As the Supreme Court increasingly confronts cases challenging partisan gerrymandering, one underlying question appears to be: Is this getting worse? The answer is yes.
1. For years, party control of the House was stable. Now it’s regularly up for grabs. For at least 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, partisan control of the House was never perceived to be at stake during any redistricting cycle. The Democratic Party dominated the House; the Republican Party consigned itself to being the permanent minority.
From 1958 to 1994, the average number of seats the Republicans held was 170 — far from the 218 needed for a majority. Going all the way back to the New Deal, Republicans controlled the House for, remarkably, only four years out of the 60 leading up to 1994.
2. We’ve only had two redistricting cycles (2000 and 2010) in this new era. When the stakes are so high that partisan control of the House might hang in the balance, more aggressive partisan efforts to gerrymander will, not surprisingly, flourish.
Even so, the opportunity to gerrymander was less widespread in the 2000 round of redistricting than after the 2010 Census — because fewer state governments were under one party’s control. In 2000, 21 state governments had governorships and state legislatures controlled by one party; 15 of those were Republican. But by 2010, 33 state governments were under one-party control, 22 of them Republican.
3. More and more, people see the stakes in politics as existential. In other words, this decade of redistricting combined a toxic mix of exceptionally powerful incentives to gerrymander — and many more one-party states able to do it.
The modern era of regular decennial redistricting began in the 1970s, when every state began to have to redraw districts every decade, after the new census, to meet the equal-population requirements of the Supreme Court’s one-vote, one-person doctrine.
Our politics are so polarized that partisan political conflicts have come to seem existential. Each party believes that, if the other gains control, the very identity of the United States will be compromised. The perceived stakes could not be much higher.
On top of these structural changes in politics, other more widely recognized factors contribute to making gerrymandering worse today. Technological changes make precision gerrymandering easier. Voters are far more polarized, which makes gerrymanders more reliable and enduring because voting patterns are more stable and easier to predict.
Gerrymandering has existed since our first elections. But partisan gerrymandering today is far more extreme and pervasive than in the past. And unless something changes — such as meaningful constitutional constraints or measures that give the power to draw districts to independent institutions rather than to partisan state legislatures — every reason exists to expect it will get worse still.