Opinion | The Fate of Biden’s Agenda Hangs in the Balance

And it isn’t all about the filibuster.

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

Every 10 years, after the collection of census data, states are required to redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts to ensure that they remain equal in population.

The process — as readers of this newspaper know — is vulnerable to gerrymandering, in which districts are redrawn to give favored parties, office holders or constituencies an advantage in elections.

At the moment, Democrats control the House by a slim 219-211 majority, with five seats vacant. The loss of just five seats in 2022 would flip control to the Republican Party, which would then be empowered to block President Biden’s agenda.

Both geographically and politically, the deck is stacked against Democrats, forcing the party and its leader to adjust election strategies every 10 years.

This time around, states with Republican governors and Republican legislative majorities contain more than twice as many congressional districts as states under full Democratic control.

Further compounding Democratic difficulties, Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden, political scientists at the University of Michigan and Stanford, write in the 2013 paper “Unintentional Gerrymandering”:

In many urbanized states, Democrats are highly clustered in dense central city areas, while Republicans are scattered more evenly through the suburban, exurban, and rural periphery.

As a result, according to Chen and Rodden, “when districting plans are completed, Democrats tend to be inefficiently packed in homogeneous districts.”

Despite winning the White House and the Senate, Democrats suffered a major setback in 2020 as their plans to wrest control of one or both branches of key state legislatures fell short. Democrats failed to take control of the statehouses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Texas, and of both branches in North Carolina — all states with large congressional delegations.

Still, there is hope.

First and foremost, Democrats have become competitive in many of the high-growth areas that benefit from redistricting; they have done so by pulling ahead of Republicans among voters with college degrees, who make up a disproportionate share of these prosperous communities.

In addition, a total of 18 states have switched from partisan to independent redistricting. And finally, Republican attempts at voter suppression have proven at times to backfire, prompting higher turnout among minorities and increased Democratic Party mobilization.

“One might be tempted to think that seat gains largely driven by economic prosperity favor Republicans while seat losses are found in impoverished and declining Democratic areas,” SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor and James G. Gimpel, political scientists at the University of Maryland, write in their Feb. 21 article “Reapportioning the U.S. Congress: The shifting geography of political influence.”

In practice, Gaynor and Gimpel argue, Democrats have “adapted most impressively to compete and win in the newly emergent districts in Florida and the Far West,” narrowly eking out victories for control of Congress.

As states await census data to guide redistricting, there is one wild card in the mix: the possible enactment of voting rights reform, HR 1 or the For the People Act of 2021 — the measure that passed the House on March 3 on a 220-210 vote, but faces the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.

I asked Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at Harvard whose specialties include election law, about the bill. He emailed me to say that

The voting legislation currently before Congress would revolutionize the redistricting process if it passed. It would require all states to use truly independent commissions, effective immediately. Separate from this structural reform, the bill would also include quantitative partisan bias thresholds that maps wouldn’t be allowed to exceed. These thresholds would have real teeth.

At the same time, Stephanopoulos continued, the legislation would put the brakes on voter suppression laws:

The bill affirmatively requires a series of participation-enhancing policies for congressional elections: automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, at least 15 days of early voting, expanded mail-in voting, restrictions on voter purges, restrictions on photo ID requirements, etc.

David Lublin, a political scientist at American University, similarly described the transformative potential of HR1 in an email:

The proposed legislation before Congress could have a huge effect in two ways. First, by putting in place a new trigger for the Voting Rights Act, Section 5 would become operative again and the Biden administration could use it to block discriminatory maps as well as an array of laws designed to suppress voting.

Second, Lublin continued, by preventing

members of either party from using district boundaries to entrench their advantage through redistricting. Even though Republicans would undoubtedly benefit from the geographic concentration of Democrats and racial redistricting, it would prevent egregious abuses.

In the case of Republican voter suppression laws, Nicholas Valentino and Fabian G. Neuner, political scientists at Michigan and Arizona State Universities, found in their February 2016 paper “Why the Sky Didn’t Fall: Mobilizing Anger in Reaction to Voter ID Laws” that

Surprisingly, empirical evidence for significant demobilization, either in the aggregate or among Democrats specifically, has thus far failed to materialize. We suspect strong emotional reactions to the public debate about these laws may mobilize Democrats, counterbalancing the disenfranchising effect.

In an email, Neuner cautioned that “our research is about short-term evocations of anger that may spur mobilization and it is not clear how long such anger can be sustained.”

Black voters have proven exceptionally determined in the face of electoral adversity, including Supreme Court rulings weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and voter suppression legislation.

Kyle Raze, a graduate student in economics at the University of Oregon, studied turnout patterns in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The court declared Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get preclearance from the Justice Department for any change in election law, unconstitutional. Shelby opened the door to the enactment of voter suppression measures.

Raze, in his February 2021 paper, “Voting Rights and the Resilience of Black Turnout,” writes that

Despite well-founded fears to the contrary, the Shelby decision does not appear to have widened the turnout gap between Black and White voters in previously covered states.

Instead, Raze found

an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that voters mobilize in response to increases in the cost of voting when those increases are perceived as threats to the franchise.

While 2020 census data is not yet complete, it will determine the specific allocation of House seats to each state. Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, provided The Times with estimates of the number of House seats over which each party will exercise redistricting control. Levitt wrote in an email:

It looks like Democrats will control 73 congressional seats this cycle, Republicans will control 188, and 167 will be under split partisan control, plus 7 in states with one district.

These numbers represent a considerable improvement for Democrats compared with a decade ago, Levitt observes, when the party “controlled 44 seats, with Republicans controlling 213.”

The Gaynor-Gimpel article I discussed earlier describes the shape of old and new districts in past decennial redistricting. In the two most recent reapportionments, based on the 2000 and 2010 census results, clear patterns emerge.

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