Update on gerrymandering

The debate over saving democracy continues apace in the United States. Last week’s development was an open letter – signed by an impressive range of the politically active, from Bill Kristol through to Noam Chomsky – calling for the defence of democracy to be “an urgent priority now.” “Now is the time for leaders in all walks of life—for citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions—to come to the aid of the Republic.”

This war is being fought on a number of fronts. There’s the ongoing investigation into the 6 January insurrection, which some hope will shine enough light on what happened to reduce the risk of it being repeated. There’s the Democrats’ continuing efforts to get electoral reform legislation of some sort through Congress, which seem no closer to success. And there’s the post-census redrawing of electoral boundaries across the country, much of which is in the hands of Republican state governments.

A wealth of material is available on the progress of redistricting, much of it collected at FiveThirtyEight.com, at the Redistrict2020 project and at Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog. For example, you can read about the proposals in such key states as Colorado and Texas, about deadlock in Virginia and legal debate in Wisconsin.

You can also read more general overviews of the problem. David Daley in the New York Times describes the way in which many states established nominally independent commissions to try to depoliticise the whole process, with at best partial success – and how even when such commissions succeed, they amount to a sort of unilateral disarmament, because it is mostly Democrat-leaning states that forego gerrymandering, while their Republican counterparts steam ahead.

To see how independent redistricting is supposed to work, one might look at Australia. Last week, the electoral boundaries commission of Victoria released the final boundaries to apply at next year’s Victorian state election. The commission consists of the chief judge of the county court, the electoral commissioner and the surveyor-general, all independent officials, and the process is both public and exhaustive (it began late last year), with two rounds of public submissions and public hearings.

You can read the commission’s report here. It’s a model of careful and transparent reasoning, explaining how conclusions were arrived at and why different approaches were rejected. I don’t agree with all of it – I lodged a number of objections, not all of which were accepted, and I think the commissioners have got some things wrong – but neither I nor anyone else can say that our views were not given a fair hearing.

This is how most democracies do these things (although few have as good a record as Australia): as is often the case, the United States is an outlier. What it really needs is cultural change, but that’s much easier said than done.

And none of this means that single-member districts are not a problem, regardless of how fairly the boundaries are drawn. According to Antony Green’s analysis of the new Victorian boundaries, Labor would have won 57 of the 88 seats on the basis of the 2018 election results (two more than it actually won), despite winning only 42.9% of the vote. But that’s not the fault of the commissioners, and to fix it we don’t need different boundaries, we need to get over our fixation with single-member districts.

The United States shares that fixation in spades, and that’s a major part of its problem.


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