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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Taking the voters out of the equation’: How the parties are killing competition

The New York State Senate in Albany, N.Y., Jan. 6, 2021. The Democratic-controlled Legislature on Feb. 2, approved a map that gives the party a strong chance of flipping as many as three House seats currently held by Republicans.

By Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti

The number of competitive congressional districts is on track to dive near — and possibly below — the lowest level in at least three decades, as Republicans and Democrats draw new political maps designed to ensure that the vast majority of House races are over before the general election starts.

With two-thirds of the new boundaries set, mapmakers are on pace to draw fewer than 40 seats — out of 435 — that are considered competitive based on the 2020 presidential election results, according to a New York Times analysis of election data. Ten years ago that number was 73.

While the exact size of the battlefield is still emerging, the sharp decline of competition for House seats is the latest worrying sign of dysfunction in the U.S. political system, which is already struggling with a scourge of misinformation and rising distrust in elections. Lack of competition in general elections can widen the ideological gulf between the parties, leading to hardened stalemates on legislation and voters’ alienation from the political process.

“The reduction of competitive seats is a tragedy,” said former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “We end up with gridlock, we end up with no progress, and we end up with a population looking at our legislatures and having this feeling that nothing gets done.” He added: “This gridlock leads to cynicism about this whole process.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for adding to the tally of safe seats. Over decades, the parties have deftly used the redistricting process to create districts dominated by voters from one party or to bolster incumbents.

It’s not yet clear which party will ultimately benefit more from this year’s bumper crop of safe seats, or whether President Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings might endanger Democrats whose districts haven’t been considered competitive. Republicans control the mapmaking for more than twice as many districts as Democrats, leaving many in the GOP to believe that the party can take back the House majority after four years of Democratic control largely by drawing favorable seats.

But Democrats have used their power to gerrymander more aggressively than expected. In New York, for example, the Democratic-controlled Legislature on Wednesday approved a map that gives the party a strong chance of flipping as many as three House seats currently held by Republicans.

That has left Republicans and Democrats essentially at a draw, with two big outstanding unknowns: Florida’s 28 seats, increasingly the subject of Republican infighting, are still unsettled, and several court cases in other states could send lawmakers back to the drawing board.

“Democrats in New York are gerrymandering like the House depends on it,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the party’s main mapmaking organization. “Republican legislators shouldn’t be afraid to legally press their political advantage where they have control.”

New York’s new map doesn’t just set Democrats up to win more seats, it also eliminates competitive districts. In 2020, there were four districts where Biden and former President Donald Trump were within 5 percentage points. There are none in the new map. Even the reconfigured district that stretches from Republican-dominated Staten Island to Democratic neighborhoods in Brooklyn is now, at least on paper, friendly territory for Democrats.

Republicans argue that redistricting isn’t destiny: The political climate matters, and more races will become competitive if inflation, the lingering pandemic or other issues continue to sour voters on Democratic leadership.

But the far greater number of districts drawn to be overwhelmingly safe for one party is likely to limit how many seats will flip — even in a so-called wave election.

“The parties are contributing to more and more single-party districts and taking the voters out of the equation,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who led the House Republicans’ campaign arm during the 2001 redistricting cycle. “November becomes a constitutional formality.”

In the 29 states where maps have been completed and not thrown out by courts, there are just 22 districts that either Biden or Trump won by 5 percentage points or less, according to data from the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.

By this point in the 2012 redistricting cycle, there were 44 districts defined as competitive based on the previous presidential election results. In the 1992 election, the margin between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush was within 5 points in 108 congressional districts.

The phenomenon of parties using redistricting to gain an edge is as old as the republic itself, but it has escalated in recent decades with more sophisticated technology and more detailed data about voter behavior. Americans with similar political views have clustered in distinct areas — Republicans in rural and exurban areas, Democrats in cities and inner suburbs. It’s a pattern that can make it difficult to draw cohesive, competitive districts.

No state has quashed competition ahead of the midterm elections like Texas. In the 2020 election, there were 12 competitive districts in the state. After redistricting, there is only one.

Though Trump won 52% of the vote in Texas in 2020, Republicans are expected to win roughly 65% — 24 of the state’s 38 congressional seats. (Texas gained two seats in the reapportionment after the 2020 census.)

The Texas state legislators who control redistricting shored up Republican incumbents including Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Beth Van Duyne and Michael McCaul, but in doing so also drew safer districts for Democrats such as Reps. Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher.

“The fact that it’s going to be harder for us to pick up congressional seats is a big concern,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “That doesn’t mean that we think that it’s not important to mount challengers; it’s just a reality that it’s going to be harder.”

Democrats did the same where they could. Oregon legislators took the state’s competitive 4th District and turned it into a seat that strongly favors their party.

A lack of competition has unintended consequences. Without a competitive race at the congressional level, local parties are deprived of an infusion of money and organizing. Candidates for governor or Senate don’t benefit from being able to piggyback on the energy and activity at the local level.

“Anybody running statewide has to pull the wagon entirely themselves because you don’t have competitive races going on locally,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic activist in Texas.

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