Here’s an inconvenient truth: the courts can’t solve gerrymandering.
So far the Supreme Court of the United States has turned down several attempts to create a test that courts could use to strike down gerrymandering. But even if the SCOTUS ever accepts a test, it still won’t fix the ills of districts that distort the will of voters. Take it from a former gerrymanderer. In a recent Washington Post piece, former redistrictor Henry Olsen reveals the only solution to gerrymandering.
There is only one way to abolish partisan gerrymandering and keep the courts from getting involved in deciding whose partisan ox gets gored in each and every state: Adopt proportional representation for state legislatures and the U.S. House. If there are no district lines, there can be no gerrymandering. Set a low minimum threshold for getting seats, like Denmark’s 2 percent or Israel’s 3.25 percent, and there will almost never be a case where a party gets many more seats than they get votes. Switzerland has a bicameral system like ours, and has such a system for its House. Adopting that would fix our gerrymandering problem and fit our Constitution.
Olsen is right to say that if there are no districts lines, no one can draw them so no one can gerrymander. But it is also true that multi-winner districts and a proportional electoral method can slay the gerrymander.
Other former redistrictors chimed in on Twitter to agree with Olsen’s conclusion.
As a three time redistricter I like to think I only used my powers for good.. but I agree with your central premise.
— Chris Barnes (@cebpollster) April 26, 2019
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
Others agree that proportional representation would be ideal and that continuing with the current system perpetuates injustice.
I drew the map GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s commission chose to redraw Maryland’s District 6, & I must disagree. Ind. commissions & proportional rep. would be ideal, but they aren’t an option in many states. Courts have repeatedly used this standard. Doing nothing perpetuates injustice https://t.co/oriojDmA7v
— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) April 26, 2019
We at Sightline couldn’t agree more. No matter who draws the lines, lines shouldn’t determine the winners. Voters should. The only way to take away the power of the lines is to move to some form of 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, email her at kristin [at] sightline [dot] org, and follow her on Twitter at @KristinEberhard. If you’d like to make a media inquiry, contact our Communications Team.
So there is a loss of local representation? I don’t have a representative for my slice of Washington state but a slew of people representing the whole state?
Doesn’t sound like a solution to me.
Perhaps it would work better make the congressional districts congruent with county lines and apportion representation to the counties according to population. States that have more counties that representatives would have to combine counties to make larger representative districts. The main point is to avoid redrawing district lines.
It would be good to think very carefully before considering such a radical proposal. And it *is* radical.
Here is why: Constitutional rules exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium. They modify and reenforce each other. For instance, the U.S. has a first past the post electoral system (which requires us to draw lines etc), but so does the UK and Canada. Why do the UK and Canada have more than two parties, while the U.S has stubbornly two… even before the postwar period more powerfully entrenched the major parties? It’s the directly elected Presidency. The number of political parties isn’t just a function of the electoral system, but of the way our separation of powers is set up.
That should immediately make anyone ask: OH, okay… well, what would a change to PR do with all the other aspects of our constitutional regime? Would it entails costs that are *higher* than a compromise solution – such as commissions and easier ballot access?
One of the big unexplored areas – because there are so few cases – is the relationship between electoral systems and federalism. There are very few Federal Regimes, because they tend to be extremely unstable – collapsing in to central government domination, or spinning out into seperatism. Belgium is a federal country with PR. It is being torn apart by it. Germany is a Federal country with highly managed high threshold PR (opposed in this column in some misguided attempt to view our electoral system situation as anything akin to Denmarks or The Netherlands -where I now reside) but has continual pressures primarily thwarted by the unique manner in which the upper house of the national legislature is selected. Germany uses a system somewhat closer to how the U.S. elected the Senate before direct election of Senators was amended to the constitution.
This kind of proposal could seriously destablize the Federal Union upon which the country depends. It could even render civil conflict more likely as it has in other nations with regional differences in the Global South.
It’s unclear to me how to view the trade-off between death to gerrymandering and potential civil conflict… but it seems a question that deserve more than a quick look to the Northern Europe to the countries where PR works great, while ignoring those countries – like Beligum – where it has fueled regional hatred and every more fractious politics, at times rendering the Federal government so gridlocked that it was without a formal government for longer than any nation in history.
Feel free to e-mail me if you would like some relevant papers and books.