The word gerrymander dates from 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Gerry signed a redistricting bill that benefitted his Democratic-Republican Party. One of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a mythological salamander.
Since 1812, gerrymandering has evolved into high art, conducted by both Republican and Democratic party representatives. Political polarization combined with computational capabilities and highly parsed voter data have enabled those in power to create districts that bias voting patterns and protect incumbents. The result is highly uncompetitive elections and dysfunctional politics. To the extent that they impact voting patterns, issues of race (especially in prior Jim Crow states) unfortunately rear their ugly heads.
Representative governance should be a bottoms-up proposition. Representatives are meant to participate in a governing body by standing in for voters’ collective concerns. Voting for a representative is effectively a vote to entrust power. It’s an affirmative declaration that voters believe they will use that power wisely and in ways that further the common good.
The election of representatives should be thought of as the fundamental transactions of a representative form of government. Gerrymandering is the means by which these transactions are manipulated and distorted by the two duopoly parties who dominate the political marketplace. When elected officials divvy up the electorate in ways that serve them rather than serving voters, representative government has been turned on its head. It’s an obvious conflict of interest. If businesses divvied up their commercial markets in this manner, someone would go to jail!
Some states have put in place methods that attempt to diminish politics in the redistricting process. A popular method is to use Citizen Redistricting Commissions, though membership on such commissions is not always as non-partisan as it should be. California’s 14-member Commission, for example, includes five Democrats and five Republicans, effectively allowing the two major parties a majority say in the outcome.
Some have suggested that redistricting should be done with algorithmic computer calculations that ensure that districts be geographically compact. It’s unclear whether voters would be comfortable putting the process in the hands of a computer instead of actual people. Besides, who should we trust to be responsible for that algorithm … and could it be hacked?
Perhaps we should brainstorm some different approaches. One possibility is to put some handcuffs on the process, i.e., simple rules that make redistricting less prone to political skullduggery. If whomever is setting district boundaries has limited options, districts will necessarily become fairer in the eyes of the public. And if there is less to be gained by gaming the system, there will certainly be less of a temptation to do so.
A good start would be to consider the redistricting criteria currently used by states (National Conference of State Legislatures):
These traditional districting principles (or criteria) have been adopted by many states:
Compactness: Having the minimum distance between all the parts of a constituency (a circle, square or a hexagon is the most compact district).
Contiguity: All parts of a district being connected at some point with the rest of the district.
Preservation of counties and other political subdivisions: This refers to not crossing county, city, or town, boundaries when drawing districts.
Preservation of communities of interest: Geographical areas, such as neighborhoods of a city or regions of a state, where the residents have common political interests that do not necessarily coincide with the boundaries of a political subdivision, such as a city or county.
Preservation of cores of prior districts: This refers to maintaining districts as previously drawn, to the extent possible. This leads to continuity of representation.
Avoiding pairing incumbents: This refers to avoiding districts that would create contests between incumbents.
These emerging criteria have been considered and adopted in a few states since 2000:
Prohibition on favoring or disfavoring an incumbent, candidate or party. The prohibition in a given state may be broader, covering any person or group, or it may be limited to intentionally or unduly favoring a person or group. Details on these prohibitions are included in the state descriptions below.
Prohibition on using partisan data: Line drawers, whether they be commissioners (California and Montana), nonpartisan staff (Iowa), or legislators (Nebraska), are prohibited from using incumbent residences, election results, party registration, or other socio-economic data as an input when redrawing districts.
Competitiveness: Districts having relatively even partisan balance, making competition between the two major parties more intense. This criterion typically seeks to avoid the creation of “safe” districts for a particular party. For instance, the Arizona constitution (cited below) states that “to the extent practicable, competitive districts should be favored where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals.”
This future criterion has been adopted by Ohio and Missouri for legislative districts beginning in 2021:
Proportionality: The statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last ten years, favor each political party shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters.
Perhaps Texas can develop some simple redistricting rules that we can all agree on … to insist that our representatives represent us and not the other way around.
According to legend, St. George slew a dragon to free a village of its terrors — terrors that included sacrificing the king’s daughter to the dragon’s appetite. Let’s save our sons and daughters by getting rid of this offensive practice once and for all.