Mike Johnson's elevation as House speaker last week wasn't due to just the support he received both from his fellow extremists and from the supposed moderates who abandoned all previous objections to a candidate like him. Johnson should also thank gerrymandered districts that courts have deemed illegal but were nonetheless used in last year's elections.
The math is striking. Republicans hold just a five-seat majority in the House—and courts have ruled that at least six congressional districts that were in effect for the 2022 midterms in five states broke laws that ban discrimination against minority groups or prohibit drawing districts for partisan advantage.
Last year, federal courts in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana found that Republican lawmakers in all three states had likely violated the Voting Rights Act by carving up Black communities to prevent voters there from electing their preferred candidates. A state court in Florida, meanwhile, concluded that Republicans there had transgressed a similar provision in the state constitution. And Ohio's Supreme Court ruled not once but twice that the GOP's new congressional maps ran afoul of a ban on partisan gerrymandering found in that state's constitution.
The four Southern states on this list each cost Democrats a seat in the House, and Ohio likely cost them two. Had legally compliant maps been in place last year, it's extremely likely that Johnson would not be speaker today.
Gerrymandering remains a nationwide problem thanks to lockstep Republican opposition to growing reform efforts. In an infamous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2019, every GOP-appointed justice voted to prohibit federal courts from curtailing partisan gerrymandering, over the objections of every Democratic appointee. Chief Justice John Roberts even argued that one reason judicial intervention wasn’t needed was because Congress itself could end gerrymandering, at least for congressional mapmaking.
However, when House Democrats passed a bill to end congressional gerrymandering nationwide that same year, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to take it up. And the cause of federal reform didn't improve when Democrats reintroduced their proposal the following year after they won control of the Senate. Republicans still voted unanimously to block the legislation, and the effort died when Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin refused to curtail the GOP's filibuster to pass the measure.
Consequently, as shown on the map below, Republicans were able to draw roughly four out of every 10 congressional districts following the 2020 census—three times as many as Democrats drew. (The rest were drawn in a more neutral fashion by courts or commissions.)
With Republicans universally refusing to ban gerrymandering, Democrats largely refused unilateral disarmament and fought back by drawing favorable maps where they could. However, Republicans had many more opportunities to contort district lines to their benefit, in part because state courts struck down a plan passed by Democrats in New York—the fourth-largest state—and replaced it with a nonpartisan map.
By contrast, after multiple courts ruled that Republican-drawn maps in five states likely discriminated against Black voters or violated state laws against partisan gerrymandering, right-wing appellate judges—especially on the Supreme Court—allowed the GOP to use those maps anyway while litigation continued.
Only Alabama has since seen the problem remediated. In a surprise ruling earlier this year, the Supreme Court affirmed that the state's congressional map likely violated the VRA, and a lower court subsequently replaced it with one that will likely see Democrats gain a seat next year. Republicans, however, were still able to enjoy the benefits of that illegal district, not only last year but for many years prior.
Progress has been even slower elsewhere. Republicans are appealing the rulings that found they'd discriminated against Black voters in Florida and Louisiana, and they have promised to appeal in Georgia as well. With many opportunities for delay, Republicans in all of these states may yet have the chance to use discriminatory maps at least one more time, even if they're ultimately overturned.
The situation is worse still in Ohio, where a hard-line Republican majority took control of the state Supreme Court in last year's elections. Wary that the new-look court would open the door for even more extreme gerrymandering, reformers dropped their legal challenge to the GOP's congressional map, ensuring that it will remain in place for next year as well.
Together, these discriminatory maps were responsible for the GOP's margin in 2022, and they could be once again in 2024. Some analysts have rejected this argument, however, by pointing to the popular vote for the House as a whole, which Republicans won last year by a margin of 2.7 percentage points nationwide.
But this metric is incomplete and even misleading. For starters, Democrats left more seats uncontested, depriving voters of even a nominal choice between the parties; accounting for those races, the GOP's edge would probably have been closer to 1.5 points.
It's also worth noting that Republicans have in the past blithely dismissed arguments that rest on the House popular vote, most especially in 2012. That year, Democrats won the overall vote 48.8 to 47.7, yet Republicans easily secured a majority in the House, taking 234 seats to just 201 for Democrats after the GOP drew just over half of districts nationwide while Democrats drew only one-tenth.
Just as importantly, the popular vote does not happen independently of the map and instead is influenced by it. Political scientists have found that gerrymandering can increase the favored party's vote share beyond what it might otherwise expect by tilting the playing field before an election cycle even begins.
Uncompetitive districts make it harder for the out-party to attract credible candidates while encouraging no shortage of strong in-party hopefuls to run. This results in elections that are contested only nominally. Furthermore, the party that benefits from gerrymandering in previous elections gains an inflated advantage from having incumbents able to run in future elections. And since there are more races like these that favor Republicans than Democrats, there's more of an opportunity for the GOP to pad its national vote totals.
Put another way, if every state had used fair maps in recent elections, it's unclear which party would have won more votes overall in last year's midterms.
Furthermore, the 2022 results reflected a number of unusual factors. Most notable were the low Democratic turnout in large, uncompetitive states such as California, Florida, and New York but much higher Democratic turnout in competitive states and those where abortion rights were at stake. That scenario is unlikely to repeat in 2024, since modern presidential elections have become heavily nationalized and always drive much higher turnout compared with the previous midterm.
Another way we know the 2022 map penalized Democrats is by looking at what's known as the median district—that is to say, the district right smack in the middle on a partisan basis. If Democrats were to win the median district and every seat to its left, they'd have a majority of 218; the converse is true for Republicans.
As we noted above, though, not every seat is contested, so we can't simply rank districts based on how they performed at the House level last year. However, we can instead sort them based on how they performed in the 2020 presidential election—a contest every voter gets to vote in where the major-party nominees are the same.
What's more, presidential results are very closely correlated with congressional results, and have been for many years: Following the 2022 elections, just 5% of members of Congress sit in seats carried by the other party's White House nominee. That is to say, if a district voted for Joe Biden, the chance is overwhelming that it also supported a Democrat for the House.
So when we sort districts from Biden's best to Trump's best and zoom in on the one in the middle, we land on Michigan's 8th. Biden carried that district, but only by 2 points. Nationwide, by contrast, he won the popular vote by a shade under 4.5 points. That means that this median district was 2.4 points to the right of Biden's national margin (when accounting for rounding)
In other words, to capture a bare majority of seats in the House, Democrats would need to carry several districts more conservative than the nation as a whole—four in total, including Michigan's 8th. That might not seem like a lot, but with the House so close, that figure looms large.
And it amounts to a penalty for Democrats and an advantage for Republicans. What's more, it's an ongoing one: Using the 2016 presidential results for these same districts shows that the median district had a similar 3.7-point lean to the right. And with Trump the heavy favorite for the GOP nomination in a rematch against Biden next year, this pro-Trump tilt will likely remain in effect.
But already the map for 2024 has grown more slanted because Republicans just enacted an extreme new map in North Carolina that shifts four Democratic districts much further to the right, making three of them unwinnable for their incumbents. That means several more states, beyond just Alabama, would need to draw new Democratic-leaning districts just to make up for North Carolina, let alone to rid the national map of its pro-Trump distortion.
Had Republicans in Congress—or their allies on the courts—not blocked Democratic-backed efforts to end gerrymandering nationally, Democrats would likely be enjoying two more years with full control over the federal government. But because Republicans, both at the national level and in the states, have chosen to preserve their power to gerrymander, an election denier who led the litigation central to Trump's coup attempt is now House speaker and second-in-line to the presidency.