Ten years ago, Republicans pulled off what would later be described as “the most audacious political heist of modern times.”

It was not particularly complicated. Every 10 years, the U.S. constitution requires states to redraw the maps for both congressional and state legislative seats. The constitution entrusts state lawmakers with the power to draw those districts. Looking at the political map in 2010, Republicans realized that by winning just a few state legislative seats in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, they could draw maps that would be in place for the next decade, distorting them to guarantee Republican control for years to come.

Republicans executed the plan, called Project Redmap, nearly perfectly and took control of 20 legislative bodies, including ones in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Then, Republicans set to work drawing maps that cemented their control on power for the next decade. Working behind closed doors, they were brazen in their efforts.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers signed secrecy agreements and then drew maps that were so rigged that Republicans could nearly hold on to a supermajority of seats with a minority of the vote. In Michigan, a Republican operative bragged about cramming “Dem garbage” into certain districts as they drew a congressional map that advantaged Republicans 9-5. In Ohio, GOP operatives worked secretly from a hotel room called “the bunker,” as they tweaked a congressional map that gave Republicans a 12-4 advantage. In North Carolina, a state lawmaker publicly said he was proposing a map that would elect 10 Republicans to Congress because he did not think it was possible to draw one that would elect 11.

This manipulation, called gerrymandering, “debased and dishonored our democracy”, Justice Elena Kagan would write years later. It allowed Republicans to carefully pick their voters, insulating them from the accountability that lies at the foundation of America’s democratic system. Now, the once-a-decade process is set to begin again in just a few weeks and Republicans are once again poised to dominate it. And this time around things could be even worse than they were a decade ago.

The redistricting cycle arrives at a moment when American democracy is already in peril. Republican lawmakers in states across the country, some of whom hold office because of gerrymandering, have enacted sweeping measures making it harder to vote. Republicans have blocked federal legislation that would outlaw partisan gerrymandering and strip state lawmakers of their authority to draw districts.

Advances in mapmaking technology have also made it easier to produce highly detailed maps very quickly, giving lawmakers a bigger menu of possibilities to choose from when they carve up a state. It makes it easier to tweak lines and to test maps to ensure that their projected results will hold throughout the decade.

“I’m very worried that we’ll have several states, important states, with among the worst gerrymanders in American history,” said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at Harvard, who closely studies redistricting. “That’s not good for democracy in those states.”

In 2019, the supreme court said for the first time there was nothing federal courts could do to stop even the most excessive partisan gerrymandering, giving lawmakers a green light to be even more aggressive. And because of the supreme court’s 2013 decision in the landmark Shelby County v Holder case, places with a history of voting discrimination will no longer have to get their maps approved by the federal government for the first time since 1965. It’s a lack of oversight that could embolden lawmakers to attempt to draw districts that could dilute the influence of minority voters.

The gerrymandering clock is ticking. There is a consensus that Republicans could use the redistricting process to draw maps that will allow them to retake the House of Representatives in 2022. In state capitols where Republicans have control, there are already discussions about how aggressive lawmakers should be when they carve up districts for the next decade.

Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina are all states where Republicans have complete control over the redistricting process and where experts are on high alert for GOP efforts to gerrymander districts. And even though Democrats are at a severe redistricting disadvantage overall, there are a handful of states – Illinois, New York and Maryland – where Democrats hold control of state government and can use that control to draw maps to their advantage.

Even though gerrymandering poses a uniquely dangerous threat to democracy, for decades, the process has largely gone under the radar. The mapmaking process is a complex, technical one, difficult to understand for average citizens. While some of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts are obviously contorted, it can be difficult to spot a gerrymander with the naked eye. And even if it were easy, lawmakers have largely taken the process behind closed doors, blocking the public from what they are seeing.

That is set to change this year too. Democrats and grassroots groups have spent the last few years educating citizens about the process and building up an army of volunteers across the country to closely monitor mapmaking. Part of that effort has been teaching people how to use publicly available technology to draw their own electoral maps.

“It’s an entirely new world than 10 years ago in terms of public mapping software. The capacity for the wide public to draw their own maps and identify their own communities,” said Moon Duchin, a mathematician who leads the MGGG redistricting lab at Tufts University, which has built publicly available mapping tools.

Empowered with those maps, members of the public can better challenge lawmakers on their justification for drawing strange-looking maps, said William Desmond, a redistricting expert who advised Arizona’s redistricting commission in 2010 and is working with California’s this year.

“Members of the public and interested parties, there’s going to be a lot more avenues open to them if they want to try their hand at drawing their own districts,” he said. “If they want to test the claims, like, ‘OK you said you can only do this if you split these counties, let’s see if I can take a whack at it.’ There’s lots more ways you can do it this time, and a lot higher level of quality.”

Technology aside, there’s also some hope that 2021 won’t be a repeat of 2011, when Republicans dominated redistricting. While Republicans do have a huge advantage in drawing the districts, it’s not as severe as it was in 2011. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two of the most gerrymandered states a decade ago, Republicans still control the state legislatures, but now have Democratic governors who will be able to veto egregiously extreme maps.

Adam Kincaid, the director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, a GOP group focused on redistricting, downplayed the effects of Project Redmap.

“Redmap has kind of taken on this mythos about what it was and what it was not. The reality was Redmap was a campaign to raise money to fund state legislative races around redistricting,” he said. “The best guardrails for gerrymandering have always been the American electorate. Shifting electorates break gerrymandering.”

But critics argue that severe partisan gerrymandering prevents shifting electorates from being heard. In Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Republicans have maintained a majority in the seats in the state legislature for the entire decade even as Democrats have won gubernatorial and other statewide races.

Kincaid agreed there would be significantly more public interest in the process this year than there had been in years past.

“A decade ago … the number of press calls I got could be counted on one hand. Really on one finger,” he said.

Some states are also choosing to strip lawmakers of their ability to draw districts altogether. In Michigan, a group of novice organizers successfully passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents. The commission has strict partisan fairness requirements it must follow as it draws maps. Colorado and Virginia will also use commissions to draw districts this year, after voters approved ballot initiatives.

“The gerrymandering last decade was so extreme that I think it has created this backlash. You see it in the reforms that have passed in a number of states. And you also see it in greater public awareness about gerrymandering,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

At the same time, he added, “I think for Republicans they also learned that this actually does work. They actually can do this with micro-precision.”

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