The Fate of Biden’s Agenda Hangs in the Balance 1

And it isn’t all about the filibuster.

Every 10 years, after the collection of census data, states are required to redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts to ensure that they remain equal in population.

The process — as readers of this newspaper know — is vulnerable to gerrymandering, in which districts are redrawn to give favored parties, office holders or constituencies an advantage in elections.

At the moment, Democrats control the House by a slim 219-211 majority, with five seats vacant. The loss of just five seats in 2022 would flip control to the Republican Party, which would then be empowered to block President Biden’s agenda.

Both geographically and politically, the deck is stacked against Democrats, forcing the party and its leader to adjust election strategies every 10 years.

This time around, states with Republican governors and Republican legislative majorities contain more than twice as many congressional districts as states under full Democratic control.

Further compounding Democratic difficulties, Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden, political scientists at the University of Michigan and Stanford, write in the 2013 paper “Unintentional Gerrymandering”:

In many urbanized states, Democrats are highly clustered in dense central city areas, while Republicans are scattered more evenly through the suburban, exurban, and rural periphery.

As a result, according to Chen and Rodden, “when districting plans are completed, Democrats tend to be inefficiently packed in homogeneous districts.”

Despite winning the White House and the Senate, Democrats suffered a major setback in 2020 as their plans to wrest control of one or both branches of key state legislatures fell short. Democrats failed to take control of the statehouses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Texas, and of both branches in North Carolina — all states with large congressional delegations.

Still, there is hope.

First and foremost, Democrats have become competitive in many of the high-growth areas that benefit from redistricting; they have done so by pulling ahead of Republicans among voters with college degrees, who make up a disproportionate share of these prosperous communities.

In addition, a total of 18 states have switched from partisan to independent redistricting. And finally, Republican attempts at voter suppression have proven at times to backfire, prompting higher turnout among minorities and increased Democratic Party mobilization.

“One might be tempted to think that seat gains largely driven by economic prosperity favor Republicans while seat losses are found in impoverished and declining Democratic areas,” SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor and James G. Gimpel, political scientists at the University of Maryland, write in their Feb. 21 article “Reapportioning the U.S. Congress: The shifting geography of political influence.”

In practice, Gaynor and Gimpel argue, Democrats have “adapted most impressively to compete and win in the newly emergent districts in Florida and the Far West,” narrowly eking out victories for control of Congress.

As states await census data to guide redistricting, there is one wild card in the mix: the possible enactment of voting rights reform, HR 1 or the For the People Act of 2021 — the measure that passed the House on March 3 on a 220-210 vote, but faces the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.

I asked Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at Harvard whose specialties include election law, about the bill. He emailed me to say that

The voting legislation currently before Congress would revolutionize the redistricting process if it passed. It would require all states to use truly independent commissions, effective immediately. Separate from this structural reform, the bill would also include quantitative partisan bias thresholds that maps wouldn’t be allowed to exceed. These thresholds would have real teeth.

At the same time, Stephanopoulos continued, the legislation would put the brakes on voter suppression laws:

The bill affirmatively requires a series of participation-enhancing policies for congressional elections: automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, at least 15 days of early voting, expanded mail-in voting, restrictions on voter purges, restrictions on photo ID requirements, etc.

David Lublin, a political scientist at American University, similarly described the transformative potential of HR1 in an email:

The proposed legislation before Congress could have a huge effect in two ways. First, by putting in place a new trigger for the Voting Rights Act, Section 5 would become operative again and the Biden administration could use it to block discriminatory maps as well as an array of laws designed to suppress voting.

Second, Lublin continued, by preventing

members of either party from using district boundaries to entrench their advantage through redistricting. Even though Republicans would undoubtedly benefit from the geographic concentration of Democrats and racial redistricting, it would prevent egregious abuses.

