What Is Redistricting? : The NPR Politics Podcast Congressional districts are redrawn every ten years by state legislatures. In theory it is so populations are accurately represented when voting, but partisan gerrymandering means when you look at the map you'll probably see some really wonky shapes. We look at two states, Texas and Georgia, where redistricting will have major consequences for politicians and policy.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler, and KERA's Bret Jasper.

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The Big Consequences Of Small Changes To Congressional Maps

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BRANDON: Hi, this is Brandon (ph) in San Francisco, Calif., where I am currently getting ready for my weekly coed kickball game. This podcast was recorded at...


It is 2:54 Eastern on Wednesday, December 1.

BRANDON: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I will no doubt be embarrassing myself in front of random San Franciscans as I have no athletic bones in my body. Enjoy the show.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: But he listens to NPR.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: If you are into maps, today's episode is for you. States across the country have released their redistricted congressional and state House maps following the 2020 census data. Some of them have some pretty wonky shapes, and that has really big consequences for the next decade of politics, maybe more than that. Mara, right off the bat, for people who do not closely follow this, who do not like maps, who do not follow 50 states' state houses at once, can you explain what we're talking about and why it's such a big deal?

LIASSON: Right. Well, because the United States is not a parliamentary democracy, we don't award congressional seats or state legislative seats by percentages. In other words, if one party gets 68% of the vote in Wisconsin, that doesn't mean that 68% of the members of the state legislature go to that party. Instead, they draw districts. And because there are very powerful computers, parties can draw districts that are very cleverly designed. They come out in weird shapes, like you said, to capture the most number of people that would vote for their party as they could. You know, they can go into this area here and grab a little cluster of Republicans, and then they can move across the river into another county and get another cluster. And it's a way that parties can cement political power for themselves for 10 years because we only do this process, we only redraw lines for congressional and state legislative districts, once every 10 years.

DETROW: And to get into how much this matters today, we are going to focus on two really important political states where Republicans control the state House and the governor's mansion and have used that power to maximize their party's advantage - so first off, Georgia. Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting - Stephen, great to talk to you again.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me on.

DETROW: And Bret Jaspers from KERA in North Texas - hey, Bret, welcome back to the PODCAST.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Two states we've talked a lot about the past few years, we will continue to talk about nonstop over the next few years, I'm pretty sure. And let's start out by doing some comparing and contrasting. Stephen, let's talk to you. You have been obsessively following the drawing of these new lines. When the new congressional maps were released, what jumped out to you?

FOWLER: Well, first off, Georgia currently has 14 congressional districts. They're going to keep those 14 congressional districts. And right now, there are eight Republicans representing Georgia in Congress and six Democrats. After the dust has settled and the lines have been drawn and the legislature approved it, it's probably going to elect nine Republicans and five Democrats. Now the thing that stands out is that district that shifts. The 6th Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Lucy McBath, has been redrawn to go about 80 miles north of Atlanta and include some very conservative exurbs and make that seat virtually unwinnable for a Democrat. And the 7th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, has shrunk its borders to become a very, very safe Democratic district. And those are the two seats that see the biggest change and where people expected to see the most change because those seats also flipped to Democratic control within the last two or three election cycles.

DETROW: And that's a good example right there of that state-level decision, probably maybe playing a major role in what happens in the House control next year because Democrats have such a narrow margin. Bret, let's shift to Texas - top-line impressions of the map that you've been looking at.

JASPERS: Two things - one is that the maps really do benefit white voters and the Republican Party. Here, they expand on an existing gerrymander from 10 years ago. But also along with that is the fact that it seems that this year Republicans, looking at the demographic change of the state, really tried to shore up their advantage as it exists, rather than swing for the fences and kind of stretch their numbers into as many districts as possible. So even some Democrats got some of their districts solidified for incumbents, and the Republicans certainly protected incumbents. And the two new congressional districts that the state is going to get are likely going to be in Republican hands. But the impression that - some experts said is that they could have gone even further if they really wanted to kind of maximize to the fullest extent possible. And what they did is a little bit more defensive than that.

DETROW: Mara, I think the last five years are a pretty good - especially the the lower-level details of last year's election are a good counterpoint to the idea that demographics really tells the tale of what happens politically in a state. But these are two states with massive, massive, massive growth in recent years. How much can redrawing those lines hold off these trend lines that we're seeing year after year after year?

LIASSON: Well, I think they can hold them off to a certain extent, and that's a good way of understanding what these Republican efforts are. You know, for a long time, Democrats thought demography was destiny. And since the country was getting younger and browner and more single, that they were going to ride that demographic wave to political power. But what Republicans see when they look at these demographic changes, which for the most part are against them - not all of it, because they have made strides in Hispanic communities - they said, we need some breathing room. We've got to make sure that we erect barriers to demographic power so that we have some time to figure out how we can become a majority party again, how we can reach out and win actual majorities of popular votes. What they've done now - and I wanted to ask Bret and Stephen about this - there are states like North Carolina and Wisconsin that even if Democrats won 60% of the statewide vote for Congress or state legislatures, they would not get a majority of seats either in the congressional delegation or in the state legislature. Partisan gerrymandering used aggressively by a political party is a way to cement minoritarian rule.

