WASHINGTON — Even before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, top Democrats — including President Barack Obama — are already launching efforts to reshape the electoral landscape.
Faced with a stinging loss at the polls, a conservative-leaning Supreme Court and an incoming attorney general who testified this week about the dangers of voter fraud, Democrats are starting early to change the legal terrain in four years.
On Thursday, former Attorney General Eric Holder vowed, jokingly, “to make redistricting sexy.” The comments came at a news conference held to launch a new group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder said Obama has told him that he wants to dedicate a part of his post administration life to the issue.
The plans discussed are two-fold: a comprehensive redistricting strategy ahead of the 2020 census and new efforts to combat laws that progressives believe are veiled attempts to suppress the vote.
The effort comes as Republicans celebrate their electoral victory, and the President-elect plans to nominate a new justice to a Supreme Court that has redistricting and voter ID cases in the pipeline.
“There are critically important cases coming to a head in the courts on redistricting, strict Voter Id and other restrictions on voter access that will determine whether American citizens are able to have their voices heard at the polls to demand fair representation,” said Liz Kennedy of the liberal Center for American Progress.
The focus is on the state level. Each decade after the census, it is the state legislators and the governors in the majority of the states who redraw the maps of electoral districts.
Around the last census, Republicans made heavy investments in state legislative elections that resulted in Republicans controlling the process in many states.
“We have to raise the consciousness of people who are in the progressive community to understand that coming out every four years and campaigning hard for a presidential election is not nearly enough,” Holder said.
Holder said he thinks Democrats have been paying too much attention to presidential elections.
“Presidential elections are obviously important,” he said, “but we lost sight of the fact that if you want to have a representative Congress you have to make sure that you have state legislatures that are going to yield a representative Congress, and we also lost sight of the fact that a lot of governing in this country happens at state and local level.”
Holder said some of those maps were drawn and manipulated by legislatures to favor the party in power. The process is called “gerrymandering.”
“We have always had gerrymandering,” Holder said. “Now we have gerrymandering on steroids.”
Holder laid out a three-prong strategy to attack the issue. It includes working on key elections, providing resources to mount legal challenges and supporting ballot initiatives to change the process.
Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, welcomes the effort.
“The final goal is to prevent another round of extreme Republican gerrymandering,” she said. “Having Democrats in place to have a hand on those map-drawing plans will prevent that.”
Joshua A. Douglas, an election law expert at the University of Kentucky Law School, said that while both sides try to draw maps to their advantage, last time around, Republicans did a much better job of winning state legislative seats.
“So far, the Supreme Court has refused to stop partisan gerrymandering and has only stepped in for charges of racial gerrymandering or to ensure districts of equal population,” he said.
Of the new efforts by Holder, Douglas said the Republicans are likely to say “good luck drawing maps, but if they are unfair, we will sue.”
Marc Elias, who served as Hillary Clinton’s election lawyer, spent much of the last campaign fighting back efforts by Republicans on issues on voter access, such as strict voter ID requirements and cutbacks on early voting.
“The election is over, but we have not seen a let up of Republican efforts to make voting harder,” he said on a call hosted by the American Constitution Society.
In general, Republicans push for new restrictions on voting so as to combat what they say is a problem of voter fraud. Democrats ridicule the notion that voter fraud exists and say the laws are a veiled attempt to suppress the vote.
During his confirmation hearing for attorney general this week, Sessions reignited the debate.
“Do you agree with President-elect Trump that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the presidential election?” Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked.
Sessions responded: “I don’t know what the President-elect meant or was thinking when he made that comment or what facts he may have had to justify his statement. I would just say that every election needs to be managed closely and we need to ensure that there is integrity in it.”
The sentiment worries Democrats who know that Sessions is poised to shift resources in the Department of Justice away from voting rights toward issues brought up during the campaign such as immigration control and drug enforcement. They are well aware that in 2013, a closely divided court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
During the campaign, Democrats had hoped that they might be able to fill the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia in an effort to reduce the damage of that opinion. Now that seat will go to someone in the mold of the conservative legend.
The voting wars show no signs of letting up. Indeed, one of Trump’s first moves after the election was to appoint his election lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, to the plum job of White House counsel. And one of McGahn’s first tasks: help the incoming President pick a Supreme Court justice to fill the current vacancy.