By Mike Koetting February 27, 2022
My first trip to Europe was in 1971. I was surprised at how many Europeans spoke English and how much more they knew about America than I knew about their countries. One of my more vivid memories was a conversation with a Norwegian family on the train from Bergen to Oslo. They were asking a bunch of questions about how exactly our federalist system worked and somewhere in there I mentioned gerrymandering. They had never heard the term. When I explained, they were simply incredulous. “Why would you do that? It’s so anti-democratic.”
Whatever gerrymandering I was alluding to in 1971 was child’s play compared to what we have now. With big computers, advanced geocoding and the ability to integrate large data sets, it’s become science. Maybe now’s a good time for a recap of what’s going on.
Gerrymandering is definitely a factor in the control of the House, but, in aggregate, less a factor than I imagined.
Republicans built a large structural advantage for themselves in redistricting after the 2010 Census, winning a 33 seat margin despite, in aggregate, getting 1 million votes fewer than Democratic candidates. But since that time, Democrats have whittled away at that advantage. By 2020, by one measure, it was virtually even. Democrats won 50.8% of the popular votes for House candidates and hold 51% of the seats in the US House. This particular measure is complicated by the fact that Democrats tend to win districts where they win by wider margins. If other measures are used, there is still a Republican structural advantage, but it has been reduced.
Moreover, redistricting after the 2020 Census, is apparently not going to change the overall balance as much as some Democrats feared.
- Even with a US Supreme Court decision in the Alabama case that supports a Republican map in the face of established law, more court decisions have favored Democrats. State Supreme Court cases in Ohio and North Carolina have tossed partisan maps that were too blatant in favoring Republicans.
- Local parties have made decisions that didn’t hurt Democrats as much as they might. Texas, for instance, chose to fortify incumbents rather than trying to reach for the biggest possible advantage.
- Democrats have done their own gerrymandering. New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and my own Illinois, have done some fairly extreme gerrymandering that favors Democrats. California winds up with a 44-8 Democratic lean, which is well to the left of the popular vote. (Absent its nonpartisan redistricting commission, however, it would probably have been a 50-2 split.)
But the overall rough equality here does not mean all is okay. On the contrary. This has been achieved by virtually eliminating party competition within districts. When a party has sufficient advantage, regardless of party, they use that advantage to wipe out the opposition. In the 269US House seats for which redistricting has been completed, only 13 are judged competitive—that is, where the margin between Trump and Biden was less than 5%. This means that in most states, most districts are virtually pre-determined between parties. Writ slightly larger, it means that when it comes to picking the party of U.S. Representatives, individual votes are virtually meaningless.
That on aggregate they balance out is probably just as well, but hardly a solution. The balance simply rearranges a system designed to frustrate responsible representation.
Of course, it is hard for Democrats to unilaterally address this issue. Republicans have been clear about their plans to use redistricting to gain whatever advantage they can–and have done so with ruthless abandon. If Democrats forgo the chance to follow suit when they can, they would be consigning themselves to a greater structural disadvantage. But it is still anti-democratic.
The story is the same in state legislatures. Indeed, they are the seat of the problem since the state legislatures set the election rules and do most of the redistricting.
According to the Schwarzenegger Institute at University of Southern California, following the 2018 elections, 59 million Americans lived in states with legislatures controlled by a party that did not get the majority of votes. Some of the worst examples:
Even in states where the majorities are aligned, the size of the majorities are often substantially exaggerated. In Ohio, for instance, 52% of the popular vote was for Republicans, but they held 75% of the seats in the legislature. In Nevada, where Biden won only 51% of the vote, the new map gives Democrats supermajorities in both houses.
Although state legislative gerrymandering doesn’t get nearly the attention that Congressional gerrymandering does, these pose huge problems, not only for their subsequent role in redistricting, but for addressing more controversial issues that the federal level is now punting to the states.
The Harm and the Imperative
The current level of gerrymandering is not only anti-democratic. It is crippling our ability to govern. At the Congressional level, it is ever more difficult to get anything done. State legislatures become more extreme and stomp on minority opinion, which makes the national political conversation ever more rancorous.
As gerrymandering becomes the norm, elections everywhere cease to be competitive between the parties. The Civic Way, in an excellent series on electoral reform, estimated 40% of legislators face no general election competition. This removal of party competition means that candidates face the greatest challenges from the more extreme end of their own parties. Since primary voters tend to be more extreme, like a centrifuge, the primaries separate the parties into even more opposed poles.
And polarization feeds on itself. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to solve the hard issues that impact people’s lives because they have no easy solutions. Polarization makes it that much more difficult. The parties are less inclined to compromise or tolerance. Then the polarization grows as the lack of progress–the lack of even a glimmer of a common will to address these problems–leads voters to either opt out of the process or to cycle toward still more extreme candidates. Both lead to more polarization and a further drift from actually being able to solve problems.
Devising a fair election system may be one of the most important issues facing the nation at the moment. Failure to do so makes the road to addressing every other crucial issue ever rockier. There will never be a perfect system, but as a nation we have to do better than this before it’s too late.
The Obvious Solution
Gerrymandering reform is like nuclear missile disarmaments. Both sides need to stop but that will happen only if there is a framework to ensure both sides will stop. Why not a bipartisan bill on this matter?
Democrats have included provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act that would curb partisan gerrymandering. Republicans have blocked this bill. However, the bill addresses a number of other election issues, so it’s hard to fix the basis of their opposition.
Maybe the way to proceed is to introduce a new bill that focuses narrowly on gerrymandering. It’s not like the Freedom to Vote Act is going anywhere, so there’s no loss to the Democrats. Stripping away the other issues would put the spotlight on a specific issue that has clear negative ramifications for the country. Narrowing the issue would also make it easier for the two sides to negotiate on specifics that one or the other sees as problematic. If Republicans refuse to seriously consider this bill, it is a clear admission that they are committed to exploiting any loophole in the current system to their advantage. While people can reasonably argue about redistricting in any particular case, it is much harder to make an intellectual argument that democracy is served by preserving a system that allows for such a misalignment between the underlying voting patterns and the apportionment of seats.
Federal law would only address Congressional elections, but this would add to an already growing sentiment toward fairer districting of state legislatures.
While it is not a good time to get bipartisan efforts, it might still be worth a shot. Perhaps as Republicans see this isn’t getting the kind of advantage it did at first, they will be more willing to relent for something that most people want. Moreover, since this provision wouldn’t (practically speaking) be effective until the 2030 redistricting, there is no immediate threat to the Republicans.
I further understand that part of the issue could be more at the level of individual Representatives who are just as happy to have safe seats. And there might be Representatives with this desire in both parties. But, again, the long effective date—while not good for democracy—should give comfort for the short-term.
This is another on the list of things we have to do if we are going to save our democracy.