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How redistricting affected the outcome of the elections


One of the major winners of the election season wasn't a candidate, per se, but a political tool - redistricting. It's the practice of redrawing congressional maps, sometimes in a way that favors one party over another. David Wasserman is the authority on redistricting for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Mr. Wasserman, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WASSERMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Can you determine how big a factor redistricting was in these midterms?

WASSERMAN: Redistricting was destiny. And, you know, Republicans were able to manipulate the lines in Texas and Georgia and Tennessee and Ohio and especially Florida in their favor. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis passed a map that will likely give Republicans - it has given Republicans - an additional four seats in that state, converting the delegation from 16-11, in Republican's favor, to 20-8. And that alone right there is likely to be the size of the Republican majority, if Republicans are able to hold on and win at least 218 seats. Now, that's half the equation.

The other factor is that even though Democrats were able to gerrymander a small number of states of their own, including New Mexico and Illinois and Nevada and Oregon, they weren't able to counter Republicans by gerrymandering the very large blue states that they typically dominate - California and New Jersey and Washington and Colorado and Virginia. They passed anti-gerrymandering reform in the last several decades. And as a result, commissions or courts ended up drawing maps in those states. Democrats tried to gerrymander New York, and it got struck down by a state judge. Collectively, those rulings and those reforms probably cost Democrats at least 15 seats that they would have been able to essentially grab into their column.

SIMON: What stands in the way of redistricting being a nonpartisan, independent, objective, citizenlike venture?

WASSERMAN: Well, the lack of a national standard. And when we have state-by-state rules that vary a lot, essentially we end up with this crazy quilt of districts that are drawn according to different rules and criteria in ways that, in some cases, are quite fair and citizen-driven - you know, for example, by commissions in Colorado and Michigan and California. But oftentimes they're extremely warped in partisan ways, as in Illinois, where Democrats drew a map that will give them 14 out of 17 seats in the next Congress, even though they won only about 56% of votes cast for House in that state, or in Texas, where Republicans are poised to win 25 out of 38 districts. So, look, we have districts that defy contiguity, seemingly, when you look at them on a map. And it's because we don't have an objective standard that the Supreme Court or Congress has adopted.

SIMON: The courts should play a role, shouldn't they?

WASSERMAN: Well, the courts have played a big role at the state level. And because the Supreme Court essentially said, this is a political question that we can't get involved in - and in fact, it can't bring a partisan gerrymandering claim in federal court - it fell to a lot of state courts to adjudicate. And so North Carolina and Pennsylvania had Democratic-majority state supreme courts that struck down Republican attempts at gerrymandering, and they imposed their own plans. But, of course, in this election, Republicans took back majorities on the Ohio and North Carolina Supreme Courts. It's possible that Republicans could try to pad whatever small majority they win by re-gerrymandering North Carolina and grabbing three more seats. And the partisan skew of that court could greenlight them to do so.

SIMON: Twenty seconds left - redistricting often just an incumbent retention program?

WASSERMAN: Not just an incumbent retention program, but proactive way of parties to elect new members. In Oregon, which won a new seat, Democrats drew the map to win 5 out of 6 districts. It's look - looking like they'll end up with four.

SIMON: David Wasserman, Cook Political Report, thanks so much.

WASSERMAN: Thank you.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.