MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Last week, the Supreme Court gave state lawmakers the green light to draw political boundaries as aggressively as they want to to benefit their own political party. After the 2010 elections, Republicans benefited most from this kind of gerrymandering. They used big wins in statehouses to entrench their power around the country. Now Democrats are considering what they should do about redistricting after the 2020 census. NPR's Miles Parks reports.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: New Jersey has not elected a Republican senator since 1972. Hillary Clinton won the state by 14 percentage points in 2016. And before that, Barack Obama won by 17 points. It is inarguably a strongly Democratic state. But last year, lawmakers there wanted to cement their advantages. The legislature introduced a plan that would overhaul the mapmaking process in a way that would guarantee Democrats held on to their power.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PHIL MURPHY: This is bad for our democracy.
PARKS: That's New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. He vowed to fight the plan tooth and nail. What's interesting is that he's also a Democrat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MURPHY: I'm the state's titular leader of the Democratic Party, but I want to win elections fair and square. I don't want to have anything to do with rigging elections and skewing one party against the other.
PARKS: Democrats in the legislature shelved the proposal after the backlash, but the rift exposed what could become a theme after the 2020 election and the creation of new legislative maps. Over the past decade, it's Republicans who have gotten a rap as a nefarious mapmaker, says Justin Levitt. He's an election law expert at Loyola Law School. Republicans did have more state-level success in the 2010 midterms, giving them more power to oversee redistricting. But Levitt says there's more to the story.
JUSTIN LEVITT: This is emphatically not a specifically Republican problem. History has shown that both major parties are perfectly willing to rig the electoral rules to benefit their own.
PARKS: In fact, one of the cases that was before the Supreme Court was about a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. The legislature and the former governor there were open about their project to draw a congressional map that eliminated a longtime Republican House seat.
Heading into 2020, Democrats are eyeing a number of statehouses. They're armed with resources that are organized in a way they weren't leading up to the 2010 midterms. So if they can win more power, and with the Supreme Court essentially saying politicians can draw districts how they please with no argument from federal courts, the question is whether they'll gerrymander the states they control the same way Republicans did after the 2010 election.
Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, is now the finance chair for the National Republican Redistricting Trust. Walker views the way Democrats are using state courts to fight partisan redistricting as a power grab.
SCOTT WALKER: They pick a state, they sue until it's blue. Even if they can't get it right away, they try to change the courts. They try to change the legislature. They try to change the governor. Sooner or later, their goal is to make those states blue and to add as many House seats as they can to keep Democrats in power for the next decade or more.
PARKS: Walker says that strategy includes new redistricting commissions. Even though many academic experts see nonpartisan commissions as a fair way to draw lines, Walker says there's no such thing as a true nonpartisan. Democrats, however, see these sorts of commissions as the future. They usually involve members of both political parties, as well as nonpolitical members.
Vicky Hausman leads a Democratic group called Forward Majority that wants to take redistricting away from politicians. She says she does not want to punish Republicans as revenge for 2010.
VICKY HAUSMAN: I don't think this will be a fight-fire-with-fire situation, and I think the two parties have really sorted based on the principles around this issue.
PARKS: Eric Holder, the former attorney general under President Obama, leads another Democratic redistricting group.
ERIC HOLDER: This is not a process. We are not fighting to gerrymander for Democrats in 2021. I will oppose any Democratic attempts to gerrymander. All we want to have is fairness because if we have a fair redistricting process and fair elections, I am confident that Democrats, progressives will be just fine against Republicans and Conservatives.
PARKS: The question is, who will win out in 2020, Democrats who want to make the system fairer or Democrats who stand to gain more power from partisan gerrymandering?
Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.