We can end the gerrymandering wars — and government dysfunction

Sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol dome
Associated Press/Patrick Semansky
Sunlight shines on the U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 21, 2022.

It’s hardly news by now that our democracy has a massive redistricting problem, but if you needed another reminder, the news keeps providing disturbing examples.

Last week, Florida lawmakers embraced an aggressive gerrymander that seems certain to add four new GOP seats and dismantle two voting-rights districts held by Black lawmakers. In Ohio, where voters passed reforms in 2015 and 2018 that Republican lawmakers have followed only in the breach, the state supreme court has rejected legislative and congressional maps some half-dozen times. Meanwhile, in New York, a Democratic gerrymander, enacted after lawmakers engineered the collapse of a redistricting commission and then wiped away four GOP seats, was tossed by a state appeals court.

Brazen election-rigging appears to have become the new normal. Both parties have no incentive to do much else; indeed, proactive reform looks like unilateral disarmament. The U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed extreme gerrymanders when it shut the federal courts to these claims in 2019, and Congress then failed to pass any national standard that would have reined in this anti-democratic scourge everywhere. Five seats separate the two parties in the House. It’s a high-stakes race to the bottom, everywhere.

This election cycle — destined to be a partisan bloodbath nationwide — has reinforced that the process we use for drawing districts and electing House members is broken, perhaps irreparably. The old solutions aren’t working. Voter-demanded reforms have been undermined by bad-faith actors. State court enforcement has been wildly inconsistent, helping to create fairer maps in some states but reinforcing the gerrymandered status quo elsewhere. What little remains of the Voting Rights Act has not prevented the weakening of minority representation, even where Black and Latino populations have surged.

This is no way to run a democracy. But we won’t fix it until we realize that our redistricting problem is, at its heart, a problem with districting itself. It’s our system of single-member districts that makes the placement of each district line so powerful. It’s single-member districts that make it possible for New York Democrats and Ohio Republicans to draw 85 percent of U.S. House seats for themselves in states that are nowhere near that lopsided.

A more proportional system would create the fairest maps. The gerrymandering fix we need combines larger, multi-member districts (drawn by commissions) and ranked-choice voting. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) has introduced such a bill in Congress — the Fair Representation Act — and as another dreary redistricting cycle unfolds, it deserves a closer look.

Larger, multi-member districts would make each line unimportant and transform the fight over redistricting, perhaps even ending it altogether. Ranked-choice voting would create a proportional result in each district, turning every district into a swing seat and ensuring representation for everyone — including rural Democrats, urban Republicans, and independents of all stripes.

It would put an end to the shenanigans we see right now in New York, Florida and Ohio. If a commission in New York drew five districts with five members, for example, it’s easy to imagine each district electing three Democrats and two Republicans — roughly in line with the 2020 presidential results that produced 61 percent support for Joe Biden.

In Ohio, meanwhile, three districts of five members might produce the opposite result: nine Republicans and six Democrats overall. That’s quite a change from the 13-2 map that still could be enacted.

There are other benefits as well, beyond our most gerrymandered states. In nearly one-party states such as blue Massachusetts or red Oklahoma, for example, there are plenty of members of the other side. They just can’t win any seats under the current system. But if we could elect Democrats from the South and Republicans from New England again, those viewpoints could help lubricate our politics.

We see that dysfunction every day, and the brokenness of redistricting just once a decade. Yet redistricting has become such a blood sport because in a winner-takes-all, single-member system, each line determines winners and losers, and incentivizes politicians to talk to their base and avoid a primary challenge, the only election they can really lose.

The gerrymandering wars are bleeding us dry. The current solutions haven’t been sufficient. We can have better choice, more equitable representation, and diminish the polarization that grips our nation. It just requires thinking bigger about the problem and opening ourselves to new ideas. 

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.

Tags 2022 midterms congressional districts Don Beyer Gerrymandering ranked-choice voting

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