Republicans are ‘cracking and packing’ voters to secure minority rule

Salt Lake is the largest county in Utah, containing not only the state’s capital, Salt Lake City, but 40% of the state’s population. While Donald Trump carried the safely conservative state, Joe Biden defeated him in Salt Lake county, soundly, by 53% to 42.1%. Two different Democrats have captured a competitive congressional seat there over the last decade, most recently Ben McAdams, who defeated the incumbent Mia Love by fewer than 700 votes in 2018, then lost by less than a percentage point to Burgess Owens in 2020.

Don’t expect a tight rematch next year. Utah’s new congressional map, approved by the state legislature this week, divides Salt Lake county into four pieces, attaching pieces to conservative rural counties hundreds of miles away. It ignores the recommendation of an independent commission established by initiative in 2018, and scatters voters here across four districts so uncompetitive and safely Republican that the non-partisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project graded it an F.

It’s a similar story in Oklahoma, where the new Republican map cracks Oklahoma City into three different congressional districts, dismantling the competitive fifth district – captured in 2018 by a Democrat, Kendra Horn – and ensuring a big Republican advantage for every seat. The cartography needed to be more creative in New Hampshire, where Republicans took two competitive districts that have largely elected Democrats over the last 15 years and guaranteed themselves one by moving 75 towns and 365,000 people into a new district.

The quiet evisceration of the few remaining competitive seats in conservative-leaning states has flown under the radar compared with greedier Republican gerrymanders in Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, where the estimated net of seven to 10 Republican seats would be enough to flip the US House of Representatives in 2022 and perhaps keep it in Republican hands for the next decade.

Yet Republicans could reinforce their primacy through 2031 – and cut off an important road that helped Democrats retake the House in 2018 – by turning battleground seats into safe strongholds not only in Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City, but with creative cracking and packing of Democratic voters in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Little Rock, Omaha, Louisville, Nashville, Kansas City and Spartanburg.

Nebraska’s second congressional district, for example, one of just 16 remaining “crossover” districts where the vote for the US House and president diverged, becomes slightly more Trumpy, trading suburbs close to Omaha for rural counties to the west. This district has national implications, as it is one of two nationwide that award presidential electors. The subtle shift matters; Biden carried this district by fewer than 23,000 votes.

In Indiana’s fifth, Republicans locked in a map giving them a 7-2 advantage by shifting Democratic suburbs in Marion county into an adjacent Democratic district – packing the liberal voters into a single Indianapolis district. By reworking that seat, the Republican party pinned Democrats into two overwhelmingly Democratic districts, eliminated the last competitive seat that might have become closer over the next decade, and assured themselves 78% of the seats in a state Trump won in 2020 with 57%.

​In Arkansas, where the new congressional map divides Black neighborhoods in Little Rock across multiple districts to ensure a partisan edge for Republicans, the Republican governor found the racial gerrymander so distasteful that he refused to sign it. (It became law anyway, without his signature.)

Kansas has not yet introduced a new congressional map, but during the 2020 campaign, the state senate president vowed to gerrymander the state’s single Democratic member of Congress out of office if Republicans won a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. They did.

South Carolina, meanwhile, has slow-walked new maps and pushed the process into next year, most likely to narrow the window for litigation challenging the plan. Republicans are expected to reinforce the first district seat, won by a Democrat in 2018 by 4,000 votes, and then recaptured by the Republican challenger in 2020 by 5,500 votes.

Democrats have done some gerrymanders of their own this cycle. It’s just that Republicans are better equipped to make gains. Oregon Democrats claimed the state’s new seat for themselves; that pickup will be mitigated by a new conservative seat nabbed by Republicans in Montana. Illinois Democrats added one liberal seat and eliminated a conservative seat; Ohio Republicans did the opposite move. Democrats might make a move on the last conservative seat in Maryland and look to gain two or three seats in New York; but that only counters Republican pickups in North Carolina – where new Republican maps will require Democrats to win by seven percentage points to have a shot at even half of the 14 congressional seats.

The maps offer no additional gains for Democrats. Republicans still net seats in Texas, Georgia, Florida, New Hampshire and Kansas, in addition to likely gains in Tennessee and Kentucky, and sandbagging competitive seats in Utah, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Carolina and Indiana. It shrinks the map dangerously for Democrats, at a time when Republicans need to win only five seats to capture the House. And it portends a future in which an election similar to 2020 – in which Democratic US House candidates won 4.6m more votes than Republicans – could place the House under Republican rule regardless of the people’s will.

This partisan free-for-all could perpetuate Republican minority rule in Congress and state legislatures for the next decade, if not longer. Much of it was made possible by the gerrymanders of a decade ago, still providing Republican advantages in states like North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin. It has been enabled by the US supreme court, which closed the federal courthouses to partisan gerrymandering claims in 2019 and gave lawmakers a green light for ever more egregious redistricting schemes. These maps have been enacted by Republicans at the same time that they have blockaded congressional action on democracy reform and the Freedom to Vote Act that would end this anti-democratic behavior by all sides. And all of this could hasten a constitutional crisis in 2024 if a gerrymandered US House and gerrymandered state legislatures refuse to certify electors, or send multiple slates of electors, to Congress.

When Utah’s governor refused entreaties to veto his state’s gerrymandered congressional maps, which effectively preclude competitive elections until at least 2032, he told voters that they should simply elect people who might be interested in fair maps next time around. Easy, right? Only how are they supposed to do that when the current legislators control the maps and draw themselves every advantage?

Republican legislators are barricading themselves into castles of power and pulling up the drawbridge. It’s close to checkmate. Voters are running out of avenues – and time – to do anything to stop it.

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