This Fall, members of the Indiana General Assembly will return to the Statehouse to complete the process of redrawing state legislative and congressional districts for use in the 2022 midterm elections. Indiana is among the majority of states that assigns this responsibility to the state legislature. It is typically the most partisan vote legislators will take. As a legislator you vote for your team when it comes to the new maps, even if it means your own district is made worse or even eliminated. Of course, legislators in the majority try to make sure that doesn't happen. They all want a safe district, i.e. they do not want to have to worry about winning a competitive general election.
Republicans dominate the Indiana legislature and will be the ones drawing the maps. The House is 71- 29 Republican and the GOP controls the Senate 39-11. This was not always the case. Democrats won a majority of House seats in 1990 and 2000, which gave Democrats control over the drawing of House maps for two decades. Despite the constant Republican lean of the state, Democrats won majorities in the Indiana House in 7 of 9 elections from 1992 through 2008. Indiana Republicans though flipped 12 House seats in 2010 and have never looked back, winning 67 or more seats seats in every election since the GOP redrew the maps prior to the 2012 election.
Gerrymandering is nothing new. Both parties engage in it and have done so from the early days of the Republic. What has changed is that computers and other technology allows more precise predictions regarding future voter behavior.
In gerrymandering, the goal of the majority party is to draw a large number of close but safe seats, while concentrating the minority party voters in fewer districts that they win by landslides. To associate some numbers with the strategy, the GOP wants districts they win by 60-40 margins, while the Democratic districts drawn by Republicans are conceded to the opposing party by margins approximating 80-20.
Sometimes to get to a majority in the chamber, the party in control of the redistricting process needs to cut its winning margins below the safe 60-40 baseline to, for example, a more tenuous 55-45. That turns safe districts (20 point margin) into competitive seats (10 point margin). Without that extra cushion, a bad election could result in the majority party losing a slew of seats. That happened in the 2010 election in which Indiana Republicans picked up those 12 seats and the majority, allowing it to draw districts moving forward. Because there are more Republican voters than Democrats in Indiana, GOP legislators do not have to cut the numbers as much as Democrats did to have a majority.
We have a more local example of the pitfalls of cutting the numbers too much. The current Indianapolis City-County Council maps were drawn by the Republicans which had a majority, and held the Mayor's office, 10 years ago. But the Republican vote in Marion County/Indianapolis was in decline and the only way to draw a majority GOP map was to cut the baseline Republican districts to margins such as 52-48. Not surprisingly, the Democrats won a majority in 2015 and then a supermajority in 2019, when the party won 20 of the 25 council district maps. Even though Democrats might have 60% of the countywide vote, 80% of the council members are Democrats. Again, that was achieved using a Republican-drawn map.
Going into the 2021 redistricting, Republican members of the General Assembly will once again be in control of drawing the maps. But it is unlikely the GOP can improve its numbers. In a state that might be 60% Republican at best, the GOP has 71% of the House seats and 78% of the Senate seats. Given Indiana's GOP baseline vote has declined during the Trump era, more likely the new maps will reflect an improvement of the GOP district numbers even if that means conceding more districts to the Democrats. As far as the congressional districts go, Republicans legislators will no doubt improve the GOP numbers in CD 5 for Rep. Victoria Spartz who won the district with just 50% of the vote (a Libertarian candidate got 4%) in 2020.
There is also a hidden danger for the GOP in redistricting. Although, the GOP baseline has declined during the Trump era, especially in the suburbs, that decline was tempered by heavy rural and Republican turnout. Trump is very popular in Hoosier rural communities and small towns. In redrawing the districts, Republican leaders will need to redraw suburban GOP districts further out into rural areas to solidify their winning margins which were dramatically cut during the Trump era. But can the GOP count on those rural voters continuing to turn out in large numbers even without Trump on the ballot? And, as far as those rural voters who make it to the polls, can they count on those voters pulling the Republican lever? The phenomenon of rural voters being heavily Republican is only of recent vintage.