FOWLER: So Mara, that is what we're seeing here in Georgia in particular, where you have these districts that are drawn that protects incumbents, that protects the party in power and that is meant to last even when demographic and political shifts at the local level don't support it. And you end up where the primary election is the election that actually matters. And that's where you have the tendency to get more extreme candidates that are elected by a fewer number of voters, that answer to a fewer number of voters and have more extreme tendencies. I mean, look here in Georgia, where Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is in a district that's so heavily Republican that the Democratic challenger in 2020 actually dropped out and only got 25% of the vote. Even with these new lines being drawn and adding in some Democratic areas into her district, it's going to be so overwhelmingly Republican that the primary is going to decide who represents that district, and many voters feel that their vote in the general election doesn't even matter.

DETROW: And Bret, you made a really good point in some of your reporting on this, that you can also see this dynamic play out in - and we're talking more about the Statehouse here - in the types of bills that are being passed and signed into law because of the types of majorities that maps like this create.

JASPERS: Right, exactly. So even though recent polling shows that the majority of Texans don't favor a law like this, we have this recent abortion law that's gotten a lot of attention where, you know, an abortion is banned after the detection of fetal cardiac activity. And so it made a big splash. People - I had several people kind of asking me, people who don't live in Texas, like, how did this get passed? Because it's not popular in Texas. It's also, you know, really pushing the boundaries of what kind of normal lawmaking would be if you kind of get into the weeds of the law.

But you know, the Republicans in the Statehouse are so protected in their safe districts that, really, they're pitching themselves to a primary audience 'cause the primary in Texas is what everybody kind of considers here to be the election that matters because the state is so gerrymandered with the state legislative districts. So it really does affect the kind of policies that can be written and passed. And then, you know, these lawmakers don't necessarily get held accountable by the majority of the state because they - all they have to answer to is this very gerrymandered district.

DETROW: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk more about how this looks on the Democratic side. We're also going to talk more about the legacy of racial discrimination and how that plays out in how lines are drawn.

And we're back. Mara, let's start with this. This is more of a Republican story than a Democratic story for a couple different reasons, one of which is that Democrats underperformed in 2020. They were hoping to have a better redistricting situation than after the bloodbath of the 2010 elections for Democrats - didn't really work out that way. Even though Biden won the White House, the party really underperformed in a lot of statehouses. What does this look like, though, in the blue states where Democrats do control everything?

LIASSON: Yeah. On the Democratic side, there is blue state partisan gerrymandering, too. It's not - usually not as aggressive, and, of course, Democrats don't control the drawing of district lines in as many districts as Republicans do because, as you said, they did so badly down ballot in 2020. They did so badly in state legislative elections; same thing happened to them in 2010. You know, elections with a zero at the end of them are always the most important because they're the ones who do redistricting. But, you know, in some states, they've passed these nonpartisan redistricting commissions by huge votes in referendums and ballot measures. But in a lot of those places, the Republicans have just ignored those commissions. So that's one reform that's been tried and hasn't really stuck.

DETROW: Yeah. Bret, I want to talk about something that you've done a lot of reporting on, and that is the racial dynamics of these new districts in Texas - that, to boil down your reporting, white Texans are really overrepresented in the way these lines are drawn. Tell us more about that.

JASPERS: So the districts were gerrymandered to begin with, and then 95% of the state's growth in the past 10 years came from people of color. So this is 4 million more Texans since 2010, and 95% of those are people of color. And yet the number of congressional districts where Hispanics are a majority of eligible voters went down from eight to seven, according to an analysis from the Texas Tribune. And the eligible voters that were Black who were majority in a district went from one to zero, and 23 of the 38 congressional districts that Texas has going forward have a white majority. So the numbers of growth were not reflected equally or, you know, kind of proportionately in the districts for Congress that the lawmakers drew.

DETROW: And, Stephen, in Georgia, the way that the Supreme Court has watered down the Voting Rights Act over the years, how does that affect any sort of concerns about racial disparities, racial discrimination and these new lines?

FOWLER: Well, Scott, Georgia was one of several jurisdictions that had a long history of racist voting laws and rules, and they had to get their redistricting maps pre-cleared by the federal government to say, yes, you followed the Voting Rights Act. No, this does not discriminate. No, this is not illegal. And so since the Shelby vs. Holder decision in the last decade, that no longer has to happen. Now, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in Georgia in 2010. They did get their maps cleared by the Justice Department, so they say, hey, the Justice Department trusted us before. You should trust us again. Any lawsuits against our map isn't going to survive because we followed the Voting Rights Act.

Now, Georgia's population has grown by a million people in the last decade, almost all of it driven by Black and Asian and Hispanic voters moving into the metro Atlanta area. And the maps that we see don't reflect that, either. You know, there's not a new majority Black or majority non-white congressional district created. In the state legislature, new seats that were created were in these fast-growing areas but not at the rate that Democrats and nonpartisan groups say should have happened.

DETROW: Mara, all of this means it's time for the Mara-pocalypse (ph) - super depressing way to end the podcast. We live in a world of two extreme camps who increasingly hate each other and are suspicious of each other even more than before. I hear nothing in this podcast, in this conversation about new district lines that makes me think that's going to get any better.

LIASSON: No, certainly not. And these are all perfectly legal ways to chip away at democracy and create something that goes way beyond minority rights, the rights of the minority party, to something more like minority rule. And when you have a group of voters who are the majority and they see over and over again that even though they cast the majority of votes in an election, whether it's for statehouse, Congress or president, and they don't win those races, those people are going to lose faith in democracy. And that's not good over the long term.

DETROW: All right. That's it for today. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting and Bret Jaspers of KERA in North Texas, thanks for joining us. Thanks for your reporting.

FOWLER: Thanks, y'all.

JASPERS: Thank you.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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