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To Beat the Gerrymander, Think Outside the Lines

The Supreme Court ruling on partisan electoral districts highlights bigger problems with how maps are drawn and how representatives are chosen.

Olivier Douliery/Getty

Voters in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maryland deserve fair maps that don’t lock in a partisan advantage for either Republicans or Democrats. Federal courts nationwide had recently begun to insist on that, repeatedly declaring districts tainted with extreme partisan intent unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court put an end to that dream last month. Its 5-4 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause closed the federal courts to anyone seeking review of this undemocratic practice, despite those bipartisan panels of judges who repeatedly found they had all the tools and standards they needed to evaluate when district lines egregiously favored one side over the other.

But sometimes maps produce unrepresentative results not because of smoky backroom deals or elaborate data-driven gerrymandering. If you’re a Republican in most of New England or a Democrat in many parts of the South or the Midwest, good luck electing a member of your own choosing, regardless of who draws the lines.

That’s largely a function of geography, not gerrymandering, but the end result is the same: unfair maps, skewed representation, and hundreds of thousands of voters without a voice of their own in Congress. And where this is the simple result of geography, even the best-intentioned nonpartisan redistricting commission will fail to cure it.

The under-recognized conclusion is that while gerrymandering is a serious problem, it’s also a symptom of a bigger one: districting itself, and our very system of single-district, winner-take-all politics. It’s time to think about how we fix both.

The Supreme Court’s judicial abdication pushes this crucial crisis of democracy back to Congress and the states to solve. That creates a rocky road to reform. Voters, after all, looked to the federal courts for relief precisely because politicians have little incentive to change a system that makes it easier for them to get reelected.

A state-by-state approach presents challenges, too. Ballot initiatives demanding independent commissions and other fairer processes won big last November in red, purple, and blue states alike: Utah, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri. But only about half the states allow citizen-initiated statewide referenda, and another threat looms: Four Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested in a 2015 case from Arizona that independent commissions themselves might be unconstitutional.

State Supreme Court challenges offer one more avenue—and one brought a representative map to Pennsylvania in 2018. But State Supreme Courts can be infected with politics of their own. Indeed, in almost half the states, the judges are elected officials themselves. And state constitutions vary widely regarding the extent of protection they give voters in such matters. This approach would lead to fair maps in certain states, while others continue to dilute votes of the party that’s out of power.

It’s easy to see how abuses in some states could in turn push partisans elsewhere to maximize their maps in order to compensate. “I don’t see how there’s any other options,” said Representative John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s last Democrat in Congress, after the ruling.

Truth is, both sides will engage in this redistricting arms race. Just wait: Kentucky Republicans will redistrict Yarmuth’s base in Louisville into pizza slices, attaching a tiny piece of blue to many more red seats. Massachusetts Democrats will carefully divide conservative-leaning towns in the central part of the state so that there’s zero chance of a Republican getting elected from the Worcester area. None of this chicanery would have been egregious enough to catch the Supreme Court’s attention even if last week’s ruling went the other way. All of it continues to be dangerous and unfair.

What a mess. We need to rethink the entire path forward. As long as we have single-member districts, we will have gerrymandering. If we want to eliminate or minimize gerrymandering, we must eliminate or minimize districting. There’s an opportunity now to broaden our thinking and find a national solution that helps strengthen everyone’s vote without relying on the Supreme Court. It means moving away from our winner-take-all system and single-member districts.

Winner-take-all systems like ours aren’t designed to be fair. They can completely lock out of power large minorities of like-minded voters. They bake a rigid two-party dominance into the system, sending the message that giving a chance to an aspiring third party would be “throwing away your vote.”

Independent commissions can take some of the sting out of this, but not all. When FiveThirtyEight’s Gerrymandering Project drew seven sets of nationwide U.S. House maps, using such neutral criteria as partisan proportionality, compactness, racial and ethnic fairness, and competitiveness, improvements in one criterion inevitably came at the price of declines in the other. None of the maps allowed realistic opportunities for third parties.

This system makes for suppression of the minority party, uncompetitive elections, or both. It makes it difficult for rural Democrats to win office, and it’s just as challenging for liberal Republicans, let alone third parties and independents. It encourages ideological conformity inside parties and forces out unpredictable politicians who might serve as bridge builders.

The Fair Representation Act, proposed in the House by Virginia Democrat Don Beyer, would fix this. Beyer would replace our winner-take-all system with a fairer proportional representation system that would allow every vote to matter and everyone to win their fair share of seats. It calls for ranked-choice voting to elect House members, combined with moderately larger districts of three, four, or five representatives along the lines of ones used widely in state and local elections. These two reforms, together, would mean that a minority of 25 to 40 percent would get at least some representation as opposed to being totally shut out. This electoral system has worked well for decades both around the world and in a growing number of American cities and towns.

Under this plan, at least one or two Democrats would get elected from red states, and one or two Republicans in blue areas. It’s easy to imagine independent candidates actually able to overcome party machines and win seats, giving voice to the large number of Americans who increasingly identify with neither of the two major parties. Women and communities of color would see previously unwinnable seats open to them, especially across the South. Espousing extreme partisanship just to avoid getting “primaried” would no longer be rewarded. Reaching across the aisle wouldn’t be a shameful thing, and we might even undo some gridlock. Almost everyone will be able to point to at least one elected official and say, “I voted for that person. She represents me.” For all these reasons, voters would have a reason to turn out rather than disengage.

Let’s use this moment of change to fix the fundamental problem of representation and mitigate the extremism and dysfunction it helps sow. The federal courts won’t save us. Independent commissions and state-based solutions don’t help everyone. The way forward is to think not just outside the lines, but far beyond them.