Why Non-Partisan Re-Districting Matters for a Top Democrat

Representative Steve Israel suggests that Democrats could win if judges got to draw fair maps.
Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty News Images

Fourteen years ago, Arizona's largely conservative electorate took the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians. In 2011, after some hiccups, the commission created one of the country's most competitive landscapes. Three of the state's nine districts were hotly contested, and Democrats eked out single-digit wins in each. (For comparison, the gerrymandered states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan had 48 combined House districts and two competitive House races among them. Republicans won both.)

Democrats may well lose those Arizona seats this year—they are particularly fearful of defeat for Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick and  Ron Barber—but Republicans are taking no chances. Last week they won Supreme Court review of a lawsuit that challenges the districts on the grounds that the independent commission cut out the (Republican) legislature, and that this violates the Constitution's stricture that "the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

As Ian Millhiser explained last year, there's plenty of precedent for interpreting "legislature" as "whatever the state's voters decided." But the GOP is serious about this; its lawsuit came after a failed effort to impeach the commissioners on the grounds that they sought to "elevate ‘competitiveness’ over other goals."

When one party complains too loudly, the other party wonders if it might have something to gain. As Benjy Sarlin has been reporting, some Democratic donors are engaged in a long game to ensure that the most gerrymandered states are controlled by their party in 2021, when the maps can be redrawn. In The New Republic, Brian Beutler asked whether the Democrats would benefit more from unilateral disarmament.

[I]f the wave materializes, they should be prepared to use the threat of aggressive, opportunistic redistricting as a source of leverage, to entice Republicans into supporting some kind of non-partisan redistricting system, ideally in every state.

The details would be complex, but the basic offer would be simple: Either agree to mutual, permanent disarmament, and make one of the country’s many undemocratic processes more democratic, or enjoy the wilderness for a decade.

Technically, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is in the business of electing a House majority with the map they've been given. But when my colleague Jon Allen got a chance to ask about non-partisan redistricting, DCCC chairman Steve Israel was all for it.

"When we win by more than a million on the popular vote and we lose seats, it's a clear indicator of the need for non-partisan redistricting," said Israel.

That's a pretty new stance. In 2012, his first cycle running the DCCC—the first with the new maps—Israel insisted that Republican-drawn districts could be overcome by strong candidates. "Any objective analysis of redistricting shows that it is a wash," he told Heidi Pryzybala that year.

Months later, as Israel now points out, Democrats won the popular vote across all House races. Years later, the GOP in one state is trying to undo the maps that gave Democrats some of their only gains. You can see why the Democrats are coming around to disarmament. 

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