Michigan’s 14th congressional district resembles a coiled snake, its long, slender neck drawn to link the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit with the African-American city of Pontiac, 30 miles north. Follow Orchard Park Road as the district line nears Pontiac and it’s possible to stand in Michigan’s 9th district, heave a football across the 14th, and have it land in Michigan’s 11th.
Along another boundary, where Detroit’s bucolic suburbs and impoverished blocks sit side by side, the district lines are so surgical that you can take four left turns, come in and out of the 14th district three different times — and watch housing values collapse from more than $500,000 down to $8,500.
The 14th is ground zero for GOP gerrymandering: Republicans carefully crafted it to pack as many of the state’s minority voters as possible into one district. These lines corral Democrats so effectively that the GOP controls nine of Michigan’s 14 congressional seats — even in years like 2012, when Democratic candidates won nearly a quarter-million more votes.
Republicans won unilateral power to redraw Michigan, as well as other competitive states like Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, after the Tea Party wave in 2010. This was no coincidence: Savvy GOP strategists recognized the importance of 2010 and invested $30 million in state legislative races as part of a plan called REDMAP. By winning just over 100 of those local races, the GOP flipped enough chambers to claim decade-long advantages in state legislative and congressional races across battleground states. Many states then used those majorities to pass voter ID bills and other voting barriers, further manicuring the electorate in the GOP’s favor.
Now, this Election Day, the next decade will be on the ballot. While enthusiastic Democrats fight to flip the U.S. House of Representatives blue and earn a check on President Trump and Republicans in Washington, next week’s vote will actually reverberate throughout the 2020s. Governors and many state legislators elected this year will oversee redistricting after the 2020 census. If Democrats want any influence over maps in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and many other states, a handful of key races could determine the party’s future until 2031.
How important is this? Well, Democrats failed to flip a single U.S. House seat in 2012, 2014 or 2016 in otherwise-competitive Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin or Ohio. Those states now send 48 Republicans and 21 Democrats to Congress. That’s a bigger GOP edge in five swing states than the party has in Congress as a whole.
In Georgia, for example, Republicans dominated redistricting after 2010, and turned two competitive seats into GOP locks. Republicans dominate the state legislature, so a victory by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, thereby earning veto power over one-sided maps, is the only thing likely to prevent a red-leaning map (in a state where demographics are trending blue) for the next decade.
It’s a similar story in Ohio, America’s bellwether, where Republicans disappeared into a suite at the Doubletree Hotel in Columbus, dubbed it “the Bunker,” and carved themselves such friendly districts that the GOP has won 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats in 2012, 2014 and 2016 — that’s 75 percent of the seats in a famously 50/50 state. Democrats aren’t likely to sniff control of the state house any time soon — Republicans drew themselves a super-majority there that has endured even in years when Democrats win more votes. But they can force open the doors of “the Bunker” by winning races for governor, secretary of state and state auditor.
Republicans in Wisconsin dubbed their redistricting headquarters the “Map Room,” and disguised it inside the offices of a politically connected law firm in Madison. The maps constructed there produced a 60-39 GOP majority in the state legislature in 2012, even though Republicans won 175,000 fewer statewide votes. A panel of three bipartisan federal judges called this an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, dismantled the argument that the state’s political geography resulted in the GOP edge, and ordered the drawing of a new and fairer map. That case, however, has ricocheted between the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts, and the unconstitutional maps remain this year, once again. Rather than relying on painfully slow litigation, however, Democrats could earn a seat in the map room in 2021 if Democrat Tony Evers defeats incumbent Gov. Scott Walker next week.
Gubernatorial elections in Florida and Michigan are also key for Democrats over the next decade, as are state supreme court elections in Michigan and North Carolina. An upset in Kansas, meanwhile -- where current Secretary of State Kris Kobach is in a tight race against state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat -- could give Democrats a voice when new maps are drawn in a red state.
Republicans, likewise, would control the process in blue Maryland if the state's popular governor, Larry Hogan, wins re-election, as expected. Maryland is home to the most effective Democratic gerrymander of the last decade; Democrats drew themselves seven of the state’s eight congressional elections, displacing a veteran GOP incumbent.
Congressional maps tend to be fairer when both Democrats and Republicans have a voice, according to a study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. But there’s a better way forward than simply allowing both Democrats and Republicans into the map room, and four states will vote on that next week, as well. Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Missouri have ballot initiatives that would create various forms of independent redistricting commissions, creating some separation between hardcore partisans and the maps that create the building blocks of our democracy.
Gerrymandered districts insulate politicians from their voters and help push our politics to the extreme. While this is not the sole cause of our toxic age, it’s a key reason behind recent counter-majoritarian tendencies and why Republicans have been able to dominate at so many levels even with fewer votes.
Back in Michigan, a lawsuit recently unearthed emails between GOP operatives charged with drawing congressional maps in 2011. In one exchange, the chief of staff to a Republican congressman discussed his desire to pen all the “Dem garbage” into one district like the 14th. They did better than that. When I drove every twist of that district, I was intrigued by an assortment of tangram shapes at its very crown, a tumor growing from the snake’s head. It turned out to literally be the region’s garbage dump — the cherry atop a district drawn to collect the most forgotten neighborhoods of one of America’s most downtrodden districts.
Next week’s elections will go a long way toward determining whether these unsavory strategies will endure for another decade. Democracy itself is on the ballot.