Yet what happened this spring in Oregon is just one example, though perhaps the most extreme one, of a larger trend vexing Democratic strategists and lawmakers focused on maximizing the party’s gains in redistricting. In key states over the past decade, Democrats have gained control of state legislatures and governorships that have long been in charge of drawing new maps — only to cede that authority, often to independent commissions tasked with drawing political boundaries free of partisan interference.
Supporters of these initiatives say it’s good governance to bar politicians from drawing districts for themselves and their party. But exasperated Democrats counter that it has left them hamstrung in the battle to hold the House, by diluting or negating their ability to gerrymander in the way Republicans plan to do in many red states. And with the House so closely divided, Democrats will need every last advantage to cling to their majority in 2022.
“We Democrats are cursed with this blindness about good government,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democratic state that will nonetheless see its congressional map drawn by a newly created independent commission.
“In rabid partisan states that are controlled by Republicans, they’re carving up left and right. And we’re kind of unilaterally disarming,” Connelly conceded, before adding: “But having said that, I still come down on the side of reforming this process because it’s got to start somewhere.”
Only a handful of states had redistricting commissions a decade ago, but the number has grown since then thanks in large part to a campaign from national Democrats, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, to increase voter awareness of gerrymandering — casting it mostly as a Republican abomination, despite the practice’s bipartisan history.
Outside of Oregon, Democrats are also nervous about Virginia and Colorado, which will both have new independent commissions after state legislators — and the voters — passed amendments creating them. Together, those three states account for 25 seats in the House.
The saga of Virginia’s redistricting commission, however, has proved to be the most controversial.
National Democrats poured upwards of $10 million into the state in the 2019 elections and painted the capture of the state legislature as crucial to the party’s redistricting fate. They took both chambers, securing total control in Richmond under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Democratic legislative candidates campaigned on a pledge to back an existing amendment that would create a redistricting commission. But when it came time to vote on it, they balked.
The proposed 16-person commission includes eight state lawmakers, four from each party. At least two Republican legislators must approve a map — giving the GOP de facto veto power — and if the commission deadlocks, the Republican-leaning state Supreme Court steps in.
Most Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against placing the amendment on the ballot. But nine defected and voted with Republicans to pass it, and voters overwhelmingly approved it in November.
“We just don’t seem to have the guts to just go…