There's only 1 real solution to partisan gerrymandering

A voter.
A voter. Illustrated | iStock

The past few years have seen nonpartisan commissions at the state level emerge as the favored solution to partisan gerrymandering. In states from California to New Jersey to Alaska (amusingly in the latter case, as Alaska only has one congressional district), it's become conventional wisdom that these commissions are the route to fair electoral districting.

Unfortunately, it's not going to work. Despite good intentions, in practice, this strategy is arguably making matters worse. The only way to prevent gerrymandering is coercive action at the federal level — ideally through changing the House from single-member to multi-member districts.

The latest proof of the commissions' failure comes from a Wednesday report by Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein at The New York Times. Legal fights and mysterious pressure campaigns, both funded by unknown right-wing dark money pools, are in process across the country. Thus far, the most important result has been brutal Republican gerrymanders in red and purple states like Iowa, Ohio, and Utah. On the present course, raw vote totals in the 2022 midterms could come in exactly as they did in 2020 — with a 3 percent national margin in Democrats' favor — and Republicans would still win a congressional majority because of how they've sliced up the map. Meanwhile, liberal states like Colorado and California have ostensibly nonpartisan commissions that are, if anything, tilted slightly to the right.

That's the fatal flaw of state level anti-gerrymandering campaigns: For the most part, they're only taking hold in liberal states. Most conservatives states don't have nonpartisan commissions, and the few that do exist are either pointless (Montana has only one district) or overriden by local Republicans. In Ohio, for example, the GOP majority told the commission to go pound sand and drew a 13-2 gerrymander in a state Trump won with just 53 percent of the vote last year.

Some liberal states, tired of losing for playing by the rules, have decided to fight back. In New York, counter-gerrymandering plans are being drawn up that would run out perhaps half the Republican members of Congress from the state. Democrats in Maryland may do the same.

This is understandable — and frankly better than Democrats being prissy rule-followers with "kick me" signs taped to their backs. (And it's worth noting there's no prospect of Dems rigging California, without which they'll never be able to cheat to the same degree as Republicans.) But it's still far from ideal. It's just one more click on the polarization ratchet, where conflict is taking place over the structure of the political system rather than through competition for votes. It would be nice to head that off before we end up with a dictatorship.

And in terms of democratic morality, just as liberals in very red states like West Virginia or Mississippi deserve representation, so do the many conservative voters in states like New York and California. All Americans deserve political representation, no matter where they happen to live.

The only realistic way partisan gerrymandering can be stopped is if it is banned at the federal level. The important thing is to require maps that are fair in partisan terms — compact districts or other priorities are all well and good, but the main priority must be keeping parties from using map drawing to cheat their way to national power. This proposal is actually part of the voting rights bill currently before Congress, but it remains to be seen whether moderate Democratic senators will get rid of the filibuster and pass these election protections.

But it would be better still to increase the number of representatives in each district. The single-member district is an old-fashioned technology that is exceptionally poorly suited to an age of extreme polarization between cities and countryside. In many states, it's legitimately difficult to draw districts that are compact, don't split up contiguous regions, and are fair in partisan terms. And as we're seeing today, it's actually quite easy for deep-pocketed conservatives to influence purportedly "neutral" commissions.

Multi-member districts, however they're drawn, make gerrymandering all but impossible. The idea is to have large districts with five or so members chosen via ranked-choice voting.

This would have a lot of salutary benefits. As Lee Drutman argues at Vox, trying to cheat with map boundaries would be largely pointless. All voters would get more accurate representation, no matter where they live — even districts in New York City or Alabama would have at least one representative from the minority faction.

Perhaps most importantly, third parties would instantly become viable in much of the country, since voters would be able to vote for them without risking aid to their political enemies. This would go a long way toward defusing polarization, since elections would no longer be a zero-sum contest between two bitterly opposed groups. More factions means less chance for extremist nutcases to reach office by exploiting polarization. It enables compromise and bargaining, too, and moving to this system wouldn't even require a constitutional amendment — the Constitution grants Congress sweeping powers to change how its own members are elected.

Alas, destruction of the two-party duopoly is also why a multi-member district reform plan almost certainly won't happen. The people leading both the Democratic and Republican Parties benefit greatly from the fact that third parties are de facto illegal here — we effectively have a two-party state. Hatred of the other team is about the most reliable turnout machine each party possess. If polarization and extremism are deflated and dynamic new parties spring to life, it won't end well for either party, and they know it.

If we're stuck as-is, then, Democrats should stay on the offensive. If they sit on their hands while Republican plot in plain sight, this might be the last time the Democrats ever hold Congress.

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