The False Hope of Redistricting “Reform”

3 Comments | Category: General

America’s system of congressional redistricting has become a leading source of blame for our country’s political woes. Has redistricting has become a convenient scape goat for the larger structural problems that have led to our country’s seemingly unbreakable political gridlock and general governmental malaise? I believe this to be the case.

Congressional redistricting occurs every ten years following the release of U.S. Census data showing population shifts from state to state and within state borders. The process requires each state to redraw congressional district lines to conform to these shifts in order to keep the number of constituents in each U.S. House district as close to about 710,700 (the average based on the 2010 Census) as possible while not exceeding 435 total seats. Although the federal government is responsible for reapportioning the number of seats allotted to each state, the 50 states are charged with actually drawing the district lines within their own borders.

Countless political columnists, editorial writers, and organizations such as the Center for Voting and Democracy, Common Cause, and the Brennan Center for Justice have long called for taking the redistricting process out of the hands of politicians. They believe this to be the only way to end gerrymandering, which is the process of redrawing congressional district boundaries for the benefit of certain candidates, parties, or groups of voters.

These well-intentioned folks assume that a non-political or apolitical redistricting process can be substituted in its place. There are a few flaws in their logic. First, it is assumed that extracting politics from an inherently political process is possible. The very nature of redrawing district boundaries has an impact on the political system as well the political actors who exist in that system. Second, these panels or commissions would need to be appointed or chosen through a process that will likely involve politics and politicians. So much for removing politics.

Third, the district maps produced by such commissions would likely require the approval of politicians such as the aforementioned state legislators and governors. Research from Loyola University indicates that in 44 states “legislatures have primary control over the congressional lines in their state.” District maps thus must receive final authorization from the state legislatures and then must be approved by the governor as would a regular piece of legislation (with the exception of five states that do not require gubernatorial approval).

My goal is not to defend the actions of self-interested politicians or the art of gerrymandering itself, although it is essential to recognize that these things exist whether we would like them to or not. Instead, I would like discuss how redistricting and gerrymandering are given a disproportionate share of the blame for the mess in Washington.

An important op-ed by Charles Blow in the April 12, 2014 New York Times helps to underscore why redistricting “reform” proposals present false hope for those who are disgusted with the federal government’s inability to produce results. Although Blow’s piece called “The Self-Sort” does not directly address the redistricting process, it does present critical data showing why many of our congressional districts are configured the way they are today.

Blow cites a 2013 report by two Stanford scholars and a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center which found that Americans are electing to self-segregate by factors such as race and income. A 2013 study published in Education and Urban Society and a report from the Civil Rights Project presented data showing that public schools were less racially segregated prior to desegregation than they are today. In short, people are choosing to live in close proximity to people who resemble themselves in a certain way. According to Blow, “this kind of sorting has real world consequences in terms of behaviors, empathy and socialization.” It makes sense to add politics and voting behavior into this mix as well.

So what does self-sorting have to do with redistricting? Given that legislative mapmakers must follow guidelines which insist that districts are contiguous, compact, and keep “communities of interest” together, is it any wonder that districts are becoming more homogenous when you also take the act of self-sorting into consideration? In other words, it is very difficult for a map-maker to draw a politically competitive district that is also compact, contiguous, and preserves a community of interest since people are clustering around attributes like race, income, and other likenesses that tend to be good predictors for political preferences and party affiliation.

Beyond self-sorting, it is important to consider a variety of other factors beyond the political finger-pointing associated with redistricting that have led us down our current path.

  • Political party organizations have become historically weak. As such, politicians seek to appease ideologically-driven interest groups for campaign money and infrastructure to replace the less ideologically-driven party organizations in Washington and in their congressional districts.

According to the authors, Congress is experiencing what they call “asymmetric polarization.” In their view, the Republican Party and its members of Congress have become increasingly conservative in recent years while Democratic Party members have not drifted deep into left field. More than anything, Republicans are in urgent need of moderation.

  • Turnout in primary election contests is often lower than in general elections, meaning that more ideologues and fewer centrists cast ballots, thus preserving the ideological status quo. Because incumbents tend to be rational people who want to win reelection, they take the steps necessary to do so. Since they are catering to more ideologically-motivated voters in primaries, they will likely have to make their campaign appeals and public voting records more ideologically “pure” to avoid hot primaries.
  • Lastly, campaign finance reform efforts from the post-Watergate era and the poorly conceived McCain-Feingold “reforms” of the early 2000s have exacerbated the crisis since strict limitations have been placed on personal donations from individuals to candidates and to parties. This has also worked for the benefit of ideologically-charged PACs and interest groups. The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision two weeks ago did not roll back these artificial limits, but at least made a step in the right direction by eliminating the artificial aggregate limits placed on individual donors. This will allow donors to direct money to parties rather than shadowy Super PACs, which are by nature havens for the ideologically pure.

In conclusion, it makes little sense to blame the sorry state of affairs in Washington on redistricting or gerrymandering. The suggestion that removing politics from a political process like redistricting can somehow overcome factors such as self-sorting, asymmetric polarization, bad federal campaign finance laws, weakened party organizations, and the rising power of ideological interests is a false promise.

If anything, more political engagement through higher voter turnout in primaries, stronger party structures, and a deeper understanding of the pattern of self-sorting together represent the best possible opportunity for bringing about meaningful reform to our sometimes dysfunctional system.

Category: General

    3 Comments so far


  1. Bob Shrader says:

    Quite a problem and no easy fix. Where does this end? I suspect it ends badly.

  2. John C. Berg says:

    We have some states with redistricting commissions, we there’s no need to speculate about what the results might be — we can look at what the results have been. (I have not done so, however.)

    My personal preference would be to have at-large, proportional-representation elections in each state. This is currently prohibited by statute, though not by the Constitution. That change has almost zero probability, however.

  3. Tony West says:

    Incisive argument against a position I hold. Your take on self-sorting is pertinent & fresh.

    A good test of “nonpartisan” redistricting mioght be in the rare states where it already exists – Iowa, for example. What is your take on that process?

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