The Danger of 'Safe' Districts: Politicians are using new tools to make elections increasingly uncompetitive.

AuthorAhmed, Amel

Once every decade, state legislators embark on a complicated and often contentious process of redistricting seats for elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. This follows the decennial census and is mandated by the Constitution to keep districts roughly equal in population. It's also fodder for partisan gerrymandering, leading to the kind of creative geography that has given us "the praying mantis" (Maryland's third district), the "upside-down elephant" (Texas's thirty-fifth district), and the "Goofy kicking Donald Duck" (Pennsylvania's seventh district).

But surprisingly, in 2022, as the current round of redistricting unfolds, egregious gerrymandering isn't the only big story. State courts, in fact, have become much more aggressive in rejecting heavily gerrymandered district maps. Meanwhile the U.S. Supreme Court--with the exception of Wisconsin and Alabama, where redistricting maps that expanded Black-majority districts in both states were overturned--has largely taken a back seat in deciding redistricting cases. This has shifted the terrain to the states and resulted in several high-profile battles between state legislatures and the courts. In Ohio, for example, the state's districting plan has been sent back four times and now continues its limbo in litigation.

As partisan gerrymandering becomes increasingly contested, we've seen another alarming trend: a sharp increase in the number of "safe seats" secured in the standard redistricting process. These are seats where the expected margin of victory for one party is more than 15 percent--enough to discourage serious challenges from the opposing party and render a district uncompetitive. This phenomenon remains distinct from gerrymandering; while both processes involve manipulating the electoral map, gerrymandering implies geographic distortions of districts for partisan gain, and safe seats can be achieved without this.

These "safe" districts may satisfy the standards of compactness, contiguity, and preservation of communities that are red flags for gerrymandering. But though they may not look unusual or warrant any notorious nicknames, they are effectively locked in for one party or the other. By using advanced data-gathering tools and other strategies, parties have boiled down a way to secure the benefits of gerrymandering without actually having to engage in gerrymandering.

According to FiveThirtyEight, only thirty-three of the 395 districts that have been drawn so far in the...

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