More than a few things foiled Donald Trump’s plan to hold onto power after the 2020 election. One was the fact that he received nearly seven million fewer votes than his opponent. Another was that he lost multiple key states in the Electoral College. Democratic and Republican election officials across the country refused to tamper with the results in his favor, despite Trump’s repeated pleas to do so. And the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a Hail Mary bid to toss out the results anyways.
But perhaps the most underappreciated stabilizer of the republic earlier this year was Democratic control of the House of Representatives. At the time of the Electoral College count on January 6, Republicans still held a slim majority in the Senate. But every single harebrained scheme by Trump and his allies to toss out state results still faced an insurmountable barrier: House Democrats would never vote to effectively overturn the election in Trump’s favor, and their assent would be necessary for it to happen.
That barrier may not exist next time. The Democratic majority in the House rests on a mere handful of seats. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering over the past decade, Republicans have turned a sizable chunk of House districts into reliably red seats even if Democrats win by significant statewide margins, and the GOP is poised to build on those advantages during the upcoming redistricting cycle later this year. The consequences could be disastrous for American democracy in 2024—especially if Trump loses narrowly to President Biden in the next presidential election.
A basic tenet of representative government is that legislatures should reflect the people they represent. John Adams wrote in 1776 that they should be “in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large,” a standard that would not begin to be met by American democracy for nearly two centuries. Gerrymandering frays the ties between representatives and constituents by allowing lawmakers to choose their voters instead of the other way around. When applied at scale, the portrait that Adams envisioned is less John Singer Sargent and more Pablo Picasso.
The 2018 midterm elections are a useful snapshot of how Republicans tilted House races in their favor. Democrats secured a majority of almost two dozen seats, retaking the chamber for the first time in eight years by capitalizing on voter antipathy towards Trump. Though it was a wave election by most definitions, the blue surge struggled to overcome structural GOP advantages. An Associated Press analysis of state-by-state results found that Republicans won at least 16 more seats than their vote share suggested thanks to favorably drawn districts that didn’t reflect the electorate’s overall preferences.
Perhaps the clearest example of how gerrymandering can warp electoral outcomes is North Carolina’s House results in 2018. Republicans held a razor-thin majority in the overall state results with 50.4 percent of the vote to Democrats’ 48.3 percent, suggesting a roughly even split. But thanks to a severe partisan gerrymander passed by Republican state lawmakers earlier in the decade, the GOP ultimately “won” 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats. One GOP lawmaker admitted that the legislature drew a 10-to-3 map because it couldn’t get away with an 11-to-2 one.
The U.S. Census Bureau won’t release the data used for redistricting until later this summer, kicking off the 10-year nationwide process for redrawing maps for every legislature in the country—federal and state—other than the Senate. But some Republican state lawmakers are already looking at ways to bolster their advantages. CNN reported earlier this week that Tennessee Republicans are considering a plan to break up the state’s Fifth Congressional District, which covers Nashville, to turn the state’s 7-to-2 seat breakdown for Republicans to an 8-to-1 advantage. “They couldn’t beat me fairly,” Representative Jim Cooper, the district’s longtime Democratic representative, told the network, “so now they’re trying to beat me by gerrymandering.”
There are limits to how far Republicans can go to squeeze a few more seats out of the House map. Roughly one-third of states rely on independent bodies to draw their congressional maps instead of state legislatures. Others only have one or two seats, making gerrymandering impossible or unfeasible. Majority-minority districts in some states are insulated from dilution by the ban on racial gerrymandering in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And then there are the practical limits: Republicans simply have fewer options left to shift seats in their favor after their successes over the past decade.
The GOP is increasingly aware that they’ve hit a point of diminishing returns. Earlier this week, Politico reported that there’s an ongoing debate among GOP leaders and lawmakers over whether they should crack open a handful of Democratic-leaning districts in states like Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio to bolster their odds in the next few House elections. Some top Republicans are advising them to leave potential opportunities alone out of concern for possible legal challenges and the dilution of Republican-friendly seats, the control of which could become endangered by demographic change (especially in the suburbs). “There’s an old saying: Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered,” Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina, told Politico. “And when it comes to redistricting, that is, in fact, the case.” This isn’t civic virtue but practical necessity. Like Alexander the Great, they weep because they have no more worlds to conquer.
To make matters worse, partisan gerrymanders will face fewer legal obstacles after this round of redistricting than the last one. Over the last decade, tilted maps spawned a wave of legal challenges in the federal courts over whether extreme partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court ruled in the 2019 case Rucho v. Common Cause that federal courts lacked the power to resolve future partisan gerrymandering claims. Some state courts, notably in Pennsylvania, have struck down congressional districts on state constitutional grounds. But the high court’s decision in Rucho means that there will be fewer legal avenues after this redistricting cycle to challenge warped maps than after the last one.
How these fights and debates play out over the next year could have dramatic consequences. At the moment, Democrats only hold an eight-seat majority in the House and a tiebreaker majority in the evenly divided Senate. It’s not hard to imagine that Republicans could retake or hold both chambers after the 2024 elections. It’s also not hard to imagine a rematch between Biden and Trump that year as well. And since Trump has disputed the results of every presidential election he’s participated in, including the one he won, it’s safe to assume he’ll do the same in four years.
So what happens if Biden once again wins more votes and more electors than Trump under that scenario? A majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the results six months ago, and the party’s turn towards antidemocratic measures has only accelerated since then. Would there be enough Republicans in both chambers to side with Democrats and stop a bid to throw out a Biden state’s results? Or will the GOP’s structural advantages in both chambers allow it to overturn a presidential election’s outcome and install Trump for a second term? The answer to that question lies in whether Democrats hold one or both chambers when the Electoral College votes are counted, and whether Republicans reap the full benefits of their partisan gerrymandering campaign.