The 2012 U.S. House of Representative elections raised eyebrows. Despite Democrats winning 1.4 million more votes, it was Republicans who controlled the chamber. How was this possible?
A partisan gerrymander is a legislative map designed to maximize seats for one party. Every 10 years, after the census, states are required to redraw their congressional and legislative districts to reflect the changes of the past decade. In most states that power is vested in the state Legislature, subject to a governor’s veto. But in 2011, state politicians, particularly Republicans, abused that power to unseen levels. Statistical tests prove that “Great Gerrymander” explains the 2012 Republican victory.
The effects have persisted throughout the decade. In 2018, Democrats won a majority of votes for state assembly in Wisconsin but only won 36% of the seats. That same year, Democrats won nearly 49% of the vote for U.S. House seats in Ohio, but only won four of the 16 districts. In Michigan, a similar pattern unfolded.
Unlike its Midwestern peers, this decade, Minnesota has not suffered from a wide gap between the will of voters and the legislators who represent them. This is because in 2010, Minnesotans elected a divided government. Republicans controlled the Minnesota Legislature, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wielded veto power. This ensured that the new maps were designed with bipartisan input and, on the whole, did not unfairly benefit one party or the other. In fact, the maps in Minnesota worked so well that they resulted in some of the most competitive elections in the nation.
While the divided government spared Minnesota from gerrymandering, it has also subjected the state to unnecessary gridlock. In 2011, the lack of an agreement between Republicans and Dayton caused a shutdown of the state government. This nearly occurred again last year, during Gov. Tim Walz’s first year in office. Even as the state faces a potential $4.7 billion deficit, and in the midst of a pandemic, the Senate Republicans have participated in absurd heights of obstruction, ousting agency head after agency head. Minnesotans have not looked fondly on this behavior.
The Princeton Election Consortium estimates that Democrats currently have a 57% chance of winning the Minnesota Senate. (Other prognosticators are even more confident.) If they do win, it will be the first time the DFL will have had a “trifecta” (control of the governorship and both chambers of the legislature) in half a decade. And while unified control will likely make for smoother governance, it could open the door to DFL gerrymandering next year.
This shouldn’t just concern Republicans; it’s bad for all Minnesotans. Gerrymanders subvert democracy and enable legislators to pick their voters, rather than the other way around. In the long run, it could hurt Democrats, as well. Gerrymanders can backfire, and exacerbate partisanship.
Minnesota is increasingly becoming a competitive state, especially at the national level. In 2016, despite Hillary Clinton winning the state narrowly, Minnesota voted one point more Republican than the national average. A recent FiveThirtyEight article was titled “Why Minnesota Could Be the Next Midwestern State to Go Red.” Given recent polling, it probably won’t, at least not this fall. But DFLers should be careful not to rest on their laurels. Yes, in all likelihood, they will have a trifecta next year. But there are no certainties about what Minnesota’s political landscape might look like in 2031. DFLers gerrymandering now would leave the door open for Republicans to gerrymander the state in the future.
In 2019 the Minnesota House passed a bill, H.F. 1605, which would have created a nonpartisan advisory redistricting commission, but it stalled in the Senate. It is too late to establish any sort of redistricting reform before the election. But in the remaining days before the election, DFL leaders — like House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent and the governor — should pledge to not abuse the trust that Minnesotans will place in them, if they win a trifecta.
Next year, even though the DFL might have the power to draw the new maps alone, it could establish an advisory bipartisan commission, or agree to submit its maps to an independent nonpartisan organization to ensure their fairness. Ultimately, the Legislature should move to pass a constitutional amendment that would establish an independent redistricting commission, along the lines of many other states.
In her opinion defending Arizona’s independent redistricting commission, the late, great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to our framers in writing that fair redistricting ensures that legislators would have “an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.” DFLers should heed her advice and honor her legacy by promising Minnesotans fair district maps next year.
Zachariah Sippy is an analyst at the Princeton Election Consortium. He grew up in Minneapolis, and attended Southwest High School.
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