In the case of Republican voter suppression laws, Nicholas Valentino and Fabian G. Neuner, political scientists at Michigan and Arizona State Universities, found in their February 2016 paper “Why the Sky Didn’t Fall: Mobilizing Anger in Reaction to Voter ID Laws” that

Surprisingly, empirical evidence for significant demobilization, either in the aggregate or among Democrats specifically, has thus far failed to materialize. We suspect strong emotional reactions to the public debate about these laws may mobilize Democrats, counterbalancing the disenfranchising effect.

In an email, Neuner cautioned that “our research is about short-term evocations of anger that may spur mobilization and it is not clear how long such anger can be sustained.”

Black voters have proven exceptionally determined in the face of electoral adversity, including Supreme Court rulings weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and voter suppression legislation.

Kyle Raze, a graduate student in economics at the University of Oregon, studied turnout patterns in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The court declared Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get preclearance from the Justice Department for any change in election law, unconstitutional. Shelby opened the door to the enactment of voter suppression measures.

Raze, in his February 2021 paper, “Voting Rights and the Resilience of Black Turnout,” writes that

Despite well-founded fears to the contrary, the Shelby decision does not appear to have widened the turnout gap between Black and White voters in previously covered states.

Instead, Raze found

an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that voters mobilize in response to increases in the cost of voting when those increases are perceived as threats to the franchise.

While 2020 census data is not yet complete, it will determine the specific allocation of House seats to each state. Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, provided The Times with estimates of the number of House seats over which each party will exercise redistricting control. Levitt wrote in an email:

It looks like Democrats will control 73 congressional seats this cycle, Republicans will control 188, and 167 will be under split partisan control, plus 7 in states with one district.

These numbers represent a considerable improvement for Democrats compared with a decade ago, Levitt observes, when the party “controlled 44 seats, with Republicans controlling 213.”

The Gaynor-Gimpel article I discussed earlier describes the shape of old and new districts in past decennial redistricting. In the two most recent reapportionments, based on the 2000 and 2010 census results, clear patterns emerge.

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What should the Biden administration prioritize?

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  • The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
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Areas with high levels of manufacturing — a declining sector in recent decades — lost seats, as did districts with large percentages of Black voters. In 2000 and 2010, abolished districts were 37 percent Black, while newly created districts were 8 to 12 percent Black.

The median household income in abolished districts was well below the national median — 79 percent of the national median in 2000 and 77 percent in 2010 — while the new districts were decidedly above the national median, with income at 121 and 106 percent.

The abolished districts voted Democratic by strong margins, 67 and 70 percent in 2000 and 2010, while the newly created districts tilted Republican by slightly smaller but still substantial margins.

These developments handicapped Democrats in the past, but changing income and education patterns of partisanship — changes that intensified during the Trump years — will inevitably work to Democrats’ advantage.

In the past two presidential elections, Democratic gains among high income and well-educated voters — the kind of voters who benefited from redistricting in 2000 and 2010 — accelerated.

Thomas J. Wood, a political scientist at Ohio State, recently posted a chart on Twitter showing the income levels of white voters in each of the 19 presidential elections since 1948.

In the first 17 of these — through President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 — whites with incomes in the 96th to 100th percentile were consistently the strongest supporters of Republican presidential nominees among all white income groups. In 2016 and in 2020, with Trump as the nominee, that pattern abruptly shifted.

These super affluent whites not only shifted to vote Democratic, but they became the least Republican income group after decades of being the most Republican.

At the same time, Trump drove up Republican support among white working-class men — this is not news — many of them former Democrats living in declining communities that, according to Gaynor and Gimpel’s calculations, had lost political power as a result of redistricting.

In 2020, white men without college degrees voted 60-35 for Trump and similarly educated white women voted 54-40 for Trump, according to survey data from the Cooperative Election Study.

In other words, the political losers in redistricting have shifted toward the Republican Party and the winners toward the Democratic Party.

Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice, emailed me his analysis of the consequences of these changes in Texas redistricting:

With a Republican governor and majorities in the Texas State House and Senate, Republicans are strongly positioned to control redistricting in 2020 and to add to the number of Republican U.S. House seats in Texas.

