The United States is an outlier in the democratic world in the extent to which politicians shape the rules that affect their own electoral fortunes. Federal campaign finance policy is administered by a feckless Federal Election Commission, whose three Democratic and three Republican commissioners routinely produce gridlock instead of effective implementation of the law. The conditions under which election ballots are cast and counted—from registration to voting equipment, ballot design, polling locations, voter ID requirements, absentee ballots and early voting—are set in a very decentralized fashion and prey to political manipulation to advantage one party over the other. And while most countries with single-member districts (such as Canada, Britain and Australia) use nonpartisan boundary commissions to redraw lines so they reflect population shifts, in America, most state legislatures create the maps for both congressional and state legislative districts through the regular legislative process. They make their own luck.
Gerrymandering—the manipulation of district boundaries to protect or harm the political interests of incumbents, parties and minorities—began in the early years of the republic and has been a source of controversy and criticism throughout American history. Setting and following appropriate standards—such as contiguity, compactness, equal population, adherence to local political boundaries, respect for communities of interest and neutrality with regard to any political party or candidate—has proven much more difficult than it might appear. Since the Supreme Court in the 1960s established the “one-person, one vote” requirement, each decennial census has set off a wild scramble across the country to garner political advantage in drawing the new district lines. The federal mandate against minority vote dilution in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 introduced a new basis of conflict into the redistricting process. This picture is not pretty, and many critics see gerrymandering as a, if not the, primary source of our political and governing discontents.
Eliminating gerrymandering would not by itself dramatically increase the competitiveness of House and state legislative districts and reduce the historic level of polarization between the two major political parties. The roots of safe seats and partisan polarization go much deeper than the political manipulation of redistricting. These include the racial realignment of the South, the ideological sorting of the two parties, the geographical clustering of like-minded voters and an increase in party-line voting. That said, there are two compelling reasons for citizens to demand a reform of our gerrymander-prone redistricting system.
The first is a simple matter of fairness. In an era in which partisanship determines the electoral choices of most voters and the behavior of elected representatives in Congress and state legislatures, it is essential that the collective will of the electorate be reflected in the partisan composition of legislatures. Yet this straightforward notion of partisan fairness is often undermined by partisan gerrymandering. The Campaign Legal Center reports than in 2012, in six state legislatures (Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), the gerrymandering party received a minority of the statewide vote, yet still retained control of the legislature. The most notorious of these was in the purple state of Wisconsin, where the new partisan map virtually guarantees Republican majorities in the Assembly for the entire decade—whatever the popular vote. That same year, Republicans retained their majority in House even though Democrats won a larger share of the national vote. Not all of that discrepancy can be laid at the feet of partisan gerrymandering; the more efficient geographical distribution of Republican voters across the country helps as well. Nonetheless, scholars estimate that Republicans control 10 to 15 more seats in the House as a result of their control of more state governments and the partisan maps that emerge from them.
The second reason is that partisan gerrymandering reinforces the hyper-partisanship that paralyzes our politics and governance. Redistricting has become a major front in the permanent campaign between the parties. Party members in Congress and state legislatures find their own interests in reelection and majority status importantly connected to these redistricting efforts, which makes them even more inclined to cooperate with partisan team play that drains the policy-making process of its capacity to negotiate and compromise.
Many efforts are underway to remedy this political manipulation of the electoral process. The most ambitious would change the electoral system to multi-member districts, where boundaries have lower political stakes. Some states, most recently California, have used the initiative process to set up an independent redistricting commission. Others, like Florida, have forced their state legislatures to follow standards such as partisan fairness in drawing new maps. Another fruitful approach, aided by the increasing availability of open-source mapping software, is to increase transparency and citizen involvement in the redistricting process. Finally, battles on behalf of partisan fairness in redistricting are being waged in the courts to give practical meaning to the Supreme Court acknowledgment in Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 and Vieth v. Jubelirer in 2004, that partisan gerrymandering could be justiciable under the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The Court has not yet found workable standards for determining when a partisan plan is unconstitutional, a problem that reformers and litigators are now working to remedy.
Mann is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution; Resident Scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies the University of California, Berkeley; and author of several books, including It’s Even Worse Than It Looks with Norman J. Ornstein, from which this essay is adapted.