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Democrats have pushed for nonpartisan redistricting. Here’s how it could backfire on them.

 A public forum attendee in Austin reviews a map of proposed local political districts in September.
A public forum attendee in Austin reviews a map of proposed local political districts in September.

Both parties gerrymander, but the left’s push for nonpartisan commissions to draw maps could cost them, says an Atlantic reporter.

From Texas Standard:

One of the biggest stories in Texas politics over the last few weeks has been about political redistricting. Lawsuits over the newly approved maps are already starting to roll in: This week the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in federal court, saying the new gerrymandered districts are discriminatory.

Democrats nationwide have long pushed for nonpartisan redistricting commissions, hoping to curtail partisan gerrymandering. And they've had some luck, too. Several states, like Colorado and Virginia have approved such commissions in the past 15 years. But could Democrats' push for these commissions ultimately be a detriment to the Party? Atlantic staff writer Russell Berman argues in a recent piece that that may be happening already.

"Newly this year, both Virginia and Colorado – two states where Democrats have the trifecta in control of the whole government – those states' maps are being drawn by nonpartisan commissions," Berman told the Standard. "And so they will be fairer maps. But because they won't be blue maps reflecting the tilt of those states, overall, when you look at the entire country, Democrats are giving away some of their power. And with the House so closely divided as it is right now with it, just a few seats for Democrats – that could really make a difference next year."

Listen to the full interview with Berman in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: First off, we should clarify: the GOP is not the only party that gerrymanders; we've seen it in blue states, too. Is that right? 

Russell Berman: That's right. And we're going to see it this year as well. In states that are deeply blue and where Democrats have all of the power in the state legislature and the governor's office – like in Illinois, New York, and Maryland – they're going to gerrymander just as aggressively as Republicans, and try to eke out as many seats as they can.

If Democrats also gerrymander, what do they have to gain by pushing for these nonpartisan commissions? 

Berman: Conceivably, if the entire country went with nonpartisan redistricting commissions, it would benefit Democrats. Right now, Republicans control more seats, in terms of their ability to draw the maps, than Democrats do. Republicans control more states where they have the legislature and the governor's office, such as Texas, such as Florida, and a few other big states. So right now, they have the advantage. If both parties gerrymander to their hearts delight, the Republicans would come out ahead.

That's exacerbated by the fact that the Democrats have succeeded in implementing these nonpartisan commissions in some of their own blue states. California has had one for a decade or so. And this year, both Virginia and Colorado, two states where Democrats have the control of the whole government, are now being drawn by nonpartisan commissions. So they will be fairer maps. But, because they won't be blue maps reflecting the tilt of those states, when you look at the entire country, Democrats are giving away some of their power. And with the House so closely divided, with just a few-seat-majority for Democrats, that could really make a difference next year.

Some Democrats say that as a matter of policy these redistricting committees are great, but as a matter of politics, not so much. Is that the overarching feeling among Democrats? Or are many still sticking with the idea that fairer maps are better in the long run? 

Berman: It's a bit of a split. One position you hear very clearly is from somebody like Congressman John Sarbanes in Maryland, which is one of the most gerrymandered Democratic states in the country. Sarbanes is a leader pushing for nonpartisan commissions nationwide, but he wants this to be a national solution. He doesn't want Democrats to unilaterally disarm and implement a commission in Maryland, which could cost them a few seats, if the Republicans aren't going to do the same thing in a state like Texas.

So that's where you see the divide. Some Democrats are willing to say: look, we're going to lead by example. That's what they have done in Colorado. We're going to implement these commissions that the voters have created by ballot initiative, even knowing that we could lose a couple of seats. But because of the stakes nationwide – the House of Representatives is at stake and these maps are going to be in place for a decade – you have these anti-democratic forces that the Democrats see in the Republican Party right now. The enormous stakes of next year's election and of this entire process give some of them some second thoughts. 

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