Commentary: One thing Americans agree on
America’s deeply divided electorate agreed on at least one thing on election day: Voters hate gerrymandering. In red states, blue states and purple states, they’ve had it with politicians drawing their own districts, choosing their own voters and distorting democracy.
Colorado, Michigan and Missouri all approved ballot questions — by wide margins — that would remove the power to draw federal and state legislative districts from politicians and hand the responsibility to citizen commissions or nonpartisan entities. Redistricting reform also leads in Utah, with almost 80 percent of the vote counted.
These states join Ohio, where voters passed similar reforms in May. California created a nonpartisan citizen commission to draw congressional districts in 2010, and in six other states (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin and Maryland), legal battles and court orders have overturned — and in some cases redrawn — unfair maps, putting gerrymandering front and center in those states’ political debates.
But in the majority of states, including those where courts have intervened, drawing voting lines still falls back into the hands of politicians. The next redistricting is fast approaching — it will be based on the 2020 census. What can be done, and done quickly to make this process more fair?
There’s no easy fix.
The Supreme Court has made it clear that it won’t save democracy. The justices unanimously punted on two extreme gerrymandering cases last term, and few would predict that the current court will reverse that trend. Lower federal courts and state courts are friendlier to overthrowing gerrymandered maps, but litigation takes time and it generally doesn’t change the process, just one set of maps. Citizens could take charge with more ballot measures, but only a few states remain where that is even an option. In the meantime, the advanced mapping software and big-data “mining” techniques that make possible the most egregious maps — the kind that all but ensure a decade of one-party power in state and federal representation — are only becoming more sophisticated and precise.
There is a way forward, however. The statehouse politicians who will draw the majority of federal and state legislative maps in 2021 should make note of the overwhelming support of voters for fair maps, and make reforms themselves. Sooner or later, even with rigged maps, they may lose their hold on the process and become its victims instead of the perpetrators.
States can start by banning the use of outside political data that allows mapmakers to group certain kinds of voters together to get the outcome they want. Or they can more broadly ban the drawing of district boundaries that favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.
Unfortunately, additional safeguards have to be enacted to ensure that such reforms can be enforced. Florida, for example, banned districts drawn to ensure one-party domination, but its legislators ignored the law until they were sued by the League of Women Voters and other good-government groups. The lawsuit uncovered emails and draft maps revealing a shadow redistricting process, and an outraged judge overturned several districts.
Real reform requires genuine transparency in the redistricting process. Mapmakers, statehouse staff, legislators and consultants should all be required to use official email accounts subject to open-records laws, and to maintain a paper trail of draft maps and meeting notes so that how the map-making progressed can be checked against the requirements at every step.
Mapmakers should also be required to justify their work in writing. If those deciding the boundaries want to divide cities or counties, or design districts that resemble the infamous bit of gerrymandering known as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” — because of the unusual shape created in a Pennsylvania congressional district — they should have to explain those decisions to us all.
Better still, legislators could embrace technology that reveals gerrymanders rather than make them easier to design. Some of the strongest evidence in the victorious North Carolina and Pennsylvania anti-gerrymandering lawsuits came when political scientists and mathematicians used supercomputers to draw politically neutral maps, then showed the court the comparison with those drawn by politicians. In Pennsylvania, for example, computers drew tens of thousands of maps but did not produce districts as extreme as the ones enacted by legislators.
The gold-standard reform is the Fair Representation Act, introduced in Congress by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). It would slay the gerrymander once and for all by eliminating winner-takes-all, single-member districts entirely. Instead it would create large, multi-member districts with representatives chosen via ranked-choice voting, in which voters choose more than one candidate and indicate which they consider their first, second and third choice as a representative. (Maine’s experiment with ranked-choice voting worked well on Tuesday.)
Gerrymandering used to be a wonky topic that made citizens’ eyes glaze over. As its partisan and racial evils become clearer on our electoral maps, opposition to it has become one thing that seems to unite voters of all stripes. Politicians should get on board. The people are leading the way.