Fortunately, we have a sword that will slice through the heart of the fearsome reptile: multi-member districts.
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Everyone hates the gerrymander, a beast named after a salamander-shaped district authorized by Massachusetts Governor Gerry in 1812. Most people agree that voters should choose their politicians, rather than politicians choosing their voters (John Oliver, Eric Holder, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are all anti-gerrymandering). Many anti-gerrymander crusaders hope they can defeat the beast by taking the line-drawing pen away from legislators and handing it to a commission or a computer—someone without a partisan stake in the game. Unfortunately, commissions and computers, though mighty in their ways, aren’t up to the task of slaying the gerrymander. Fortunately, we have a sword that will slice through the heart of the fearsome reptile: multi-member districts.

The gerrymander takes power away from voters and puts it in the hands of whoever draws the district lines. In a representative democracy, voters are supposed to have the power to choose representatives and hold them accountable. But when someone (even a computer program) is holding the pen and drawing a single-winner district map, the line-drawer wields more power than the voters.

Most anti-gerrymandering warriors focus on the perspective of the line-drawers, measuring if they are drawing better lines, often meaning more compact districts. In this series, we take the perspective of the voter, measuring if you have the power to choose who represents you. A voter with the power to choose her representative should be confident that:

  1. Her vote makes a difference in who gets elected; her ballot has the power to elect an official who represents her and her views.
  2. Her vote has equal power to every other voters’.
  3. She can hold her elected representative accountable. She has the power to “throw the bum out” next time around. He knows she has that power, so he takes her calls and responds to her concerns at town halls.

The next three articles in this series will address these voter powers in turn. This article explains why the obsession with whether districts are compact is a diversion from the true battle.

The gerrymander’s dark secret

Most would-be slayers believe they know the beast when they see it—wacky-shaped districts mean gerrymandering is at work while neatly-shaped districts mean gerrymandering is vanquished. If districts look more like docile decahedrons, orderly octagons, or tidy trapezoids than like sprawling dragons, some crusaders are fooled into thinking they have conquered the beast. But the enemy’s real weapon is not the shape of the district but its ability to sap voters’ power.

But when someone (even a computer program) is holding the pen and drawing a single-winner district map, the line-drawer wields more power than the voters.

Here’s something no one will tell you: the fairest single-member districts would be the most “packed” and have the wackiest shapes. You see, the whole idea of single-member districts is that each district encompasses a single community or group of people who have something in common; together they can elect a local representative who is a voice for that shared community sentiment (some redistrictors call these “communities of interest”). The only way to draw single-member districts that live up to this ideal is to shamelessly snake district lines around like-minded households. If a district is so homogenous that 100 percent of the voters prefer the same candidate, the representative from that district would be perfectly representative of every single voter. No voter would feel unrepresented. And together, the perfectly packed districts would elect a legislature reflecting all the voters.

Imagine a city with 100 voters, 54 of whom lean Democratic and 46 percent lean Republican. Voters elect an 11-member legislature. In nearly homogenous districts, almost all voters would feel well-represented by their local representative, and the legislature would reflect the partisan split of voters overall: 6 Democrats (54.5 percent of the legislature) and 5 Republicans (45.5 percent).

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Compare that with supposedly “un-gerrymandered” districts where a computer or commission drew compact districts. In each district, up to half of the voters would not feel represented by their local representative, and the legislature would not reflect the partisan split of the voters overall: 5 Democrats and 6 Republicans (even though 54 percent of voters chose a Democrat).

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Ok, maybe I was exaggerating about no one telling you this secret. Actually, the Republican National Committee’s brief to the US Supreme Court in the much-anticipated upcoming gerrymandering case dedicates an entire section to this point. The brief points out that, if the court adopts a standard for eliminating the “efficiency gap” between which party voters prefer and which party wins the most legislative seats, it will result in “bizarrely shaped districts of the kind this court previously rejected.” You can fix bizarrely shaped districts, or you can fix unrepresentative results. But with single-member districts, you can’t fix both.

Don’t just poke the dragon . . .

Slaying the dragon means giving voters the power to elect representatives who look like them in terms of gender, race, class, and life experience and who will fight for their values, worldviews, and interests. But so long as single-winner districts reign, the only representation you are guaranteed is that one member of the legislature will come from somewhere near-ish to where you live. As long as we have single-winner districts, geographical representation rules. Other types of representation are locked in the dungeons, and our heroes’ hands are tied.

Slaying the dragon means giving voters the power to elect representatives who look like them in terms of gender, race, class, and life experience and who will fight for their values, worldviews, and interests.

