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What Next Year's Redrawing Of Voting Districts May Look Like

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Next year is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for all 50 states to redraw the lines of state and congressional voting districts. In most places, state lawmakers are in charge of drawing those maps, so both parties poured money into state legislative races this year. And the result was a major disappointment to Democrats. Republicans won in almost all the states that will be key to redistricting. We've got three reporters with us to talk about what these fights will look like in different parts of the country - Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin, Texas; Dirk VanderHart from Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland; and Steve Harrison of member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C.

Good to have you all here.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Hi.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Ashley, let's start with you in Texas. The state's getting more diverse, and it's one of many places where Democrats had hoped to take over the House and didn't. What happened there?

LOPEZ: Yeah, so those hopes were totally dashed. Democrats were hoping to gain a majority in the Texas House - you know, at least one chamber - so they could have a seat at the table this time around because they've been completely shut out for decades. But much like every other state that Democrats were hoping to flip a chamber in, they were unsuccessful.

In Texas, they had their sights set on flipping nine seats that were, quite frankly, just out of reach for them, largely because those districts were drawn to favor Republicans by Republicans 10 years ago. So in case you wondered if, like, redistricting was important, this is a good example why. So Republican lawmakers are again completely in charge of the process, you know, from top to bottom. And because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision recently that said that states can gerrymander for partisan bases, then they really don't have any reason to hold back.

SHAPIRO: That makes it sound like Democrats in Texas have no tools at all. Is there any kind of check or balance on Republican power in the state?

LOPEZ: Yeah. Well, like the last time, the courts are really the only check they have, right? So even though partisan gerrymandering is legal, which is drawing districts that favor a party over the other, drawing maps that discriminate against people of color is definitely not. That's illegal. And because race and partisanship sometimes go hand in hand, it might be kind of impossible for Republicans to gerrymander based on partisanship without, like, running afoul of racial discrimination laws. So - and in fact, Stephanie Swanson with the League of Women Voters of Texas - she said that this has actually been a persistent issue in Texas.

STEPHANIE SWANSON: So in the past 50 years (laughter), Texas has been found to have racially discriminated or violated the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle. They could very much still do the same thing. And that's all we have currently right now - are the courts to stop it.

LOPEZ: Yeah. So Texas has, like, a pretty bad track record with this. And because of - so much of Texas's growth in the past few years and decades has been overwhelmingly because of growth among communities of color, groups say they're looking to make sure that those political lines, like, retain that political power and population growth that has accumulated over the past few years.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's turn from Texas to Oregon because Republicans next year are going to have total control of 20 state legislatures with map-making power, and Democrats are only going to have total control of seven. But Oregon is one of those seven. So Dirk VanderHart, what does that mean for redistricting in your state?

VANDERHART: Well, that's right. Democrats here have supermajorities in the House and Senate, along with the governor's office. And as of January, they're going to hold the secretary of state's office as well. That's really notable here because in Oregon, if the Legislature and governor can't agree on how to redraw legislative maps, the secretary of state takes over the process. And actually, in the past half-century, the Legislature has failed to pass a plan much of the time. So that is one reason Republicans were really adamant about hanging on to the secretary of state's office in this year's election. There would have been at least some path for them to have meaningful influence in redistricting. Instead, though, a progressive Democrat named Shemia Fagan won the seat.

SHAPIRO: So does that mean Republicans are totally frozen out in Oregon as the Democrats are in Texas?

VANDERHART: You know, for 2021, that absolutely looks like the case. Earlier this year, there was an effort to try to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission that would take control of the process from lawmakers. That's something Republicans were pretty supportive of, but it failed to even get enough signatures to make the ballot. So Shemia Fagan, the new secretary of state, has said she would appoint an independent commission to help advise her. We have not seen a lot of what that looks like.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's head east to North Carolina, which has been the site of many high-profile gerrymandering cases over the last few years. What do things look like now in Charlotte, Steve Harrison?

HARRISON: Yeah, so I think it's safe to say North Carolina has been one of those bitterly contested states over political gerrymandering after Republicans took control here in 2010. It was a North Carolina case that was heard by the Supreme Court in the summer of 2019 in which the justices said that gerrymandering based on political party was not unconstitutional, and that was a decision that Democrats across the country said was bad for democracy.

In North Carolina, there was also litigation in state court that was successful and forced Republicans to redraw legislative and congressional maps before the 2020 election. And with these new maps, Democrats were really hopeful they could win at least one chamber and have a say in drawing the new maps next year. But they had to win in rural and suburban areas. And like what happened in Texas and other places, those hopes really fizzled out. The GOP kept control of both the House and Senate.

SHAPIRO: And so what does that mean for redrawing the maps next year? Has the GOP indicated what they plan to do?

HARRISON: So they aren't giving any clues. But first, they're doing a little bit of gloating. They're saying, look; we won in 2010 on maps that Democrats drew, and we won in 2020 on maps that Democrats said were pretty fair. So they're taking a victory lap. The question is, are they going to take a hard-line approach next year and draw the maps themselves and lock Democrats out? Democrats here are pretty worried. Here's Natasha Marcus, a state senator from Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte.

NATASHA MARCUS: What I do think is that Republicans who run the General Assembly are smart, and they're going to certainly take steps to make things look transparent.

HARRISON: And one more thing. There's an assumption here that Democrats are going to benefit from new maps just because so much of the population growth is in cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, which are very blue. But the state's top Republican, Senate leader Phil Berger, is saying, not so fast. He's making this kind of interesting argument that Republican voters in these cities are disenfranchised because the GOP doesn't have any representation there. So he's saying, look; we have 30% of the vote and no members in the Legislature. So he's saying, hey, maybe we should draw a safe Republican seat in Charlotte.

SHAPIRO: So take a step back. These votes in November have implications for political power in the U.S. over the next decade. What is this likely to mean?

HARRISON: So yeah. One thing going forward - in North Carolina, there was hope to have an independent commission to draw maps. That's what Democrats wanted. That's not going to happen. And I think that's been a push in a lot of places around the country. And Republicans just aren't interested in doing that. So one thing I think you can have the possibility to continue nationwide is a situation where one party may get more votes for their state House chamber or state Senate chamber but still have fewer seats overall.

SHAPIRO: That is Steve Harrison of member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., along with Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin, Texas, and Dirk VanderHart of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Thank you all.

VANDERHART: Thanks, Ari.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

HARRISON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "NEVER MESS WITH SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.