The Cook Political Report's 2021 Redistricting Overview

January 26, 2021 | David Wasserman

Between COVID-19-related Census delays and a few other events consuming the political world, the decennial redistricting process is off to a slow start. Yet in a few short months, phalanxes of cartographers and lawyers — and perhaps some normal people — will descend upon state capitals and courts in a bare-knuckled race to reshape the nation's political boundaries for the next decade.

The stakes couldn't be much higher: Democrats hold their narrowest House majority since the 1930s, and even tiny line changes could tip control in 2022. Although it's become fashionable to decry gerrymandering, the Supreme Court in 2019 refused to rein in the practice and Democrats' efforts to curb it in Congress appear to be headed nowhere absent ending the filibuster in the Senate.

That all but assures the parties will be locked in a high-tech arms race to maximize their seats in states they control, and initial analysis shows Republicans could gain enough seats through new maps alone to make the House a Toss Up.

In 2011, Republicans leveraged their huge state-level gains in the 2010 midterms to clobber Democrats in the redistricting process, enshrining their House majority for three straight elections until 2018's "blue wave." And had courts not invalidated GOP-drawn maps in Florida (2016), Virginia (2016), Pennsylvania (2018) and North Carolina (2020), Nancy Pelosi likely wouldn't be speaker today.

A lot has changed since ten years ago. Redistricting has exploded in the public's consciousness — especially on the left —guaranteeing more scrutiny of a process notorious for backroom deal-making. And thanks to reform-minded state ballot initiatives and more Democratic governors, independent commissions and Democrats will wield slightly more influence this cycle.

Both parties have prepared extensively for this war. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Eric Holder and executive director Kelly Ward Burton, and the National Republican Redistricting Trust, led by finance chair Scott Walker and executive director Adam Kincaid, serve as their parties' strategic and legal clearinghouses and will spend over $100 million. 

In particular, Democrats are much better-prepared and funded than last time, when they were blindsided. The NDRC and its affiliates have raised over $80 million (the NRRT has set a public goal of $35 million) and have already quietly spent millions on successful pushes to pass new commissions in Michigan and Colorado, overturn GOP maps in court and elect more Democratic governors.

Republicans may not be as dominant as they were in 2011 when they redrew nearly five times as many congressional seats as Democrats. But they still hold far more raw power. They fared well in 2020's state legislative elections and maintained control of several huge prizes: Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, which are collectively poised to gain six seats from the Census.

Redistricting Control Chart, 2021 vs. 2011

Our initial forecast is that Republicans might reasonably expect to net between zero to ten seats from new maps. In other words, they could gain all six seats they need for House control from reapportionment and redistricting alone.

But keep in mind: as large as redistricting looms over the 2022 House fight, it can't and won't determine control by itself. There will still be dozens of competitive districts next year (especially in states where commissions or courts end up drawing maps), and candidate recruitment and the larger political environment will still end up helping decide which party captures 218 seats.

Reapportionment Drama and Delays

Before redistricting begins, the Census must release final state population counts that determine how many House seats each state gets — reapportionment. These counts would have ordinarily been released by now, but COVID-19-related delays in data collection caused the Census to miss its December 31 statutory deadline. Now, the reapportionment release is expected March 6 at the earliest.

Reapportionment is usually fairly controversy-free, but the Trump administration sparked a firestorm by pushing to exclude illegal aliens from the counts — a change that would have upended centuries-old precedent have shifted power away from blue states like California and New York. To Democrats' relief, the clock effectively ran out on that push with the Biden administration's inauguration.

The latest Census estimates suggest Texas and Florida will once again be the big winners, likely gaining three and two seats respectively. Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Montana are on track to gain one seat each. 

On the minus side of the ledger, ten states are on track to lose one seat each: Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. If that came to pass, it would be the first time California has lost a seat since gaining statehood, and the first time New York had fewer congressional seats than Florida.

Projected 2021 Reapportionment Map

These counts also determine Electoral College votes and had the 2020 election played out under these projected post-2020 reapportionment numbers, Joe Biden would have won by a narrower 302 to 236 instead of 306 to 232.

But there could be a few reapportionment surprises. Alabama and New York are in a close race for the House's final seat, and there's a chance Alabama could keep its seven current seats and New York could lose two seats instead of one. It's possible the failure of the Trump administration's push to exclude illegal aliens from the count could save New York that seat, a boon to Democrats.

