WASHINGTON — For just about all of the nation’s history, politicians would fight over redistricting for a short period after each once-a-decade census, then forget about congressional maps until the next reapportionment.
Now, a string of lawsuits and in-the-works state referendums are poised to redefine the battles over state legislative and congressional lines and leave the country in a state of perpetual redistricting.
The dynamic is an escalation of the scattered redistricting battles over the last decade. Not since 2012 and 2014 have all 50 states’ congressional lines remained constant for consecutive elections, a streak unlikely to be broken next year. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee estimates that up to 29 seats in 14 states could be redrawn based on lawsuits that have already been filed. Scores more seats could change if the Supreme Court rules later this year that state legislators have ultimate authority to draw the lines.
To prepare for those fights, the party’s redistricting committee is changing its leadership for the first time since its formation in 2017. Kelly Burton, the committee’s president, is leaving to join its six-member board and is being replaced by John Bisognano, who has been executive director. Marina Jenkins, who has served as the committee’s litigation director, will succeed Mr. Bisognano as executive director.
“People used to think about staff that worked on redistricting as redistricting cicadas that come out every 10 years,” Mr. Bisognano said in an interview Thursday. “We need to keep this movement alive and growing in order to continue to fight back against the gerrymandering that we see coming.”
Mr. Bisognano, a 38-year-old Massachusetts native, worked as a clubhouse manager for the minor league baseball team that used to play in Pawtucket, R.I., before beginning his political career as an organizer on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. He later worked in the Obama White House and joined the Democratic redistricting committee shortly after it formed in 2017.
Mr. Bisognano, the new president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and Marina Jenkins, its new executive director.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
The Democratic redistricting committee and its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Redistricting Trust, both emerged in 2017, as the two parties prepared for the redistricting cycle that would follow the 2020 census. That cycle was itself a shift from how redistricting business had been done before, when it was chiefly a concern of the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Both redistricting organizations are remaining intact for the 2020s, as the political and legal fights persist, and lines that in past decades would have been considered fixed are now subject to change.
“It was something that the party committees used to do themselves — the D.N.C. and the R.N.C. both had it in-house for a long time,” said Adam Kincaid, the president and executive director of the Republican redistricting organization. “It was time for organizations to have a full-time eye on this versus just having one or two staff working on it part time.”
Republicans, led by a super PAC run by Ed Gillespie, outflanked Democrats in 2010 to flip control of 20 state legislative chambers just before new congressional and state legislative districts were to be drawn. That gave Republicans a firm grip on the House that didn’t give way until 2018, when President Donald J. Trump alienated suburban voters who had previously voted for G.O.P. candidates.
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Yielding to Conspiracy Theories: Five Republican-led states have severed ties with a bipartisan voting integrity group, one that has faced intensifying attacks from election deniers and right-wing media.Asian Americans: In the New York governor’s election last year, voters in Asian neighborhoods across New York City sharply increased their support for Republicans. The shift is part of a national trend.The MAGA-fication of a College: North Idaho College trustees vowed to root out the school administration’s “deep state.” A full-blown crisis followed, and the school’s accreditation is now at risk.Chicago Mayor’s Race: The mayoral runoff pits two Democrats against each other who are on opposite sides of the debate over crime and policing — a divide national Republicans hope to exploit.
By then, Mr. Obama, along with his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had created the Democratic redistricting organization in the waning days of his presidency. Mr. Holder will most likely head to Wisconsin this month to campaign for Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal state supreme court candidate there, while Mr. Obama is hosting a March fund-raiser for the committee that will have as a “special guest” Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic House speaker.
“For the past six years, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has done the hard work of redrawing and reinstating district maps to make them more fair,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Their work has meant the difference between victory and defeat, and our democracy is in stronger shape because of what they have accomplished.”
Barack Obama helped create the Democratic redistricting organization in the waning days of his presidency.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
The next movement on redistricting is likely to come in Ohio and North Carolina, where Republicans who control the state governments are poised to redraw congressional maps to give their party an added advantage. Texas lawmakers are also redrawing their maps.
Democrats have challenged maps in four states — Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas — for violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial discrimination. Democrats have also filed a lawsuit in state courts in their effort to undo congressional maps in Florida and Utah.
In New Mexico, Republicans are suing to overturn congressional district maps.
And the outcome of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election in April will determine whether a Republican-drawn gerrymander of state legislative lines survives. Four other states — Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — have state Supreme Court elections in the next five years that could shift the balance of power and change how district lines are drawn.
In those five years, control of the Michigan court, on which liberals now hold a 4-3 majority, could change three times.
“We started this project six years ago because American voters deserved fair maps that represent our diverse communities — and we needed a coordinated strategy to make that happen,” Mr. Holder said. “The threat to fair maps continues and so must N.D.R.C.’s work.”
In addition to elections for governors, state Supreme Court justices and legislators, ballot referendums are another area that the national parties’ state legislative committees are targeting.
Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma all have legislation pending that would make passing a voter-driven referendum harder. Republicans in South Dakota and several other states tried similar threshold increases last year, but voters rejected them.
Mr. Bisognano said the Democratic redistricting committee would also keep a focus on maintaining the integrity of the 2030 census after Trump administration officials tried to meddle in the 2020 census in order to achieve a favorable outcome for Republicans.
“It came and went very quickly, and Covid obviously had an interesting and significant impact on the census, but so did Donald Trump,” Mr. Bisognano said.
The Supreme Court could also sharply increase the power that state legislators have over drawing congressional districts. However, justices hinted this week that they might duck making a ruling on the case, known as Moore v. Harper.
Even without a major Supreme Court decision, just seven states have laws that forbid mid-decade congressional districting, leaving the others to draw new maps when state legislators desire. Six more states prohibit new state legislative lines to be drawn in between censuses.
A Supreme Court ruling that state legislators have ultimate control over federal redistricting would remove any stability from the redistricting process, Mr. Bisognano said.
“If you add on the reality that these folks could redraw their maps and have no checks and balances in any capacity, that’s a pretty grim prospect for the ability for citizens to have fair maps,” he said.