OPINION

Ramsey: Redistricting grades mean no honor roll for Texas

ROSS RAMSEY

Republican legislators in Texas and Democratic legislators in Illinois have something in common: When it comes to drawing new political maps, they don’t play fair.

Ross Ramsey

The Redistricting Report Card, a collaboration between the Princeton Electoral Innovation Lab and RepresentUS, gives the new Texas congressional map an F for partisan fairness, saying it’s drawn for “significant Republican advantage.”

The congressional map scored better on competitiveness, meriting a C. But it got another F for geographic features, with the graders saying it has a lot of non-compact districts and that more districts split counties than necessary. In this case, a C is “average for the category, could be better, but also could be worse,” and an “F” is “poor for the category, could be much better.”

With Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, and Republicans in every single statewide office, it’s fair to say Republicans are responsible for those results.

Democrats would never do that, right?

Turn your attention to the great state of Illinois. The Redistricting Report Card gives Illinois’ new congressional maps an F in every category: partisan fairness, competitiveness and geographic features. Their governor is a Democrat, as are both houses of their Legislature. The state has 17 seats in its congressional delegation, and 14 of the districts are drawn to favor Democrats. Based on the results of the last presidential race, that ought to be more in the range of 10 Democrats and seven Republicans.

The two states illustrate the conflict of interest wired into their redistricting laws, which let the people who hold legislative seats draw the districts where they compete to keep their jobs and their party majorities.

It’s designed for political majorities to continue their dominance and for incumbents in both parties to keep their powerful posts, and it shouldn’t be a surprise when it works the way it’s rigged to work.

Texas’ new congressional map has more Democratic seats than the current map, if you’re measuring districts according to their average margins of support for Democrats and Republicans.

Those gains didn’t come from Republicans: Lawmakers, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, cut the number of competitive districts — those with less than a 5-percentage-point advantage for either party — from six to just one. The other 37 districts are solidly Republican or Democratic.

Texas has 13 Democrats and 23 Republicans in its congressional delegation now; the new maps, which add two seats overall, have 13 districts where Joe Biden would have won in 2020 and 25 where Donald Trump would have won, according to Texas Legislative Council data.

If the 2020 presidential result is the measure, that delegation ought to have about 20 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

Texas lawmakers also drew maps for themselves, now signed into law by the governor and already the subject of litigation over the legality and fairness of the new districts. The report card gives the Texas House map a C for fairness and a C for geographic features, but an F for competitiveness. That’s an indication that the maps were drawn, as much as possible, to favor one party or the other — not to set up general election fights either side might win. Overall, it still favors Republicans, but not to the extent the congressional map does.

The Texas Senate map also scored better than the state’s congressional map for partisan fairness. But the project gave it F grades for both competitiveness and geographic features. It could be more competitive, in other words, and the districts could be a lot more compact.

If the maps hold — remember that they’re being contested in federal court — they point to a lot of uncontested general elections for federal and state legislative seats. That moves the focus to the primaries, which can be competitive no matter which party has the upper hand.

Those are harder to rig.

Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this article originally appeared.