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The impact of redistricting and new congressional maps on the midterms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Election Day gave Americans a lot of information. I mean, we heard about race results, voter turnout, issues that mattered to most people. But what about the infrastructure underneath? What I'm talking about are the lines drawn to determine voting districts, what's called redistricting, which takes place every 10 years after a census. Michael Li studies and writes about redistricting for the Brennan Center, and he is here with us now to help us sort through how redistricting is shaping the outcome of this midterm election. Welcome.

MICHAEL LI: Yeah, thanks for having me.

CHANG: So, Michael, you know, as results started coming in on Election Day, I was curious. Which states were you especially keeping an eye on because of the way they redistricted?

LI: Well, I think, you know, some of the fascinating states are Michigan and California, where independent commissions drew maps and where, on paper, it looks like there are a lot more competitive districts than there are elsewhere in the country. And likewise in Michigan, many people thought the Michigan legislature might be up for grabs for the first time in many decades because of much fairer-drawn maps than they had before. So those are some of the states that we were watching from the positive side. But then on the negative side, there are significantly skewed maps in states like Texas, Georgia, Florida and Ohio, which many people thought going in might be greater than the majority that Republicans would have in the House. And that seems to have been borne out. Florida, for example, probably gives Republicans four extra seats than they would have under a fairly drawn map. And so if, in fact, Republicans have a very thin majority in the House, it is likely to be due to gerrymandering.

CHANG: Before we get there, let's discuss Michigan because you had called that a bright star heading into these elections because of its use of an independent commission to redistrict. Can you talk about why an independent commission is kind of the model to you for how redistricting should happen?

LI: I think the place to start is when states have problems, it almost always is because you have single-party control of the process, whether that is by Democrats or by Republicans. And invariably the party in charge prioritizes their interest and the interest of incumbents...

CHANG: Right.

LI: ...Ahead of everything else. And you saw that in Michigan last decade, where Michigan had some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country. And that commission ended up drawing some of the most competitive maps. I call them jump ball maps for a jump ball state. You know, Michigan is a perpetual battleground, but that didn't play out in its legislative battles...

CHANG: Right.

LI: ...Under these maps. It was night and day. The Michigan legislature changed control for the first time since 1983. Democrats now have control of the Michigan legislature, which you would expect in a year where Democrats did very well in Michigan. In future years, if Republicans do better, they have a chance to win it back.

CHANG: I want to talk about partisan gerrymandering now. And we should note that, you know, both parties have engaged in partisan gerrymandering. But in this midterm election, does it look to you that Republicans are favored to win a majority in the House, in large part because they had the upper hand in 2020 redistricting, because they went into this with a structural advantage?

LI: Republicans started off with control of 187 seats, and Democrats only could draw 75. And that's because of who controls state legislatures. So Republicans had a very big advantage. And thanks to the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that greenlighted partisan gerrymandering, Republicans in states like Texas, Georgia, Florida and Ohio were able to take advantage of that and draw maps that really are skewed in favor of their party. In Florida, Governor DeSantis pushed a very aggressive map that gave Republicans four additional seats. And it's not only the big states. It's Tennessee, for example. Republicans eliminated a Democratic seat in Nashville. In Utah, they eliminated the competitive seat in the Salt Lake City area. So all of that adds up. And so Republicans this election have an advantage that I think will play out. It almost certainly looks like to be a very, very closely divided House.

CHANG: So do you think there are more states that are going to be heading towards, like, the Michigan model of independent commissions to redistrict?

LI: You know, if lawmakers don't do it, I think in many states, voters will try to put things on the ballot because, you know, this is an issue that now resonates with voters in a way that it didn't. Gerrymandering - you know, people didn't know what it really meant. Now people do. There's a sense that the system is broken. Our politics are broken. And the way that maps are drawn are a big part of that.

CHANG: That is Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice. Thank you very much.

LI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.