A new follower of this blog from Texas wrote me recently asking what he could do to help get rid of Gerrymandering. It is a really good question- one that I wish I could answer better. But let me take a stab at it….
As frequently happens in politics, the broad consensus among thoughtful Americans that Gerrymandering is wrong is not matched with a consensus view of what would be right in its stead. I’ve made the case here that a simple “hands-off” algorithmic approach to defining geographic Congressional districts is the best way forward, but I also admit I’m sometimes reticent to make the argument too strenuously. Other approaches being promoted in different states would be vastly preferable to the partisan carve-up that happens now, and there’s no time and precious little political capital to spend on arguing over different replacements for partisan Gerrymandering.
Handicapping the alternatives, picking a horse
I think good policy with regard to banishing Gerrymandering comes down to pragmatics, which means answering these two questions:
- What are the alternative approaches that both improve upon partisan political redistricting AND are achievable?
- What political processes are underway in my state (referenda, citizen’s investigatory commissions, federal lawsuits underway, etc.) and which of these offer an opportunity to place one of the alternatives on the table?
From my research, it seems like there are exactly three alternatives to partisan redistricting that satisfy question #1:
Creating a statewide redistricting commission. This is still geographic redistricting as called for in the Constitution, but relies on the non-partisan nature of a commission rather than the partisan state legislature.
Granting that all three of these approaches are better than the current system most states use, it is still fair to ask which is the best. The basic choice in terms of broad outcomes is that #1 and #2 maintain the notion of neighbors voting together, and of assuring that regions within each the state have their own point of view represented. That seems valuable to me and was unmistakably part of the original constitutional plan.
On the other hand, #3 Proportional representation will tend to break the U.S. out of this two-party power condominium we live under today and invite more minority parties into the mix. I’ve lived under this in Europe and I think it works very well. I think it could also take a lot of the crudity out of our bi-polar, total war, take-it-or-leave-it brand of present-day American politics. When I am dissatisfied, I want to be able to vote for something other than against whomever I’m mad at. It would be great to see a ballot, for once, with meaningful options for Greens, Libertarians, Socialists or targeted protest parties on it, where I know my vote might take the minority part from say 3 to 4 seats (or to achieve a minority threshold, where it essentially goes from say 0 to 3 seats) rather than sending an impotent message that I’m mad that I know nobody is listening to.
The major problem with Proportional Representation, in my opinion, is a practical one. In most states there is some kind of opportunity to propose a different process for drawing districts, but that still results in geographical districts. If as frequently happens a judge has found the districts were drawn improperly and is looking for alternatives, friends of the court can suggest Hands-Off redistricting or Non-Partisan Commission redistricting as an obviously neutral alternative, or even present specific redistricting schemes generated by these methods for consideration. Similarly if there is a mechanism for a citizen’s referendum, these improved methods of geographical redistricting can be proposed. On the other hand, it is a much bigger step to propose an entirely new mechanism for how to represent the citizenry, and much easier to imagine a court ruling that even if Proportional Representation is arguably an excellent system, it is not the system called out for in the Constitution. The recent Arizona Redistricting case at the Supreme Court made it clear that states can select alternative methods of drawing districts without action by the legislature, but the idea that states can select an entirely new mode of representation is obviously a much tougher legal row to hoe.
Practicality also has a very important time component: a quick solution that can be felt starting in 2020 after the next census is vastly preferable to one that can’t arrive until after then, because for most states their districts will be set in stone immediately thereafter for the remainder of the decade.
So, finally, what should you do?
- Get “social” and play your part to keep the information flowing…
- Follow this blog (instructions here) and let me know what is going on in your state and anything I can highlight or should write about.
- Follow Gerrymandering – Let’s Get Serious on Facebook, an excellent source for news on the issue and a good place to discover what’s going on in your state.
- Follow the Brennen Center for Justice, which tracks redistricting issues thoroughly.
- Check out FairVote.org for a comprehensive view of how proportional representation might work.
- Give me other suggestions, and encourage your friends to do the same! (If you have good websites/blogs/organizations to add to the list let me know.)
- Look for opportunities to insert Hands-Off, Non-Partisan Commissions, or Proportional Representation into your state’s conversation. Look for citizen’s groups who are focused on improving things in your state.
- Be pragmatic! if you’re a fan of Non-Partisan Commissions but Proportional Representation has an opportunity to work, become a fan of Proportional Representation!