A Potential Rarity in American Politics: A Fair Congress Card

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Despite the persistence of partisan gerrymandering, between 216 and 219 congressional districts, out of 435 nationwide, appear likely to lean toward the Democrats, according to a New York Times analysis based on recent presidential election results. 216 to 219 identical districts look likely to lean toward Republicans, if the maps passed so far hold up to legal challenges. To achieve a majority, a party must secure 218 constituencies.

The surprisingly fair map defies the expectations of many analysts, who had believed Republicans would use the redistricting process to build an overwhelming structural advantage in the House, as they did a decade ago.

Just a few months ago, it seemed likely that Republicans could flip the six seats they needed to retake the House through redistricting alone. Instead, the number of Republican-leaning precincts that voted for Donald Trump at a higher rate than the nation is set to drop significantly, from 228 to a figure that could be less than the 218 seats needed for a majority.

Democrats could claim their first such advantage since the 1960s, when the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” ruling and enactment of the Voting Rights Act ushered in the modern era of redistricting.

The relatively fair map is something of an accident. Democrats and Republicans again attracted extreme gerrymanders with twisting and rotating district lines, denying representation to many communities in Congress. Dozens of incumbents have been shielded from serious challenges. The number of competitive districts has decreased.

But, unlike in previous cycles, extreme gerrymanders from both parties effectively canceled each other out — largely because Democratic lawmakers went to great lengths to maximize their advantage. And more states have maps drawn by courts or by nonpartisan, bipartisan commissions than in previous decades, reducing the number of districts drawn to intentionally benefit one party.

Congress’ final map still remains unclear, with Florida, Missouri, Louisiana and New Hampshire yet to finish drawing new lines and several others facing legal challenges. One party may end up claiming several more districts than the other.

And Republicans have a slight edge that’s easy to overlook: There are more solidly Republican than solidly Democratic districts, with 186 voting Republican at least 10 points ahead of the nation as a whole in the election. last presidential election, against 167 for the Democrats. The smaller number of solidly Democratic ridings means the party needs to win a somewhat larger share — perhaps 60% — of potentially competitive ridings to win a majority.

But the range of likely outcomes is narrowing, especially with several courts saying it’s too late to deal with potentially unconstitutional maps before the next primary election. On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected Republican requests to block court-selected maps in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, cementing Democratic sway over at least four districts where Republicans might otherwise have had an advantage. Last week, a New York state judge refused to block the state’s new Democratic gerrymander.

Even if the remaining four states adopted the Republican-proposed maps, the party would still only win 218 total districts that tilt its lane, compared to 217 for the Democrats.

The Times analysis looked at how a district leaned toward one party by examining whether it voted more for a party’s presidential candidate in the last election than the nation as a whole. This metric is commonly used to judge the partisanship of congressional precincts because presidential and congressional election results are highly correlated.

Congress’s relatively fair map reflects a decade-long effort by progressives to battle Republican-led gerrymanders in the courts, legislatures and at the ballot box. While redistricting reform proposals are not new, they have taken on a new urgency for Democrats following the last round of redistricting, when Republicans passed aggressive gerrymanders that gave the party a significant structural advantage. The party easily retained control of the House in the 2012 election, even though the Democrats won the most votes.

At its peak in 2016, the Republican structural advantage was daunting. Only 195 districts leaned toward Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential election that year, compared to 240 that leaned toward Trump. The middle congressional district voted for Trump by nearly 4 percentage points, 6 points more favorable to Republicans than Trump’s 2-point deficit in the national popular vote. The result raised the possibility that Democrats could only win the House in a national landslide.

But the Republican advantage collapsed, even before the start of the redistricting of this cycle. A series of court rulings in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia have eroded or eliminated some of the party’s most valuable gerrymanders, slashing the House’s Republican advantage by a third ahead of the 2020 election.

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