It’s Probably Not Possible To End Gerrymandering

It’s Probably Not Possible To End Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering was once only the concern of map drawers and politics nerds. Most people didn’t know who their congressional representatives were, let alone the contours of their districts. But gerrymandering is having a moment. People don’t like it, and they want it fixed.

It’s easy to understand why. As we’ve mentioned before, gerrymandering takes the blame for partisan polarization, uncompetitive elections, marginalizing minorities and rigging elections in favor of one party or the other. If you could solve those things by ending gerrymandering, why wouldn’t you?

Because it wouldn’t fix all those things. There’s little doubt gerrymandering has shaped our electoral outcomes, and current maps do benefit Republicans overall. But the conversation about ending gerrymandering frequently overlooks two important realities: 1. Gerrymandering has played a relatively small role in the growth of things like partisan polarization and uncompetitive elections, and 2. Drawing electoral maps is a game of trade-offs that will always leave groups of people unhappy.

If ending gerrymandering means creating maps that simultaneously enhance competition, don’t benefit either party, promote minority representation and keep cities, counties and communities whole, then it is impossible to end gerrymandering.

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This is the sixth and final installment of FiveThirtyEight’s podcast series “The Gerrymandering Project,” in which we travel around the country to explore the effects of gerrymandering and what reformers are doing to change the redistricting process. In this episode, we look back at the lessons we learned and consider some more radical electoral reforms.

Throughout the series, we highlighted some of the pitfalls of the current system, like the ability to entrench incumbents or parties and the manipulation of the Voting Rights Act for partisan gain. We also looked at the challenges and trade-offs that come with reform. For example, a map can’t always draw together a competitive mix of Republicans and Democrats and keep communities whole. Compliance with the Voting Rights Act and existing political geography will sometimes put Democrats at an electoral disadvantage no matter who draws the lines.

As listeners heard these stories, they shared their own reform ideas on The Gerrymandering Project Facebook group. Some of the suggestions went well beyond the current conversations about the Supreme Court limiting partisan gerrymandering and independent commissions. While overhauling the American electoral system or changing federal laws may be unlikely, we took the opportunity in the final episode to address some of the ideas — and their potential problems:

  • Proportional representation. This would involve abolishing House districts within states or paring down how many there are so that multiple representatives get elected from each district. Federal law currently prohibits this. Under this system, parties would be represented in the House in proportion to the number of votes they get.
  • Increasing the size of Congress. The number of voting representatives is currently capped at 435 in accordance with federal law. Significantly increasing the size of Congress could bring lawmakers closer to their constituents, but it would potentially also increase the power of detailed map drawing and therefore gerrymandering.
  • Algorithmic map drawing. A randomized, partisanship-blind process seems to be popular among reformers. However, unless the process is truly randomized, the algorithm would still have to be programmed to make decisions about what to prioritize as it splits existing geography and communities. Obligations under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act could make a truly randomized process difficult to implement.
  • A federal independent commission. Other countries, like the U.K. and Australia, have federalized bureaucratic processes for drawing political maps. But election administration is highly decentralized in the United States. If the U.S. were to require independent commissions, it would be most likely to happen state by state, with each state having a different process.

Ultimately, any system we implement will have its challenges, and redistricting will always be a game of trade-offs. That doesn’t mean that reform is futile, but it means people who want reform should be having a deeper conversation about their goals than simply to “end gerrymandering.” Overly simplistic answers aren’t going to cut it when there is no less at stake than how we structure our representative democracy.

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