Americans of all stripes dislike partisan gerrymandering. But they may not realize the usual solutions—independent redistricting and court challenges—can’t fix it. There is a sure-fire solution.
Replacing single-winner districts with larger, multi-winner districts with candidates elected proportionally would bypass the gerrymandering mess altogether. That switch would eliminate safe seats, diminish the power of cracking and packing, and render partisan districting battles irrelevant. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias sums it up, proportional representation “solves all the map-drawing problems in one fell swoop.”
The 2018 Midterms Will Shape Congress for a Decade
Redistricting happens once per decade, based on new US Census counts. The last Census was in 2010 and the districts drawn in 2011 have shaped power ever since. The next Census will be taken in 2020 and new district lines for local, state, and federal elections will be drawn in 2021.
Many of the politicians who will draw the lines are getting elected November 6.
Many of the politicians who will draw the lines are getting elected November 6. On Tuesday’s ballot are the 26 governors races and nearly 500 state senators in 37 states where elected officials control redistricting. Low-profile state races wind up being hugely consequential.
The maps skew red right now. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explains, “Last time around, Republicans dominated the process and walked away with such slanted district maps that they’ve held the House of Representatives easily ever since.” Democrats now need to win the popular vote overwhelmingly—by at least 6 or 7 points.
When district lines lock in a party’s advantage long before Election Day, it’s no wonder voters feel the system is rigged. That’s why gerrymandering is often blamed for voter apathy and low turnout.
Proportional representation could help Americans say goodbye to gerrymandering for good
The flaws of gerrymandering are built into the very DNA of the way most North Americans elect lawmakers—in single-winner districts.
There are several state initiatives afoot to use independent commissions to draw lines. There is an ongoing (but uphill) hike to court challenges. Unfortunately, even if wildly successful, those efforts will only mitigate the most extreme gerrymandering. Districts will still be “safe” for one party or the other and many votes will still be wasted.
If you’re unsure of what proportional representation (ProRep) is, check this out. In short, it’s a form of voting used by most prosperous democracies around the world. Instead of parties manipulating district lines, voters belong to much bigger districts and elect multiple candidates. Rather than one winner taking all the power, the share of votes would determine the share of party seats. Say a district elects five seats. Democrats received 40 percent of the vote, while Republicans received 60 percent. The result would be two Democrats and three Republicans representing the district.
Getting rid of single-winner districts bypasses the gerrymandering mess in several ways:
Cracking and packing won’t work. A strategy in partisan gerrymandering is for the party drawing the lines to split or concentrate opposing voters and supporters—cracking and packing. Splitting up voters makes them a powerless minority scattered among multiple districts. Or opposing voters get stranded on a concentrated island—they can win their district, but that’s it. This can happen to candidates as well: One gerrymander in Indiana squeezed three Democratic incumbents into one district and then sliced another Democrat away from his hometown, putting him in a traditionally Republican area where he had no chance of winning.
With bigger, multi-winner districts where seats reflect the share of votes, it becomes impossible to crack or pack. Even if a district is “packed” with 80 percent voters of one party, the 20 percent minority electorate isn’t shut out—they still keep 20 percent of the power. No matter how the district lines are drawn and no matter how party voters are distributed among districts, voters have a say in electing representatives they prefer.
No more partisan scrapping for control of the pen. Redistricting has become a partisan power grab. Whoever holds the pen at the moment of a new redistricting process has the power to map winners and losers. If both parties hold some power, they jockey for position and often make sweetheart deals to protect their own incumbents. Even after lines are drawn, there are multi-million dollar court cases against them. (Here’s a Brennan Center list of active Partisan Gerrymandering Court Cases). Increasingly, like-minded voters move to the same places, so even an independent commission drawing lines along natural or county borders will end up with an uncompetitive map where many districts are “safe.”
In a multi-winner district with a proportional voting method, the lines don’t matter and it doesn’t matter which party is holding the pen, either. All sizable parties have a reasonable chance to win some district seats.