Unable to slay the dragon, many gerrymandering opponents settle for trying to poke it into a different shape. By re-shaping the dragon, crusaders can quash blatant partisan power grabs—stopping politicians from intentionally gerrymandering. When partisans hold the districting pen, they can use sophisticated computer models to “pack” the opposition’s voters together into a few safe districts, causing them to waste many votes on already-secured victories, and “crack” like-minded voters apart, spreading them between many districts where they fall just short of victory in every one. Redistricting methods that take the pen away from party operatives can extinguish intentional partisan bias.

Non-partisan redistricting commissions (currently used in California and five other states) could do the trick, as could various computational methods. In Oregon the legislature draws the lines, though the Republican Secretary of State is interested in giving the pen to a non-partisan commission. Idaho, Montana, Washington and the five other states using bi-partisan commissions to draw the maps eliminate one party’s ability to stick it to the other, but they still leave open the door for both parties to stick it to the voters by drawing maps that protect incumbents from both parties. Algorithms for drawing maximally compact districts would eliminate politicians’ ability to intentionally pick their voters, but they would waste many votes and make some votes more powerful than others.

These tools don’t even attempt to broach the bigger task. They don’t protect the voter’s power to make sure her vote matters, that it matters equally to every other vote, and that her elected representative answers to her.

Slay it!

No one—not independent commissions or computers—can draw compact, competitive single-winner districts that give voters the power to elect like-minded representatives and hold them accountable. It is impossible. It’s time to stop trying. It’s time to stop poking the dragon, hoping to prod him into a shape that will magically solve our representation problems. Let’s grab a sword and free ourselves, and end the gerrymander for good. The sword is called multi-member districts.

  • When voters can elect more than one representative at a time, it doesn’t matter who draws the lines or what shape they form. No seat is safe, voters have a say, and their votes aren’t wasted. I’ll get into the details of these arguments in my next three articles, but for now, just consider this: imagine again that 100-person city electing 11 council members and leaning 54 percent Democratic. But now imagine the council members run in multi-member districts: one district elects five representative, and two districts elect three representatives each. All candidates in a district run against each other, so no seats are “safe” for one party due to intentional or unintentional gerrymandering. Voters rank their candidates in a ballot like this, meaning they can express which of that pool of candidates is their favorite, second favorite and so on. It also means that, in a district electing three representatives, a group of like-minded voters making up about one-third can elect a representative of their choice (for more about how this works, and examples of how it would play out in Portland, see this article).

    For example, in 2016 in Washington’s congressional district 7, voters had to choose between Pramila Jayapal and Brady Pinero Walkinshaw, and no Republican voter anywhere near the Puget Sound area—congressional districts 2, 6, and 7—was able to elect a conservative to congress. Imagine those three districts instead elected three representatives from a single pool and ranked their ballots. Left-leaning voters could have, for example, ranked Jayapal first, Walkinshaw second, Derek Kilmer third and Rick Larsen fourth, and likely two Democrats would have won seats. Republican voters might have ranked Clint Didier first and Marc Hennemann second, and one of them might have won a seat. The Washington congressional delegation would then include coastal conservatives and inland liberals, leading to better representation of Washington voters and better ability to work together on solutions.

    Representative Don Beyer of Virginia recently introduced a bill in the US Congress to do exactly this. The Fair Representation Act would use independent commission to draw multi-member districts and allow voters to rank their choices. This would knock the gerrymander dead for US Representative elections. Though Democrats won just 53 percent of the votes, Oregon’s current map rewarded Democrats with 80 percent of the seats. The Fair Representation Act would give voters the power to correct that imbalance. Washington’s current map locks in representation for the two major parties, but slaying the gerrymander would make the races more competitive and open up the possibility of a third party winning a seat. In both states, more voters would have the power to choose their representative, instead of being stuck in districts that are safe for one major party or the other.

    Back to our hypothetical city with 100 voters, if the voters stay the same but instead of 11 single-member districts, an independent commission draws three multi-member districts, the results could be very different. Some voters who previously felt forced to vote for “the lesser of two evils” between the two major parties might now express their true preferences for the Green Party and the Libertarian party. And all conservative voters and all left-leaning voters would have at least one representative who thinks along the same lines as them, no matter what part of town they live in.

    Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

    Part 2 in this series shows how single-member districts leave many voters without the power to elect an official who represents them but multi-member districts give voters the power. Part 3 will examine how single-member districts make some votes count more than others but multi-member districts make all votes count equally. Part 4 will look at single-member districts’ lack of accountability.

    Together, this series shows that when reformers accept single-winner districts, they have already lost the battle against the gerrymander. The only way to vanquish it for good is to draw multi-member districts that empower voters to elect a representative they like, no matter which district they live in.