Gerrymandering is inevitable in a democracy
With the Census Bureau finally releasing its state demographics, they will now begin the process of redrawing political boundaries for local, state, and congressional seats. Anyone who believes there is a magical way to keep politics out of the redistribution process should always believe in the tooth fairy.
In 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan redistribution – where elected representatives of the majority political party draw lines in an attempt to give their party an advantage – is a political issue beyond the reach of federal courts. In addition, the court stressed that partisan redistribution is “nothing new”.
He was known “in the colonies before independence and the editors knew him when the Constitution was drafted and ratified,” the court said. In fact, the term “gerrymandering” comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, whose name is forever linked to the partisan map design due to a state senate district he drew in 1812 that looked like to a salamander.
Yet the framers of the Constitution always gave state legislatures the power to draw the boundaries of Congress, showing that they expected politics to be part of the redistribution. Partisanship is considered a dirty word today, but partisanship is defined by the views and opinions that individuals – and the political party they favor – have on history, culture, society, politics and public policies.
To impose a rule that legislators cannot take these interests – and the interests of the voters who elected them – into account when drawing political boundaries would destroy a fundamental part of our democratic system. Politics will always play a role in the redistribution.
And why not ? Politics is involved in who runs for office, who voters choose to represent them and what these candidates do once they are elected. There is really no way to exclude political considerations from the redistribution. Indeed, there are strong arguments against this attempt.
One thing we do know, partisan redistribution is a very inaccurate science because American voters are unpredictable no matter what political consultants may tell you. In addition, we only rediscover neighborhoods every 10 years and the makeup of neighborhoods can change very quickly because we are a very mobile society. Thus, there are many examples of so-called “safe” districts at all levels – local, state and federal – designed for a political party that were won by the opposition party.
There are also many examples of another American phenomenon that makes it difficult to draw effective partisan lines: the tendency of many voters to split their tickets among candidates from different political parties, depending on whether they vote for their local city councilor, their representative in Congress or the President of the United States.
Some believe that we can take politics out of the redistribution process by establishing so-called “independent” redistribution commissions that take the power to move political lines away from state legislatures. It just moves politics and partisanship behind closed doors. Such commissions, whose members are chosen by political parties and other government officials, are inevitably made up of individuals with partisan interests, despite their public assertions to the contrary.
As a 2019 analysis from the Capital Research Center showed, the “independent” California Redistribution Commission actually attracted more Congressional Partisan Districts than Partisan Republicans controlling the Texas state legislature. And worse yet, such commissions are unaccountable to the people.
Voters who are dissatisfied with constituencies drawn by lawmakers, county commissioners or city council members can vote against them. Voters can’t do this to commissioners-nominee who draw partisan ridings that voters don’t like.
You can’t get the politics out of redistribution, but you can implement some common sense rules that prevent warped neighborhoods you need GPS to navigate. These rules should require that districts be as compact and contiguous as possible. They should follow the lines of natural borders like rivers and mountains and political borders like city and county limits. It will also lead to representatives who have an interest in representing all of the diverse people in a city, for example, rather than just those concentrated in one part of that city.
For over 200 years, Americans have complained about partisan gerrymandering. But this is how our system works, and despite all the complaints, we have something that many other people around the world envy: a remarkably stable system of governance in which our democracy has never been compromised.