No more safe seats. When lines are drawn to secure safe seats for one party, the other party often doesn’t even bother to run a candidate. In state legislature races it’s the norm for around 40 percent of candidates to run unopposed. Why bother running if you figure more than half of voters are mapped against you? Across Georgia in 2016, seats went uncontested in 80 percent of races. Voters in those districts had no choice, no option to throw an incumbent out, no pressure to exert. Safe districts make legislators less responsive to voters.
In multi-winner systems where seats are proportional to votes, even small shifts in voter preferences can shift the share of seats. Races are always competitive. When it’s no longer winner-take-all, no one would run unopposed because a share of the votes above a minimum threshold means a share of the seats, even for a minority party. When voters pick their politicians instead of politicians picking their voters, representatives have to be more accountable to the people.
No more (impossible) balancing act between geography, ideology, race, and population density. Redistricting involves trade-offs among competing concerns, including keeping geographically connected communities “compact,” keeping like-minded “interest communities” whole, keeping densely-populated urban areas equal to more dispersed rural or suburban areas, and making sure ethnic and racial minority populations aren’t cut out of representation.
Though simplifying the shape of districts has appeal, prioritizing geography above all has an inherent flaw too: it makes some voters more powerful than others. Single-winner districts systematically give conservative suburban and rural dwellers more voting power than progressive urbanites. Candidates in dense urban districts win by higher margins, which translates to less power per voter to elect a representative compared to voters dispersed across many districts with closer margins.
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Single-winner districts typically exclude voters in any minority, whether by party, income, race, or ethnicity. A single-winner district where fewer than half of voters are African-American, for example, will likely consistently fail to elect the candidates preferred by its African-American voters. Drawing lines to boost minority representation is imperfect, too. Supreme Court rulings against “racial gerrymandering” have made it much harder to establish majority-minority districts (districts where people in a racial or ethnic minority make up the majority of the population). It goes the other way too: gerrymandering can be used to draw racial and ethnic groups out of power.
Multi-winner districts are bigger, so they encompass geographically defined places rather than slicing and dicing them. Geographically connected voters can vote together—or not. And multi-winner districts with seats elected proportionally would mean that any group in the minority, no matter where they live within the district, would have a good chance of electing someone to represent them. For example, if African-American voters comprise 20 percent of the vote and tend to vote together, they could elect at least one of the five seats. More-proportional voting systems in hundreds of cities across the US have the election results to prove that electoral system reform is a more robust solution to the problem of under-representation of people of color than redistricting in single-winner districts.
Gerrymander-proof systems may be unfamiliar—but aren’t so farfetched
Electoral system reform is neither sexy nor mainstream among US voters. But even if proportional representation and multi-winner districts are unfamiliar to Americans, they are well-tested democracy upgrades elsewhere. Most advanced democracies in the world use some form of proportionality (and these systems are well-liked; nobody switches back!) Take New Zealand which opted for a proportional system in the 1990s. Immediately, New Zealanders saw a more diverse, representative parliament. They haven’t looked back.
And efforts are underway closer to home right now to bring this solution to democracies in need of repair.
From school districts to counties and state legislatures, over 300 jurisdictions in 30 US states already use proportional or semi-proportional systems.
In the US, the Fair Representation Act, introduced in Congress by Representative Donald Beyer of Virginia, proposes to shift House elections from single-member to larger, multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting. This would create districts of up to five members, with the top five vote-getters winning Congressional seats.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau ran on the promise of federal-level electoral reform but has since backed away. Provinces are taking matters into their own hands. British Columbians are voting through November 30 on a referendum to switch to proportional representation. If BC voters there are successful in reforming their system, it could shine the way to a path forward in the US. Plus a domino effect might take place in Canada. Prince Edward Island and Quebec are also poised to switch.
North Americans don’t have to stay shackled to outdated voting systems. Voters could slay gerrymandering with one strike—by switching to multi-winner districts with proportional representation.
Kristin Eberhard is a senior researcher at Sightline. She researches, writes about, and speaks about climate change policy and democracy reform. Find her latest research here. If you have questions or would like to make a media inquiry, contact Sightline’s Communications Manager Anne Christnovich.
Anna Fahey, director of strategic communication, coordinates Sightline’s cross-cutting campaign-like efforts and leads its messaging strategy program. Find her latest research here.