Parties to wage census battle with outside groups

January 14, 2020

Reid Wilson, THE HILL – The formal process that leads to the decennial reapportionment of congressional seats begins later this month in a tiny village on the Bering Sea, where census takers will begin counting the 500 or so residents who call Toksook Bay home.

But Democrats and Republicans preparing for the redistricting process that will follow have been organized and raising money for years, conscious that the fallout will ripple for a decade or more. 

With so much on the line, the two parties have formalized and professionalized their redistricting operations to an unprecedented degree. Where redistricting was once the sleepy domain of a few demographers operating out of national party committees, it will now be overseen by robust organizations independent of, but working closely with, the Democratic and Republican national committees. The captains of those two warring ships have, for the first time, built out massive operations with dozens of staffers dedicated to the full-time project of winning a lasting advantage.

Democrats will rely on the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), the group formed by former Attorney General Eric Holder and run by Kelly Ward, a longtime top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Ward’s team already numbers more than 30 staffers, including state directors in nine critical battlegrounds.

The Republican point man is Adam Kincaid, a veteran of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the Republican Governors Association and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Now, he runs the National Republican Redistricting Trust, a new outside group headed by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) with more than 20 staffers.

The creation of the new outside groups, observers say, reflects the growing recognition of the importance of political boundaries after a decade of contentious legal battles in a narrowly divided nation. 

“The roles of the committees are very specific to a particular function within the party,” Ward said in an interview. “If you put redistricting within any
 of those entities, it by definition is not that committee’s top priority. It’s
not the mission focus of the entity, and that’s how it had been done in
the past.”

The new groups also reflect the reality of the legal landscape after the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and subsequent litigation that now allows those groups to raise big money from mega-donors, instead of relying on smaller checks sent to the Democratic National Committee or the RNC.

“There are all kinds of virtues of independence, both in terms of the sources of funding available as well as the freedom of the institution not to be saddled with the same burdens that a party is,” said Nathaniel Persily, a political scientist at Stanford who has served as a special redistricting master in several prominent court cases.

Both Ward and Kincaid say their jobs over the next two years will be to support state legislators and independent redistricting commissions across the country tasked with drawing
new lines. To do so, both have built massive data analysis operations that did not previously exist within party committees. While the political parties have to consider how an individual votes, the redistricting groups have to consider where that voter lives and the proximity to a precinct boundary.

“We care a lot more about how precincts have changed over time, because that’s something we have to know,” Kincaid said in an interview. “We need to know where that precinct was in 2002.”

Both groups see their mission as more than simply drawing favorable maps. Under Ward, the NDRC has become a legal clearinghouse, organizing lawsuits against Republican-drawn district boundaries in states such
as Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The group has already spent on judicial and state legislative races, and it plans to support reform measures including ballot initiatives that create independent redistricting commissions.

It also plans to use the thousands of activists and volunteers who once made up Organizing for America (OFA), the offshoot of former President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. OFA merged with the NDRC last year, in part to prepare for this decade’s redistricting cycle. Those activists and volunteers will be asked to show up at legislative hearings or meetings, a reflection that redistricting and partisan gerrymandering is more in the public consciousness than ever before.

“This will be the most democratized redistricting process that we have ever seen in this country, because the technology for drawing and analyzing maps is available to the public in the way it’s never been before,” Ward said in an interview. “It won’t be possible for the legislators to do this in a secret, nontransparent way.”

The groups are something of an oddity in modern politics, in which the longest-term thinkers tend to have their minds fixed solely on the next midterm or presidential election. Focusing solely on a once-a-decade occurrence is virtually unheard of.

“It’s a culture change. Our folks on the Republican side, donors and party operatives, are used to dealing with just campaigns and elections. Long-term projects are not something we as a party have been good at investing in. So this is a new thing,” Kincaid said. “We’ve been on defense a lot. We’ve been catching up on data.”

A part of the task each group faces is identifying the key players in every state, whether a veteran legislator, a particularly adept staffer or a commissioner with substantial sway. 

The Constitution leaves mapmaking up to the states, and each state has its own unique way of drawing maps. Thirty-one states give legislatures the power to draw congressional district maps; four states rely on an advisory commission that forwards recommendations to the legislature; four states use politically appointed commissions to draw maps; and four more will use independent commissions. The seven remaining states have only one congressional district, though that is likely to change in 2022 if Montana gains a seat, as expected.

Once new district lines take effect, the two sides will enter a new phase of lawsuits like those that have defined the past decade. After the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that forced some state and local governments to seek federal permission to change their boundaries, and another ruling sidestepped the court’s role in policing partisan gerrymandering, the next decade’s legal battles are likely to play out more in state courts.

“State courts have been increasingly willing to weigh in, knowing that nothing is coming from the federal government,” said Justin Levitt, a former top Justice Department official and law professor at Loyola Law School. “Every 10 years, redistricting litigation joins death and taxes among the certainties of life. No matter which party is drawing the lines, there will be a lawsuit.”

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