Also, note that redistricting can't kick off instantly after the Census finalizes state counts in March. States need detailed, block-level redistricting data before they can start drafting maps in earnest, and Census watchers believe fixing errors and new data privacy measures could delay the delivery of that data until July, putting states with early 2022 filing deadlines in a serious crunch.

Several states with off-year legislative elections, including New Jersey and Virginia, are already coming to terms with the likelihood that courts will order 2021 elections to proceed under old lines. But the unusually compressed timeline for legislatures and commissions to redraw maps could force courts to step in and resolve logjams by taking over the process, or even delay 2022 primaries.

Why This Redistricting Cycle is Different

As in the past, state legislatures will hold primary authority to redraw boundaries in an overwhelming majority of states, making this an inherently partisan process. But a surge in public awareness, new independent commissions and a compressed timetable could actually lead to a slight decline in the hyper-aggressive partisan gerrymandering that came to define the 2011 cycle. 

Both parties have a lot of work to do to educate their own members and legislators, many of whom are relatively new and have never been through a redistricting cycle. Here are five reasons this cycle will be different from the last:

1. More independent commissions 

Reformers' rallying cries to take mapmaking out of the hands of politicians led to successful ballot initiatives to create new independent commissions in Colorado, Michigan and Virginia. Those states are poised to join the ranks of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, New Jersey and Washington — all of which passed commission-drawn maps last time.

But not all commissions are built alike. California, which first installed its citizens' commission in 2011, is politician-free and forbidden from considering partisan data and incumbents' residences when drawing new lines. But in New Jersey, legislative leaders often tap close allies to serve on the bipartisan commission and resulting maps have often protected incumbents.

Since 2014, voters in New York, Ohio and Utah also passed new commissions. But even many reformers admit these commissions are too weak or designed to fail. In Utah, for example, the GOP-dominated legislature can choose to ignore the new advisory body's map and pass its own. In New York, the Democratic legislature can pass their own map if they reject two commission proposals first.

Of the commission states, California, New York and Ohio are the biggest mysteries to party strategists: California because of its sheer size and range of possibilities, and New York and Ohio because their reform experiments are brand new and untested. If Ohio Republicans or New York Democrats ultimately overruled the new commissions, it could swing the House four seats in either direction.

2. Less Republican dominance

Since 2011, the GOP has gained full "trifectas" (governor and both legislative chambers) in Arkansas, Missouri, New Hampshire and West Virginia as well as veto-proof majorities in Kentucky. But they've lost full control in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (where there are Democratic governors) as well as Michigan and Virginia (new commissions).

Meanwhile, Democrats have picked up trifectas in Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and New York (assuming the new commission deadlocks) and have lost trifectas in Arkansas and West Virginia. Overall, that means the GOP's advantage over Democrats in drawing seats is down from 219 to 44 in 2011 to 188 to 73 today, with the rest of the seats in split, commission or single-district states.

Redistricting Control Map

Republicans' biggest redistricting prizes continue to be Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. It's also possible they could try to ax Democratic seats in smaller states like Indiana, Kentucky or Missouri. Democrats' gerrymandering possibilities are more limited: they might be able to squeeze a handful more seats out of Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and Oregon, but that's about it.

However, even in GOP-controlled states, Republicans may be reluctant to gerrymander as aggressively as they did in 2011. Several suburban seats they designed to be safely GOP back in 2011 — including near Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston — fell to Democrats in 2018. That could give them pause about stretching their own voters too thin or dismantling a lot of Democratic districts.

3. New Voting Rights Act (VRA) implications

Contrary to fears of some on the left, the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder doesn't mean majority-minority districts will be axed in 2021. In practice, the Obama Justice Department never aggressively used those VRA provisions to combat GOP-drawn maps in 2012.

Even after Shelby, Democrats enjoyed a lot of success between 2013 and 2020 in suing to overturn GOP-drawn maps on racial gerrymandering grounds, including in  North Carolina and Virginia, where "unpacking" heavily African-American districts led to additional Democratic seats. Democrats hope to use that success as a blueprint for other courtroom fights ahead.

