Were he around today, Elbridge Gerry would no doubt complain that history has sullied his name. Following the 1810 census, Gerry, as governor of Massachusetts, signed off on a redistricting map including one district that looked to a newspaper editor like a salamander. The paper called it a "gerrymander," and the name stuck. But the district in question was far less sinuous and stretched than the districting modifications we routinely see today, two centuries later. The increasing sophistication of mapping software and the copious amounts of data available on all of us have made it possible to draw maps with extraordinary precision, down to the household. Districts for both state legislators and members of Congress wind crooked paths down city streets, skirt unfriendly neighborhoods, and pack unfriendly voters into districts where they can be contained.
As Washington wonders whether the shudder-inducing words "Speaker of the House John Boehner" will soon be on lips across the country, the implications of the fall elections for our political geography has gone largely without notice. Elections for control of state legislatures will also be taking place, and though most people know little if anything about who represents them in state capitols, this year it matters a great deal: We just completed a census, and legislatures in most states will be redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts in 2011.
In bad economic times, the electorate grows surly, and if "Throw the bums out!" is the prevailing mood, you're in trouble if you're one of the bums. That presents Democrats with a problem: They are the face of the political establishment not just nationally but in states as well.
Today, Democrats control 27 state legislatures, compared to the 14 Republicans control (eight are split, and Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral legislature). This was a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago: In the previous three election cycles, Democrats gained a net of 374 state house seats and 68 state senate seats.
But that success has made them vulnerable, in much the same way as the gains made by congressional Democrats in 2006 and 2008 made them vulnerable. Democrats have to defend a lot of unsafe ground, including seats they managed to win in traditionally conservative districts. That makes for an unusually competitive year; according to Governing magazine's Louis Jacobson, "Just under one-third (31 percent) of the legislative chambers that are up this fall are considered 'in play' -- that is, rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. … Currently, the Democrats have 21 chambers in play, compared to just four for the Republicans -- a burden five times as heavy for the Democrats."
Which means that the Democrats will almost certainly lose their majorities in at least some legislative chambers they currently control. But that doesn't mean they'll inevitably lose out when the maps start being redrawn.
The parties will be fighting over the 36 states that have partisan redistricting, where legislatures control the process; in the other states, independent commissions are responsible for drawing the maps. (If you want to find out how things work in your state, you can find that information here.) It's about as intensely political a process as one can imagine, because the stakes are so high. Draw the map cleverly, and you can win your party an extra seat -- or two or five -- long before ballots are cast. To prevail, one needs not only to be in charge of the process but to have the most sophisticated map-drawers, the savviest negotiators, and the best lawyers for the inevitable legal challenges.
After the 2000 census, Republicans controlled most of the country's state legislatures and used them mercilessly. For instance, Republicans in Pennsylvania drew the lines so that they ended up holding 12 of the state's 19 congressional districts, despite the fact that it was (and remains) a Democratic-leaning swing state. The GOP managed similar outcomes in Florida and Ohio. In the time since, however, Democrats have invested heavily in preparing for the next round of redistricting, creating a spate of organizations most Americans have never heard of. There's the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats in states get elected, with an eye toward maintaining as many of those precious majorities as possible; the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which is preparing to fight legal battles over redistricting; and the Foundation for the Future, which is assembling the data necessary to arm Democratic map-drawers.
The Republicans have their counterpart organizations -- there's Making America's Promise Secure (or MAPS), and the Redistricting Majority Project (or REDMAPS). But the current consensus seems to be that Democrats are better prepared for this arcane process.
But the battles will be intense, particularly in states that stand to lose congressional seats (like Pennsylvania and Ohio) or gain seats (like Texas) when the census counting is done. And if Democrats lose big in November, they'll be starting at a serious disadvantage.
With all the legal preparation, this could end up being the most heavily litigated redistricting season in memory. And that could give momentum to reformers who want every state to adopt a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission, so the process isn't dominated by the party that finds itself on top after the census. If gerrymandering became a thing of the past, Elbridge Gerry would probably be pleased.