But, Stein added,

there are several obstacles facing Republican mapmakers that might constrain how many of the three new seats Republicans will gain in 2022.

The two most important of these are the fact that

The concentration of population growth has been in the triangle formed by Dallas in the north, Houston in the east and San Antonio in the southwest. These areas/counties are Democratic with their suburban areas increasingly trending Democratic.

and that “the loss of population has been greatest in west and northwest Republican counties.”

In sum, Stein wrote,

though the Republicans control all the levers to redistricting in 2020, they are constrained by a having to populate more U.S. House districts with a changing population and electorate that favors Democratic candidates.

Christopher Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University, pointed out in an email that the nationalization and polarization of elections, have

made it much easier for mapmakers to predict how people will vote in future elections. This, in turn, has made the partisan advantage gained during gerrymandering more durable in future elections than it used to be.

Despite the enhanced ability to draw partisan district lines, Warshaw wrote, other developments make him

cautiously hopeful that, overall, partisan gerrymandering will be slightly less extreme this cycle than in 2011.

These developments include the growing number of states that have nonpartisan redistricting commissions; the shift of some major states from one-party control in 2011 — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — to divided government, forcing compromise; and the growing willingness of state courts to rule against extreme gerrymandering, including in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Warshaw is critical of the surge in Republican efforts to pass voter suppression legislation — “they are clearly anti-democratic” — but, he added:

They could actually backfire on Republicans by dampening turnout among lower-income, rural voters that increasingly support Republicans.

Put another way, Republican efforts to claim the mantle of “the party of the working class” may be at cross purposes with the drive to enact voter suppression laws that will fall heavily on the working class.

David Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, pointed out another twist in the redistricting process that will lessen the traditional Republican advantage.

While reapportionment will shift seats from blue states that voted for Biden to red states that voted for Trump, Magleby noted that “the story is a little more complicated.”

He cited the example of New York, a reliably Democratic state that may lose one or two seats, depending on the final census count. On the surface, that would seem to threaten Democrats, but in fact, Magleby notes that if the state loses one seat, it could be a Republican seat:

Within New York, population growth in Republican leaning areas has lagged behind Democratic leaning areas. Thus, a neutral districting process is likely to generate one fewer Republican seat in New York.

All of the above suggests that continued Democratic control of the House in 2022 and 2024 may hinge on passage of HR1 — the For the People Act — which in turn requires the Senate to either eliminate the legislative filibuster or agree on a rule change making voting rights measures exempt from the filibuster.

“If the filibuster remains,” Stephanopoulos, the Harvard law professor, wrote by email,

the next round of redistricting will be a dogfight. It won’t be as bad for Democrats as the 2010 round, because numerous states that had egregious Republican gerrymanders back then now have some sort of impediment to that happening again” (commissions, Democratic governors, interventionist courts).

“My best guess,” Stephanopoulos continued,

is that the congressional playing field will be a little more tilted in a Republican direction than it currently is, but significantly less skewed than in the early 2010s.

The problem for Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer is that they are pressing for enactment of a momentous agenda —$3 trillion for infrastructure, immigration reform — that faces overwhelming Republican opposition.

They have, in effect, no room for a House “a little more tilted in a Republican direction.” Even with the passage of the voting rights bill, the odds (based on historical midterm voting patterns) favor a Republican takeover of both branches of Congress.

“Since the end of World War II, elected presidents’ parties have suffered an average loss of three Senate and 22 House seats in midterms,” Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, wrote on Feb. 16.

The enactment of Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus bill has increased his popularity, but voters’ memories are short. At the same time that he retains high favorability ratings on his handling the economy and the pandemic, voters surveyed in a NPR/Marist March 22-25 Poll, registered unfavorable views of his handling of immigration (34 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove), and a March 20-23 Economist/YouGov survey found voters split on Biden’s handling of crime (39 approve, 40 disapprove).

Without approval of the kind of election reform the voting rights bill seeks, the odds will shift further against continued Democratic control of the House and Senate and possibly result in another Democratic president ground down by gridlock.

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