The PJ Tatler

Ornstein: 'The Pernicious Effects of Gerrymandering'

No rational person is in favor of gerrymandering congressional districts. In recent years, the process has become ridiculous, as the party in charge of a state legislature redraws districts to the ultimate advantage of their party. Or, the parties collude in the drawing of districts to assure their incumbents are safe.

The reason is partly due to demographics, and partly due to powerful new data available at the click of a mouse. Segmenting the population into ever expanding subsets related to race, zip code, income, and other markers, the data helps identify party voters using Census Bureau information. Highly sophisticated computer programs are used to carve out safe districts with the precision of a scalpel. The technology combined with old-fashioned politics leads to polarization and hyper-partisanship, as Resident Scholar at AEI, Norman Ornestein points out in the National Journal:

Gerrymandering has leached much of the broader heterogeneity out of congressional districts, contributing to the echo-chamber effect, where members’ ideological predilections are reinforced, and not challenged, back home. A corollary is the racial segregation of districts—the fact that so many Republican districts now have barely more than trace elements of minorities, giving GOP lawmakers little incentive to reach out or be sensitive to issues that resonate with those groups. Partisan gerrymandering skews results away from the broader sentiments of voters in a state, as much research, including a new study by Duke University’s Jonathan Mattingly and Christy Vaughn, demonstrates powerfully.

And, of course, gerrymandering has helped create a huge number of districts that are fundamentally safe for one party. This is sometimes done by a dominant party in a state “packing” the other party’s districts to limit its chances in other districts. Other times it is done by an unholy alliance of both parties to keep all incumbents safe. Gerrymandering adds both to the homogeneity of districts and to making low-turnout primaries dominated by ideological activists the only meaningful elections.

More broadly, gerrymandering moves House and state legislative elections away from any meaningful responsiveness to the will of the people. And the pattern of lawmakers choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their lawmakers creates more disaffection and cynicism among the public.

There have been several ideas put forth that seek to address the problem of gerrymandering. One proposal, known as “Fair Voting,” is intriguing:

Under fair voting, members of Congress are elected in multi-member districts of three to five representatives instead of just one. In those districts, candidates are elected in proportion to their vote share. A majority of votes always wins a majority of seats, and minority groups of voters that make up more than a certain threshold of votes (25 percent in a three seat district) are always able to elect a representative.

Some proposals are similar, but would give weight to other factors than population, basing district lines on a broad range of criteria:

How do we reform the redistricting process in this country? Through independent commissions that can use multiple criteria—not just equal population in districts, but factors such as competitiveness, compactness, and communities of interest—to create districts that more closely reflect broader public views. But creating independent commissions is no easy task; doing so through legislative action requires buy-in from the same lawmakers who draw the district lines—and who have the least incentive to give up their power via reform.

With the exception of Iowa, where the state Legislature turned the drawing of lines over to a nonpartisan agency in 1981 after disputes and deadlocks handed the power to the Iowa Supreme Court, the one outlet for change has been using the initiative process to implement such commissions. That process worked in Arizona in 2000 and in California in 2008, and while the results are no panacea, the reforms have brought more competitiveness and more fairness to the process.

Unfortunately, many states cannot change the way they draw districts without going to Washington and begging the attorney general for permission. There’s a difference between “non-partisan” and “non-discriminatory,” making any attempted change in drawing congressional districts for many states a crapshoot.

There’s also a bill in Congress that would require states to set up such commissions:

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in January introduced legislation that would do just that. Called the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act — named after former Tennessee Rep. John Tanner (D), who pushed similar bills during his tenure — the legislation would require every state to appoint an independent commission to draft a redistricting plan that “emphasizes geographical contiguity and compactness of districts rather than political affiliations.”

Could you program a computer to draw lines fairly? It’s possible, but you would have to get both sides to agree on what’s “fair” — a herculean labor that would probably be beyond the ability of most state legislatures.

I’m not convinced that simply reforming the way in which we draw congressional districts will lead to comity and bi-partisanship at the federal level. There are other factors at work, including the very real chasm-like differences on many issues that afflict Congress. Those differences will not disappear by waving a magic wand over the redistricting problem, hoping that excessive ideology and hyper-partisanship will go away.

But if there’s a chance that it can help, we shouldn’t stand in the way.