Gerrymandering

What's happening?

The most important news to know this week wasn't President Trump's trip overseas, Jared Kushner's communications with Russia, or even the G-7 Summit. It was a Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering.

 

Gerrymandering means intentionally dividing election districts to give one group an advantage. But back up a minute: In Congress, you're represented by two Senators from your state as well as one House member for the district you live in within that state. The number of districts in your state—and the number of House members—depends on its population. (In 2016, the Supreme Court held that states may use total population to make these calculations, as opposed to total voting-eligible population.)

 

Roughly speaking, every Congressional district covers the same number of people—approximately the U.S. population (326M) divided by the number of House representatives (435). It comes out to around 750,000 people per district. The fact that districts can't cross state lines means these numbers don't end up perfectly equal across the country. But they're close.

 

Within each state, every district has to be as close to equal in population as is possible. In order to keep up with population changes, these lines are usually redrawn with the Census every 10 years. 

 

But deciding how to draw those district lines is not easy. In most states, that decision is up to the state legislature—which often works to give their majority party a leg up in Congress. That's gerrymandering.

 

So what happened this week? In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina was using race to gerrymander districts in an improper way. States can use race to redraw district lines but only if it serves a "compelling interest" (like complying with the Voting Rights Act to protect minority voting interests.) The Supreme Court found that North Carolina lawmakers used race without that compelling interest—setting some boundaries for gerrymandering in the future.     

Why is it important?

Gerrymandering has an important impact on our electoral map, though political scientists disagree about the size of that impact and other factors involved.

 

In this case, the decision comes down against race-based gerrymandering. But it is decidedly not the prohibition against political gerrymandering as a whole, which some have mistakenly said it is. 

 

Redrawing district lines to give your party an advantage is still perfectly legal—and the debate about whether it should be could change our elections.

Debate it!

Should we change how we draw district lines to prevent partisan gerrymandering?

No: 

Neat lines seem nice, but they don't produce the most fair outcomes. Gerrymandering is messy, but the solutions that remove district-making power from state legislatures cause more problems than they solve. 

 

Gerrymandering reformers often tout an algorithm that creates "optimally compact" districts of equal population. But as journalist Stephen Wolf explained, this is a terrible standard. "All it does is needlessly and unproductively split communities, cities, and counties. Just as importantly, it violates the Voting Rights Act and denies black voters the ability to elect the candidate of their choice." All other suggested algorithms have a similar problem: they just don't take into account the real-world facts of the communities and people they attempt to divide. 

 

Further, the reasons to reform gerrymandering rely on a false premise. In a speech that called for reforms to redistricting, President Obama claimed that "if you’re a Republican, all you’re worried about is what somebody to your right is saying about you, because you know you’re not going to lose a general election. Same is true for a lot of Democrats. So our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, towards the far ends of the spectrum.  And that polarizes us further."

 

Except gerrymandering doesn't cause polarization. From a study in the American Journal of Political Science: "both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link."

 

But saying there is a link has a political advantage itself: the same study found "gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House; however, this increase is not an important source of polarization."

 

Vox found the same thing, explaining that by measuring the ideological position of each member of Congress and comparing it with electoral district information, "we can see whether representatives in gerrymandered districts are far more extreme than others. And they're not."

 

We shouldn't fix what isn't broken.

Yes: 

Gerrymandering harms our elections and is completely unnecessary. We need to take advantage of our own technological abilities to prevent partisan gerrymandering—because this is a problem that gets to the heart of our representative democracy.

 

Though a lawmaker in favor of gerrymandering might say it has a marginal impact, they would not likely argue it's a good thing. It's not. And we can solve this problem in a nonpartisan way—with reliable algorithms or with independent commissions. So why wouldn't we? There are two major reasons: well-meaning but mistaken concerns about technological solutions, and pushback from a party that wants an advantage.

 

There are several different algorithms that use census data to create fair districts with equal populations. Though some will argue that lines are better drawn around "communities of interest," that vague idea is more often a way to hide disenfranchisement than anything else. In cases in which the Voting Rights Act mandates minority votes be taken into account, there's no reason an algorithm using census data can't do that as well. And an independent, nonpartisan commission definitely could. There's no excuse for the system we have, given these other options.

 

Preserving gerrymandering for your own party's advantage is not only wrong but shortsighted. It may give your party an advantage now, but it creates a system that is unsustainable and undemocratic in the long term.

 

Does this sound like a fair system to you? The goal of gerrymandering is to put the opposing parties' majorities in as few districts as possible. It's much better for Democrats if Republican-majority districts are 90% Republican, 10% Democrat, but Democrat-majority districts are 60% Democrat and 40% Republican. That way, Democrats win more districts with the same number of voters (how much they win by doesn't matter here.) Many, including President Obama, understand that gerrymandering "threatens democracy" by decreasing competition and increasing party polarization (because candidates face more competition within their own party than the other, making them swing to their own extremes.)

 

As the saying goes, politicians still chose their voters rather than the other way around. It's time we used the tools we already have to change that.

Learn more...

  1. Monday's Supreme Court decision on North Carolina redistricting
    • "The Constitution entrusts States with the job of designing congressional districts. But it also imposes an important constraint: A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a
      compelling reason. In this case, a three-judge District Court ruled that North Carolina officials violated that bar when they created two districts whose voting-age populations were majority black. Applying a deferential standard of review to the factual findings underlying that decision, we affirm." 
  2. Vox's explainer on gerrymandering and its effects
    • "How do other countries handle redistricting? Relatively few countries let the legislature redistrict. Only 14 countries of the 60 in Handley's study let the legislature play a "dominant role," including the US, France, Italy, Korea, and Kyrgyzstan. But 12 of those countries incorporate some form of proportional representation into their electoral systems. This means that elections are not solely winner-take-all, and that votes for runner-up parties also elect some representatives. Only the US and France use a winner-take-all system and let the "obviously self-interested legislature" control the process, Handley writes."
  3. Wonkblog's visual explanation of gerrymandering
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