In the 1780s, Patrick Henry tried to shape Virginia’s House district lines to block James Madison from serving in the first U.S. Congress.
The grudge between the two men: Henry opposed the U.S. Constitution freshly written primarily by Madison. The gambit failed and Madison won his seat.
More than two centuries later, the politics of redistricting still are shaping Congress.
A majority of Americans disapprove of the Republicans in Congress, yet the odds remain in the party’s favor that it will retain control of the House. One big reason the Republicans have this edge: their district boundaries are drawn so carefully that the only votes that often matter come from fellow Republicans.
The 2010 elections, in which Republicans won the House majority and gained more than 700 state legislative seats across the nation, gave the party the upper-hand in the process of redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional seats. The advantage helped them design safer partisan districts and maintain their House majority in 2012 -- even as they lost the presidential race by about 5 million votes. Also nationwide, Democratic House candidates combined to win about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
“The Republican-created maps in most states set up a sort of seawall,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “As the decade goes on, people do shift party allegiances and move in and out of town, and so the effects erode a little bit, but it’s still a seawall and it’s still keeping some of the flood of 2010 in,” Levitt said.
The election results mean House Republicans will have the power to block or demand amendments to President Barack Obama’s agenda.
That tension will be on display during the deficit reduction talks in coming months as Obama advocates a combination of spending cuts and new revenues. That position was favored by 67 percent of Americans in a CNN/Orc International poll conducted Nov. 16, two weeks after voters re-elected Obama. Republican House members last week unveiled a budget that would eliminate the deficit in 10 years by cutting $4.6 trillion and using no new tax revenue.
It’s a predicament presidents previously have faced. Before Obama, five of the last six elected presidents --Democrats and Republicans -- had a House controlled by the opposition party at some point during their tenure. President Jimmy Carter was the one who didn’t.
Still, it’s rare for one party to win more House seats while securing fewer votes than the other party. The last time it happened before 2012 was in 1996, when Democrats won the nationwide House vote by 43.6 million to 43.4 million as Republicans held their majority and Bill Clinton was re-elected president, according to the U.S. House Clerk’s office.
Redistricting is intended to ensure House members represent roughly equal size populations. Yet from the first Congress, party leaders began exploiting the map-making exercise by weakening the voting strength of some groups to gain partisan advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Democrats aren’t immune from engaging in the political bloodsport of redistricting. With control of the process in Illinois, Democratic lawmakers from Obama’s home state approved a map on Memorial Day weekend in 2011 that led to the defeat of five Republicans in the 2012 elections.
In most cases, state legislatures are charged with overseeing the redistricting process, which is done to reflect demographic shifts recorded in the census. The 435 U.S. House districts boundaries are adjusted based on population migration during the past decade.
Republican-controlled statehouses dominated redistricting that occurred after 2010 through a combination of planning and good fortune.
The party began preparing two years in advance of the 2010 elections by concentrating on candidate recruitment and fundraising. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on state legislative races, called its effort the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP.
In the 2010 campaign, the Republican Governors Association outspent the Democratic Governors Association, $132 million to $65 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign giving. The Republican State Leadership Committee outspent the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, $21 million to $5 million.
Democrats also faced a political environment that had swung sharply Republican, partly due to a wave of public discontent over passage of Obama’s health-care law.
The same Republican surge that helped the party net more than 60 seats in the U.S. House -- the biggest gains by any party in 62 years -- swept in governors and state legislators.
“2010 was a really difficult year for there to be a Republican wave election,” said Michael Sargeant, the DLCC’s executive director.
The spending and timing paid off for the Republicans, as they won control of 57 legislative chambers, up from 36 before the 2010 elections, and increased their governorships to 29 from 23, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the wake of the 2012 elections, Republicans control 56 state legislative chambers and 30 governorships.
“You can spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting over a couple dozen congressional districts over 10 years, or you can spend significantly less and impact the shape of those congressional elections over 10 years via state legislative elections,” said Chris Jankowski, the president of the Washington-based RSLC, referring to the Republican strategy heading into the 2010 vote. “It was a cost-effective analysis that truly bore out in reality.”
Once in office, technology made it easier for line-drawers to consolidate and further their partisan goals.
Map-making software is cheaper, more powerful and widely available, compared to a decade ago. State lawmakers can build databases with detailed voter registration figures, election results and population data to project campaign outcomes and demographic trends.
It may also be easier to predict voter preferences. Party-line voting is increasing: fewer than 30 districts backed the presidential candidate of one party and a House candidate of the opposite party in 2012, the lowest total in at least 90 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“If you’re a map-maker drawing lines, that’s just gold for you, because you can very reliably use partisan voting patterns in one election to predict what it might be in another, or much more so than you could before,” said Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based nonprofit that wants to change the redistricting process to reduce partisanship in Washington.
The 2012 results show how Republicans gerrymandered congressional lines to produce favorable outcomes even in states that lean Democratic.
In Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the clustering of Democrats in metropolitan areas made it easy for Republican line-drawers to pack them into a few districts while giving their own party more modest -- yet consistent -- advantages in the remaining ones.
In Pennsylvania, where Democratic votes are concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Republicans won 13 of 18 House seats while losing the statewide congressional vote, 2.8 million to 2.7 million. In North Carolina, Republicans drew three districts to be overwhelmingly Democratic and won nine of the other ten, even as House Democratic candidates won the statewide vote, 2.2 million to 2.1 million.
While drawing federal districts to their advantage, Republicans also created favorable state House maps to make it harder for Democrats to wrest control of the redistricting process in 2020. In Michigan, Republican candidates won most of the 110 state House seats despite winning 350,000 fewer votes than Democrats, said Sargeant.
“Clearly, the Republican gerrymander had a lot to do with it,” he said.
Politics and redistricting have been intertwined since the nation’s earliest days, as shown by the Henry-Madison feud outlined in a 2010 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The practice of drawing party-friendly districts was given its common nickname -- gerrymandering -- in 1812. That’s when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redrew state senate districts unfavorable to his rivals, the Federalists. The shape of one district was said to resemble a salamander.
One of the most notable partisan battles over redistricting occurred in Texas in 2003, when Tom DeLay, then the U.S. House majority leader, engineered a rare mid-decade remap that so angered Democratic state legislators that most of them fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to prevent a quorum needed to pass the plan.
The House ethics committee admonished DeLay for his role in using the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain information on the whereabouts of absent Texas legislators. The rebuke one month before the 2004 election didn’t stop Republicans from gaining five House seats in Texas, offsetting a two-seat loss outside of the state and helping the party hold its chamber majority.
The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated part of the Texas map in 2006 and a federal court redrew it before that year’s midterm elections. Democrats then won two Texas seats from Republicans - - including the one DeLay had resigned from in mid-2006 -- and 30 nationwide to take control of the House.
While redistricting usually is a once-per-decade exercise, the Texas fight shows that brawls can surface at unexpected times.
In January, Republicans in the evenly divided Virginia Senate shoved through a new map on a party-line vote when a Democrat was absent to attend Obama’s inauguration. The map was blocked by the Republican House speaker on a procedural point.
“Virginia pointed out once again that the players who are involved in the process will try to game the system however they can, be they Republicans or Democrats,” said Kim Brace, the president of Election Data Services Inc., a political consulting firm in Manassas, Virginia.