Polling data regularly shows that approximately 80% of citizens strongly want the practice of gerrymandering to be eliminated. That is just about as near to unanimity as polls ever get. Citizen organizations boasting more than 50,000 members have leaned hard on their legislators to fix the problem. How could gerrymandering still be alive and well across this country?
There are four main obstacles that stand in the way of banishing gerrymandering.
Those responsible for fixing gerrymandering do not want it to be fixed – The most obvious and difficult-to-surmount problem is the simple fact that the career politicians that populate the various state legislatures would need to take some action to abolish the practice. Despite what they may say, precious few of them are willing to give up the power that drawing districts affords them.
Politicians are superbly skilled at making sure that things they don’t want to have happen never do. They are perfectly willing to help each other out with “cover” when needed. A representative under heavy pressure from constituents may even sponsor and introduce a bill to appease them, but the bill unfortunately never makes it out of the committee to which it is referred – in spite of the sponsor’s strenuous efforts, of course. In extreme cases, such a bill may be discharged from committee, but “so sadly” the legislative session ends before it can be scheduled for a vote. Such bills have even been voted on and actually passed by one house of a bicameral legislature only to meet a planned demise in the other chamber. This provides those who voted for the bill hard evidence to demonstrate their great and sincere intentions to their constituents.
This may seem to be strange content for a course on gerrymandering. However, it is important information for anyone endeavoring to influence politicians; it can save many frustrating and fruitless years before gaining a realization and understanding of how politicians operate.
The remaining three reasons combine to preclude a truly on-target solution to gerrymandering from ever being proposed.
A persistent bad idea: Citizens’ Commissions – It is a perennial proposal that an “unbiased” citizens’ commission be assigned the responsibility for defining electoral districts. No one with the intelligence to define electoral districts is going to be completely unbiased. So, the selection of commission members is problematic. Shielding them from nefarious “influences” is difficult at best. Does it make sense to put together a new group of people every ten years and have them re-invent the redistricting wheel? There likely would be next to no transparency into how they went about doing their work. If their work is disputed, it ends up in the courts with hard-to-predict and sometimes arbitrary results. However, if we can’t devise a better solution, such a commission probably would be better than leaving the responsibility directly with the politicians.
An even worse misconception: Communities of Interest or “CoI” – Many redistricting guidelines discourage having districts divide political entities, such as counties. Not dividing political entities stems from a desire to not divide so-called “communities of interest” which are presumed to coincide with political entities. There are two fundamental and fatal problems with the notion that communities of interest should be kept together: one is practical and the other is principle-based.
The fatal practical problem is that CoI is a very nebulous and hard-to-define concept. Different people will have radically different definitions. CoIs could be based on religious beliefs, political philosophies, single “hot-button” issues and countless other criteria. CoIs as defined by different people can and will differ and overlap. Whose definition is to be honored? CoIs can shift and change considerably from one election to the next. Not dividing CoIs is a poorly-defined and completely insoluble problem of impossible complexity. It’s an exercise in futility that obviously cannot be solved by mere mortals, whether they are state legislators or citizens on a commission.
The fatal problem of principle is that the only possible valid reason why anyone would want to keep a CoI together is so that a representative who “truly represents their interests” can be reliably elected. The only way that can happen is if the members of that CoI can outvote a smaller number of those in their district who do not share their same interests. That is the very definition of gerrymandering, which presumably we are trying to prevent!
We have lived for decades with districts which slice and dice counties all manner of arcane ways. We have suffered zero harm that was caused by the division of political entities. However, we have suffered harm. All of that harm was caused by contriving districts to keep communities of interest together, where the communities of interest are those who share the philosophy of a specific political party!
In order to accurately achieve equal population districts, the splitting of many political entities is unavoidable. If splitting some is OK, it shouldn’t be a problem to split others. One might validly argue that, if some must be split, it would be fairer to split all.
Incorrectly stated objective: Electoral Districts Must Be Fairly Drawn – The word “fair” should never be used in this type of context. It is highly subjective and means different things to different people. If the word is used, it is necessary to spell out in considerable detail the objective criteria to be used when judging fairness or unfairness; this is rarely done, so confusion reigns.
The correct statement of the objective should be that electoral districts must be impartially drawn. “Impartially” has an objective definition. In this context it means that districts must be drawn in such a way that does not confer any systematic advantage or disadvantage to any particular faction (or community of interest, if you prefer).
All the muddled thinking surrounding redistricting has made it somewhat easier for the politicians to stay in the driver’s seat and keep right on gerrymandering.