map-drawing.

At the forefront are diversifying but still Republican states in the South, such as Georgia and Texas, where cities are becoming magnets for Democratic-leaning newcomers seeking jobs and less expensive housing. In both states, the number of Democratic voters has moved closer to parity with Republicans, but redistricting will give the GOP bigger legislative majorities than their statewide numbers would indicate, according to PlanScore, an analytical project of the anti-gerrymandering Campaign Legal Center.

Republicans in those states are girding for battle to keep power, said Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, D.C. “Our priority in 2022 is to protect our razor-thin majorities.”

In 19 states with redistricting plans already approved, the majority party is expected to win 56% or less of the statewide vote in November but has drawn maps likely to deliver a significantly larger share of statehouse seats, according to PlanScore. In addition to Georgia and Texas, Republicans are ready to rack up especially skewed statehouse majorities in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Thanks to their own creative line-drawing, Democrats are likely to do the same thing in Illinois and Oregon.

In some states, legislative redistricting plans are still in flux: An Ohio court struck down new districts drawn by lawmakers, and court arguments are upcoming on challenges to Texas plans.

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In Georgia, where Democrats won narrow victories in 2020 in the presidential and U.S. Senate races, Democrats and Republicans are likely to tally roughly equal numbers of votes across state Senate races. But because of partisan redistricting, Republicans are poised to claim 57% of state Senate seats.

Republicans are projected to win 50% of the statewide vote for the Georgia House, but could get 54% of state representatives, according to PlanScore estimates.

Texas likewise will see continued partisan disparity if its plan stays as it is, even as the state Democratic vote gets closer to parity with Republicans. In 2012, Republicans won 61% of the state Senate seats—about the same as their proportion of the statewide vote. But that was after numerous legal challenges altered a more biased state redistricting plan.

This year, however, Republicans are in line to win the same 61% of the seats in the Texas Senate with only 52% of the statewide vote.

The new Texas maps give Democrats some new legislative seats in fast-changing cities but take away others.

For example, one Texas Senate seat in the Fort Worth area, won by Democrat Beverly Powell in 2018, was divided by redistricting into neighboring Republican areas, said Chaz Nuttycombe, director of the Virginia-based forecasting site cnalysis.com.

“There’s not a district in the Fort Worth area now that isn’t 20 points [pro-]Trump,” Nuttycombe said. “The Republicans had an issue with that seat, and they just made it so no Democrat could get elected in Fort Worth.”

But Texas suburbs may be the biggest losers under the new maps, since redistricting in some cases cut them off from like-minded cities and combined—and diluted—their votes by lumping them in with more conservative rural areas.

“These communities are fueling population growth, they’re major economic engines but they are the ones getting the short end of the stick in redistricting,” said Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel for the progressive Brennan Center for Justice in New York City.

Republicans in other states also drew lines to dramatically amplify their power.

In Indiana, 56% of statewide legislative votes would deliver 75% of Indiana House seats and 71% of state Senate seats to the GOP. In West Virginia, a 55% Republican statewide vote would capture 73% of state Senate seats and 71% of state House seats. The spread is nearly as high in Wisconsin, where Republicans would win 66% of the state Senate and 64% of the House with just 52% of the vote.

Democrats took similar steps in Illinois, where if Democrats win 55% of the statewide vote, they would get 66% of the state Senate seats and 65% of state House seats. Illinois Republicans voted against the redistricting plan, and some complained about an overly secretive process with little public input before maps were released in August.

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Even in some states where one party holds a wide advantage in the statewide vote, partisan lawmakers have drawn maps to give their party a legislative majority in at least one chamber that exceeds their share of the statewide vote by at least 10 percentage points. For Republicans, the list includes deep-red states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Democrats have done the same in deep-blue states such as California, Delaware, Massachusetts and New York.

In some closely divided states, the division of seats in the legislature is likely to reflect the statewide vote breakdown—because lawmakers aren’t empowered to draw the lines themselves. In Arizona, Maine and Michigan, where Democrats are projected to have a slight 51% to 49% edge in statewide votes, they are projected to elect a similar percentage of state senators and state representatives. Arizona and Michigan have independent redistricting commissions. In Maine, a commission advises the state legislature on redistricting but the legislature and governor must approve the plans.

Republicans hold power beyond their numbers in more states than Democrats because they hold a majority in 62 state legislative chambers, compared with only 36 for the Democrats. That gives them more power over the decennial process of redrawing legislative lines—power they gained in 2010, after the last census.

Republicans went into the 2010 election holding 3,246 state legislative seats nationwide, compared with 4,031 for the Democrats. After the election, the GOP held 3,946 seats, while Democrats had only 3,301.

As of last month, Republicans controlled 4,003 state legislative seats, while Democrats held only 3,300, putting the GOP in control of a second redistricting process.

Despite winning the presidency and the U.S. Senate in 2020, Democrats did not make much headway in reversing the GOP’s dominance of state legislatures. They narrowed the gap in total number of seats, but they lost control of two chambers (the New Hampshire House and Senate) while gaining none.

J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, described the 2010 election as a “generational year” for Republicans that the Democrats just haven’t been able to reverse.

“You didn’t really get the same kind of flips in 2018 and 2020 for the Democrats,” Coleman said. “One of the under-reported stories of 2020 was the Democratic lack of success in state legislatures.”

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