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What Extreme Partisan Gerrymandering Could Mean For 2018 Midterms


We want to talk more about what gerrymandering may mean for the midterm elections this fall. So we're going to turn to Michael Li. He's senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, and he's co-author of a new report on extreme partisan gerrymandering. Thanks for coming in today.

MICHAEL LI: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So your study concludes that Democrats would need to win by a huge nationwide margin to take back the House. How big would that margin have to be?

LI: Well, to be assured of taking back the House, our estimate is that they would need a margin of about 10.6 points or so, which would be historically large.

CHANG: When was the last time Democrats swept an election by 11 points, ever?

LI: Well, you'd have to go back to 1974 and the post-Watergate (laughter) election...

CHANG: (Laughter) Ah, OK.

LI: ...To find a margin that big. It comes close in 1982. But really, other than that, in a midterm - not that often.

CHANG: Well, why does the margin have to be so huge, according to your study?

LI: Well, a lot of it seems to be related to gerrymandering because it's particularly hard for Democrats to win seats in some large states that have a lot of congressional districts, like North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan. And these are 50/50 states. You know, if you look at the topography, there's a lot of pink and light blue. And if you just sort of drew districts naturally, you'd have a lot of competition. Instead, what happened is that voters were artificially sliced and diced and recombined into districts that give you these lopsided advantages - for example, a 12-4 advantage for Republicans in Ohio, a 50/50 state, a 10-3 advantage for Republicans in North Carolina, again, another 50/50 state that elects both Democrats and Republicans at the statewide level.

CHANG: I want to step back a little bit because one of the premises of your study is that Republicans did such an effective, intense job partisan gerrymandering around the country that they basically have locked in the House unless Democrats pull through with a huge victory. But there is a charge that we hear a lot, and that charge is both parties have had dirty hands when it comes to overzealous gerrymandering. Do you agree at least somewhat with the charge?

LI: Absolutely. Democrats will gerrymander just as much as Republicans. It just so happens that this decade Republicans had the pen in more states because the round of redistricting in 2011 took place after the 2010 election, which was a wave for Republicans. So they won unprecedented victories not only at the congressional level, but in many states. And they use that new power to lock in their advantage.

CHANG: As we just heard, the Supreme Court is considering two cases this term about partisan gerrymandering. If you were writing the opinion - let's just make you a Supreme Court justice right now - what would be your test for when partisan gerrymandering goes too far?

LI: Well, I would look at entrenchment. And my mother would be very happy that you have made me a Supreme Court justice.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LI: But we would look at entrenchment and whether you're artificially locking in a party. Lots of reasons why a map might be biased in favor of one party or another that are perfectly neutral. But if you're putting your thumb on the scale, that's a problem. And what our study points out is that in most states, even states like New York or California, if you draw maps fairly and you just keep communities together, you end up with maps where each party gets more seats as it gets more votes.

CHANG: Should politicians even be involved in redistricting plans, or should we rely on independent commissions or special masters?

LI: So we do think that commissions are a great way to go. But if states don't want to do that, there are lots of reforms that they can do to place tighter rules on how maps are drawn and to increase public participation and transparency. So there are lots of ways to fix this system. We don't have to have a system where one party gets to make all the decisions behind closed doors. That's where you've seen all the biggest problems.

CHANG: Michael Li is senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. Thanks very much.

LI: Yeah. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.