Gerrymandering is a convenient boogeyman.
It’s a more acceptable explanation for your party’s electoral defeat than contemplating that one’s political opinions are not supported by the majority of voters.
For many people, though, it is not actually gerrymandering that is the problem. It is gerrymandering that produces results that they don’t like.
Many, I suspect, would quickly embrace gerrymandering in order to produce the districts that they like, especially when they realize that gerrymandering is the only way to accomplish this.
A federal court has again ruled against NC’s Congressional districts, and again thrust the issue of gerrymandering into the public debate. You can read Andrew’s explainer of the judicial and legislative process here. Now let’s take a look at gerrymandering more broadly.
Before we begin, let’s define the term “gerrymandering.”
Gerrymandering is the drawing of legislative districts to apportion representation with a political objective, often by drawing districts that appear oddly shaped. The 1992 drawing of North Carolina’s 12th Congressional district, stretching from Gastonia to Durham, is often the poster child for egregious gerrymandering.
Like many gerrymandered districts, its appearance offends. But does a district have to look like a Rorschach test to be gerrymandered?
Consider a state that is a rectangle, and where voters are evenly distributed. In this state, Yellow voters outnumber Purple voters by a 2:1 margin.
Now, consider the ways that this state can be divided into six districts. If your goal is to maximize yellow representation, you would draw them like this:
Is that a gerrymandered map?
The lines were deliberately drawn to give Yellow a political advantage and in doing so, 1/3 of the population would have no voice in the legislature. The Yellow party has “cracked” Purple’s natural voting block. Of course, the Purple people could also use map drawing to give themselves a political advantage.
Is that a gerrymandered map? With this drawing, Purple would likely win 1/2 of the seats while only having 1/3 of the electorate. They have “packed” the Yellow voters into districts in such a way as to decrease their representation.
Is it better to ensure proportional representation? The districts could be drawn like this:
While this map provides proportional representation, there are no competitive districts.
That is the problem with redistricting reform.
People pushing for independent redistricting believe that fairly drawn maps will prevent the majority from maximizing its number of seats while also creating competitive districts.
It is very hard to do both, given that residential patterns are very segregated by partisanship, but that is a topic for another post.
For those who would say, “While I don’t like the preconceived outcomes of these maps, at least the district shapes aren’t weird.” But that is a product of an evenly distributed population in a state that’s a rectangle.
What if your state looks like this:
Now, if your goal is to ensure proportional representation, you would need districts that look like this:
The goal and the outcome are the same, but the lines look weirder because the state looks weirder. But are they not both gerrymandering?
They each draw a legislative district with the intent of a specific political outcome. Does it really matter what shape that district takes?
How do you take partisanship out of redistricting?
Proponents of reform have advocated an independent redistricting committee, appointed by various elected leaders in the state. In 2011, I staffed such a committee that was tasked with redrawing Mecklenburg County’s County Commission districts. Each commissioner appointed a member.
Despite our best efforts as staff to move deliberately towards a consensus redistricting process, including the use of an online map drawing tool that allowed any member of the public to submit their own plan, the independent committee’s work ultimately collapsed when Democrats pushed their numerical partisan advantage and the Republicans pushed the legislature to intervene.
If anything, appointed map drawers were more nakedly partisan than the elected officials who appointed them.
Given the sophistication of big data analysis and the power of computers to sort data, perhaps the only way to draw maps without predetermining outcomes is to take away the data. Appoint an independent commission, and give them a map that looks like this:
Show the map drawers where the people are but don’t tell them anything about the people. Just be prepared that such map drawing will likely lead to fewer competitive districts and less minority representation.
Brian Francis is president of Francis Consulting Services, a strategic communications firm that helps businesses, governments and non-profits achieve their strategic goals through effective communications. He launched the country’s first online redistricting tool as part of the 2011 Mecklenburg County Commission redistricting and recently was chief strategist on the successful $920 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond campaign.