Democrats plan to use Section 2 of the VRA (which is still operative) to sue for additional Black opportunity seats in Louisiana and potentially Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, depending on final Census data. In each of those states, current GOP-drawn lines pack Black voters in a single district; additional majority-minority seats in the Deep South would be a huge boon to Pelosi.

As always, Texas is a huge question mark. Most of Texas's population growth is attributable to nonwhites, but Republicans will almost certainly seek to draw additional GOP seats and may try to redraw several Hispanic districts that trended towards Trump in 2020 to be more GOP-friendly. Democrats will have little recourse but to file VRA suits in federal court to block GOP plans.

4. Heightened public and court scrutiny

In the last decade, public awareness and interest in redistricting has exploded — especially on the left, in reaction to the GOP's domination in 2011. In many states, Republicans have won large legislative majorities despite winning slim majorities (and occasionally less than half) of the vote, and the GOP has enjoyed a structural edge in Congress too.

That reality spawned reform efforts, of course, but it's also put a microscope on the process in partisan-controlled states. At the time of the 2010 Census, Instagram and Snapchat hadn't yet launched and the iPhone 4 hadn't been released. Although statehouse press corps have thinned out, one Republican strategist warns "this round, there will be no such thing as doing it in secret."

Another democratizing factor: fancy map-making tools are no longer the exclusive domain of backroom party strategists and deal-making legislators. Activists and citizens with strong feelings are likelier than ever to show up at public hearings armed with maps and proposals they've drawn themselves, using open source tools like Districtr, DistrictBuilder and Dave's Redistricting App.

None of this guarantees legislators will shy away from brutal gerrymanders. But social media backlash against especially grotesque plans could cause some to think twice, delaying an already fraught affair. And between an unusually tight timetable and the potential for legislative stalemates, more state courts could intervene and impose plans that prevent the worst partisan excesses.

5. Voters are even more geographically sorted than they used to be. 

In November, 58 percent of America's voters lived in "landslide counties" that gave either party's presidential nominee at least 60 percent of the major party vote, up from 48 percent in 2008 and 39 percent in 1992. That's a level of residential self-sorting and polarization not seen in over a century.

This has huge implications for redistricting: when voters are more self-segregated than ever — mostly along urban/rural lines — it's much easier for partisan mapmakers to draw safely red and blue districts. This self-sorting, not technological advances, explains why it's increasingly possible to draw devastating gerrymanders that don't look like contorted animals or abstract art.

In most states, voter clustering has disproportionately hurt Democrats. The party's coalition is extremely concentrated in cities, inner suburbs and college towns - naturally leading to lopsided districts where extra blue votes are wasted. Democrats admit that Republicans could draw compact-looking gerrymanders in many states that are tough to challenge in courts as outrageous.

One fairly safe prediction: as the parties "pack" and "crack" the other side into oblivion in states they control, Congress's red/blue state divide will continue to widen. Today, 72 percent of House members come from states their party's presidential nominee won in the most recent election, up from 64 percent in 2009 and 52 percent in 1993. This percentage will continue to rise.

The Cook Political Report's 2021 Redistricting Scorecard 

It's far too early to declare either side a "winner" in this round of redistricting. But to help you keep track of what's unfolding, the Cook Political Report is launching a scorecard with an initial forecast of how many seats each party might gain or lose in each state due to redistricting alone. These are not hard and fast and will be updated frequently throughout 2021 and early 2022.

For example: West Virginia is slated to lose a seat, and because all three current incumbents are Republicans, that's a clear GOP loss of one. In Colorado, where a new competitive seat might be drawn, we're listing a 0.5 seat gain for both parties. Other cases are murkier: in California, New York and Ohio, there's a much wider range of possible outcomes — and our forecast is sure to change.

Throughout 2021, we'll delve into the states in detail, spotlighting a different state's redistricting outlook each week. Eventually, each state below will have its own page with detailed analysis as well as current and hypothetical maps.

2021 Cook Redistricting Scorecard

Additional redistricting resources:

Redistricting can be a complex topic, and fortunately, there are several excellent resources to help demystify the process: the National Conference of State Legislatures's redistricting page, Prof. Justin Levitt's All About Redistricting site and Ballotpedia's guide to state-by-state redistricting procedures. Dave's Redistricting App is a terrific tool allowing users to build their own maps.