As Afghanistan, the pandemic, and hurricanes dominate headlines, state legislators across America might now be determining the outcome of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Lawmakers are redrawing the lines of their states’ electoral districts, typically trying to secure safe seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for their party and make it harder for the opposing party to win. State officials draw new district maps every 10 years, based on the census results. After receiving 2020 census data last month, some states have now begun releasing first drafts of their new maps, provoking partisan backlash that could lead to lawsuits claiming illegal gerrymandering—the manipulation of a district’s boundaries unfairly to favor one party. About a dozen states have nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions that draw districts, but the Republican Party has political control of more of the states without such commissions, giving them more opportunities to create advantageous maps for the midterms—and for the next decade of elections. How much of a difference could redistricting make?

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank New America. As Drutman sees it, Republican state legislators could design new district maps that would enable them to win back a majority in the House in 2022 even if they lose the national popular vote. Drutman says that as Democratic voters choose increasingly to live in cities, and as rural areas become more reliably Republican, the resulting geographic divide makes it easier for politicians to contrive districts that favor their party. In Drutman’s view, partisan polarization has become so hostile that every election feels like an existential battle, driving officials to gerrymander ever more one-sided maps. The root of the problem, to Drutman, is the combination of partisan map-drawing and winner-take-all voting, which make gerrymandering a powerful weapon in the arms race of zero-sum, partisan warfare.

Michael Bluhm: What will redistricting mean for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections?

Lee Drutman: We’re looking at probably a very close election. Democrats have a very narrow majority in the House. There will be probably 50 or 60 seats that could go either way, depending on how the maps are drawn. If Republicans are particularly aggressive in drawing maps in the states where they have an advantage, they could potentially win the House even if they lose the popular vote.

Bluhm: Some discussion of the midterms has focused on the voter-suppression laws passed in Georgia and Texas, which Republicans seem to have designed to make it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to vote, especially non-white people. How would you compare the potential importance of voting laws and redistricting?

Drutman: They’re both going to be important. I hesitate to say that one is more important than the other. They’re both attempts to shape the playing field that help one political party increase its chances of winning.

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