Redistribution in the US

As expected, the Biden administration’s attempt at comprehensive electoral reform has failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. (See previous report here.) One of the things it would have tried to do was constrain the ability of the states to gerrymander electoral boundaries, a practice that has plagued American democracy for more than two centuries.

You may remember that there was particular concern about the issue this time around because 2020 was a census year, so this is time at which boundaries for seats in the House of Representatives are being redrawn (the process that we call a redistribution but that in America is known as redistricting). Since Republicans control substantially more state governments than Democrats do, it was expected that they would use that advantage to draw boundaries that favored them, adding to the Democrats’ worries in what already looks like a difficult election year.

But with the process now more or less complete in a majority of states, it doesn’t look as if that’s quite what has happened. As Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight.com says, “the picture is complicated.” Some changes have definitely helped the Republicans, but some of them may not survive legal challenge, and in other states the Republicans seem to have worked on shoring up their own seats rather than trying to maximise their gains.

(Anyone who works on redistributions will tell you that this is a perennial issue: the interests of the politicians and the party don’t coincide. The party wants to win more seats, even if some of its seats become more marginal as a result, whereas individual politicians are primarily concerned about their own seats. But in the US, it’s the politicians who draw the boundaries.)

One aspect of the issue that’s had some attention is the minority of states – mostly Democrat-leaning – where redistributions have been put in the hands of nonpartisan commissions. In most of the world (including Australia) this is normal practice, but in the US it is still controversial. Some explicitly defend the right of politicians to doctor their electoral boundaries, such as the unhinged Hugh Hewitt, who says “Redistricting is rightfully the work of elected politicians subject to a vote of the people.”

This, of course, misses the point, since gerrymandering is designed to ensure that politician are not subject to a democratic vote: it is a device to ensure minority government, not democratic government. The argument from democratic control might (or might not) work against other restrictions on government power, but this is the one that it positively can’t work against.

Even if you accept that independent commissions are a good thing, however, the fact that Republicans mostly oppose them is a problem. If Democrat states end up mostly being redistributed in a non-partisan fashion while Republican states are mostly gerrymandered, the Republicans will gain a big advantage. For Democrats to institute independent redistributions is effectively a form of unilateral disarmament.*

And sure enough, in the places where they still draw the boundaries themselves, the Democrats have been doing so with utter ruthlessness. This is part of the reason that the changes so far have not worked so much against them; they only have control of the process in relatively few states, but they include some important ones (Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, with New York still to come) where they are exploiting it for all that it’s worth.

Even if this sort of tit-for-tat drafting warfare results in a roughly neutral outcome, it still does huge damage. For one thing, it undermines the credibility of the electoral process at a time when it has already suffered under the blows of the Trumpist “big lie”. But it also reduces the competitiveness of elections; partisan maps increase the number of safe seats for both sides and therefore reduce the ability of voters to make an impact either way.

In some states, voters have been able to impose independent commissions or other reforms via referendum, but a comprehensive solution is going to require federal action. Not this time, but perhaps something can be done before 2030 rolls around – if American democracy survives that long.

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* A further problem is that boundaries that are “fair” in the sense of being blind to partisan considerations, as an independent commission might draw, may not be “fair” in the sense of giving both parties an equal chance. That will have to be the subject of another post.

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