By TBOR Staff
AUBURN, AL- There’s a lot to dislike about gerrymandering. It’s unfair. It protects those in power. It silences and disenfranchises a large number of Americans. The reality: gerrymandering means less choice, more entrenched power, and the idea of “foregone conclusions” that runs counter to the very idea of democracy.
Gerrymandering is not new to American politics. In 1788, Patrick Henry used his influence to draw districts that would make life more difficult for his political rival, James Madison. By 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry approved a redistricting plan egregiously designed to benefit his own Party- less than 25 years into the new government. The salamander-shaped districts resulted in Gerry forever seeing his name merged with the beast he created to describe one of the most unfair aspects of democracy. Then, in the Civil Rights era, gerrymandering was used to discriminate against minority voters- a practice, arguably, still very much in effect today.
So, in short, gerrymandering has been used to settle personal scores, secure single-party dominance, and diminish the voice of voters based on race. Can anyone argue that this is good for democracy?
Thankfully, Americans are increasingly waking up to the problem and demanding action. A super-majority (71% to 15%) want the Supreme Court to place limits on lawmakers’ ability to manipulate voting maps. Yet, such an occurrence would be less-than-ideal and also incomplete. In fact, we saw the newly drawn Pennsylvania districts swing just as bad the other way- where the court moved the lines to help Democrats.
So, here’s the reality: few should be thrilled with the idea of courts drawing maps, and a likely Supreme Court ruling would still leave significant leeway for legislatures. A true solution likely involves action at the ballot box centered around an easy-to-understand solution that re-instills confidence in the electorate.
A road-map for such an effort was recently offered in the 2018 Ohio Issue 1. Passed with an overwhelming near-75% vote, the measure was offered by Republicans in a state where Republicans benefitted greatly from some of the nation’s most outrageously drawn districts. While it’s easy to see how the measure was a pragmatic offering that could still lead to the majority party getting its way, the measure’s passage is, no doubt, progress.
Bipartisan solutions, like the one found in Ohio, should give hope to reformers, and it should also inspire both action and alternatives. Justice Brandeis famously described states as “laboratories of democracy,” and it is pivotal that new solutions are supported at that level. Various experiments to improve upon the current system may suit the needs of each state or can be learned from and adopted by others. Here are some such options we encourage:
Mandating Contiguity- Perhaps the easiest solution is the one that has been most common- mandating contiguity. A district is contiguous “if you can travel from any point in the district to any other point in the district without crossing the district’s boundary,” meaning all portions of the district must be physically adjacent. While 49 states require that at least one of their legislative chambers must have contiguous districts within reasons, only 23 have such a requirement for congressional districts. The challenge in contiguity is that it is difficult to ensure and must be done to the “extent possible.” Still, it is a relatively “easy” fix given its wide acceptance.
Keeping Political Boundaries- Only slightly less “popular” is an emphasis on maintaining political boundaries- cities, counties, neighborhoods, etc.- and keeping them whole. 42 states have various requirements for accounting for political boundaries for legislative districts while 19 have such a rule in place congressional districts.
Mathematical algorithms- Many Americans believe that, as long as human beings are involved, it is impossible to remove bias and partisanship from the district-drawing process. For such citizens, hope is most likely found in using mathematical algorithms aiming to create maps based on priorities such as compactness or voter efficiency. New formulas appear to be very promising and the districts produced offer a stark visual contrast.
Another benefit of algorithms lies in transparency. This is because of the clarity and openness regarding how the formula is produced. As one author writes regarding those working this angle: “these computer scientists are motivated by the belief that data and algorithms will create transparency in the notoriously opaque redistricting process by exposing the inputs and parameters that led to redrawing a district a certain way.”
The control of inputs also allows for ballot measures or legislation to make adjustments along the way to reflect- with transparency- the priorities. Is it compactness (making sure the district is as close together as possible)? Is it voter efficiency (working to eliminate “wasted votes” and ensure each party is fairly represented based on its supporters)? Is it ensuring representation for minority voters?
Regardless of the algorithm, the inputs, the weight of each input, and the transparency of the process puts power and information back in the hands of voters.
Emphasizing bipartisanship- Ohio’s new measure, as noted earlier, is a more moderate, yet nonetheless important and viable option. Instead of taking the process out of the hands of legislators, Issue 1 encouraged the process to be more bi-partisan by requiring a 2/3 majority support of districts and 50% support from each party. To avoid gridlock, there are additional steps, and the process can end with the same previous process (though a simple majority approved map would only stand for 4 years). That said, there is every incentive for consensus to be reached and a bi-partisan map to be drawn.
Independent Commissions- Perhaps the “simplest” solutions- and one that has substantial traction- is the idea of an independent commission to draw districts. Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington are states that have adopted this approach. Take Back Our Republic has also spoken in favor of Michigan’s endeavor to place an Independent Commission on the ballot.
Arizona, for example, allows its Commission on Appellate Court Appointments to winnow applicants to the commission down to 25- 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and 5 Independents. The leaders of each major party in each chamber have the ability to select 1 member apiece, for a total of 4. Then, a 5th member, the independent, is chosen by the 4 members.
The mandate of the commission reads, “the Independent Redistricting Commission’s mission is to redraw Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts to reflect the results of the most recent census. The concept of one-person, one-vote dictates that districts should be roughly equal in population. Other factors to be considered are the federal Voting Rights Act, district shape, geographical features, respect for communities of interest and potential competitiveness. The state Constitution requires the commissioners – two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairwoman – to start from scratch rather than redraw existing districts.”
The challenge in such a commission lies in how members are chosen and whether such a commission can truly be independent.
Elected Commission- One idea from the Take Back Our Republic policy team is a hybrid approach featuring an elected commission from districts drawn by a voter-approved algorithm. The campaigns for commissioner would be non-partisan, could not exceed a certain financial expense threshold, commissioners would receive compensation only covering expenses, and the elected commissioners would only be able to serve one term. Such a commission would preserve a human element, be removed from financial influence, and reflect the will of the voters.
“I cut, you freeze” method- A new methodology offered by researchers aims to take the partisanship of redistricting and use it rather than eliminate it. The ping-pong concept utilizes a back and forth with one party drawing its preferred map, the next party “freezing” one drawn district, redrawing the remaining map in its own favor, and repeating the process with the first party freezing one of the districts it receives in return. With each party looking out for its own interest, the back and forth game result in a fairly drawn map that is impossible for either party to manipulate.
Changing the Way Votes are Counted- The most “radical” change comes by changing the voting process from the current “majority/winner take all” model to another model such as “ranked choice voting.” Another option is the idea of proportional representation. Such a transition de-emphasizes the need for fairness to come from districts by changing the focus to the voting method.
These are a sampling of the solutions circulating with various degrees of support. Many of these solutions can be combined or tweaked to gel with one another to form the best possible outcome for the American voter, and we are not advocating one or multiple above the others.
That said, we believe there are three principles that should guide the gerrymandering debate: 1) gerrymandering is a stain on our democracy and steps must be taken to solve the problem, 2) courts redrawing districts and engaging heavily in the gerrymandering battle is far from ideal, and 3) we call upon states to engage in the experimentation to perfect this process and ensure fairer, more representative elections. Only through committed reform efforts in each of these “laboratories” can we hope to truly achieve success.
What do you think? Which, if any, of these solutions, stand out? Do you agree that there is a problem? Join the conversation at: https://www.facebook.com/takebackorg/.