WASHINGTON — Until recently, Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district in the southeast corner of the state summed up the insanity of partisan gerrymandering in the United States. The district was a monstrosity, a Rorschach inkblot that stretched from the Republican-leaning suburbs of Philadelphia out into farm and Amish country. One political scientist looked at its winding, jagged lines and saw “Donald Duck kicking Goofy.”
The mangled district was cooked up by the Republican-controlled legislature and the state’s Republican governor when they redrew Pennsylvania’s congressional map after the 2010 census. The result? Republicans went from holding seven out of 19 of the state’s House of Representatives seats to a whopping 13. (The state lost one seat after the census.) A political analyst called it “the gerrymander of the decade.”
Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court struck down Pennsylvania’s epic gerrymander and declared that a new map must be drawn. This time, however, when the GOP-led legislature came back with yet another nakedly partisan map, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed it. In the end, the state supreme court released its own map, one with clear lines and more competitive districts. Pennsylvania’s democracy was restored — at least for now.
On November 6th, voters across the country will have their chance to cast ballots in gubernatorial races that could similarly begin to reverse the effects of gerrymandering. There are 36 races for governor this year — races that, in many cases, have gotten far less attention than those for House or Senate. But on the issue of gerrymandering, governors play a decisive role not just in shaping the future of their states but determining the composition of House of Representatives, approving or blocking congressional maps skewed in favor of one political party.
In nine of those gubernatorial races — Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, Nevada and Maine — the Democratic Party is especially focused on electing a Democratic governor who will be in office during the next Census redistricting process, which will happen after 2020. Those governors will have the power to block gerrymandered maps and push for more evenly drawn districts in their state, as Wolf did in Pennsylvania.
Democrats are guilty of gerrymandering, too. Maryland’s congressional map is just as appalling as the maps in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — and it was the product of Democratic Party control. But there are far more Republican gerrymandered maps because the party has far more of the power at the state level after its historic landslide in the 2010 election.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the current chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), says he estimates that Dems could net as many as 25 House seats if they were able to get fairer congressional maps in those aforementioned nine states.
“Gerrymandering has never been so bad and we’ve never had such a great chance of remedying it,” Inslee tells Rolling Stone. “This year’s governors races are more significant than in any other decade since at least I’ve been around.”
A decade ago, it was the Republican Party that seized upon the idea of using the upcoming Census and redistricting effort to rewrite — or distort — the congressional maps in their favor. A group of party operatives, including former Bush svengali Karl Rove, launched the Redistricting Majority Project, a.k.a. REDMAP. Rove and his allies took advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which ruled that corporations are protected under free speech law, to fuel REDMAP with tens of millions of dollars — some of it anonymous — in donations from corporations and wealthy individuals. “Win big in 2010 and Republicans could redraw the maps and lock in electoral and financial advantages for the next ten years,” David Daley writes in Ratf**ked, a book about REDMAP.
That’s exactly what happened, with Republicans gaining more than 700 seats at the state level in 2010. State by state, Republicans set in motion a strategy to craft the most favorable congressional maps possible by cracking — diluting a particular voting bloc by spreading its members across numerous districts — or packing as many like-minded voters as possible into a single district. In Michigan, where Republicans took control of the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion in 2011, the state’s 14th district was drawn into a bizarre sideways S-shape that connected the cities of Pontiac and Detroit, both home to many black voters. The neighboring white suburbs, meanwhile, were left out of the 14th and became much more winnable for a Republican candidate. This version of political resegregation took place in a slew of states after 2010.
Now, Democrats are playing catch-up. It will take more than a few election cycles for the party to flip some of the 26 Republican trifectas — states where one party controls both houses of the legislature and the governorship. (There are just eight Democratic trifectas right now.) But installing a Democratic governor in an otherwise red state acts as a check on the next round of partisan gerrymandering and creates the possibility of fairer maps drawn by courts or nonpartisan commissions.
This spring, the DGA announced its plan to spend an initial $20 million spending plan as part of its “Unrig the Map” campaign to elect Democratic governors who will push back against new gerrymandering with a focus on eight states. Then, in September, the DGA added Georgia — where Democrat Stacey Abrams could become the first female black governor in U.S. history — to the list. The DGA and allied groups have spent a total of $65 million in states targeted by their Unrig the Map effort.
Inslee points to Gov. Tom Wolf as a proof of this strategy. In June 2017, the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit that claimed Pennsylvania’s maps were unconstitutional and should be redrawn. It was Wolf’s veto and his refusal to sign off on a new, still-gerrymandered Republican map that eventually led to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s release of its own map that will balance out the state’s congressional delegation.
Wolf tells Rolling Stone that what happened in Pennsylvania doesn’t entirely apply in other fights to reverse partisan gerrymandering — the suit challenging the old map cited the state Constitution, not the federal one — but that his role showed how much governors can do to ensure fair congressional maps and representation.
“Governors’ races have a bigger impact beyond the statehouses,” Wolf says. “In this election, that person you elect [as governor] is going to have big role in determining what those House maps look like.”
And that, in turn, could go a long way toward restoring some sanity back into our democracy.