How can we eliminate gerrymandering?
One proposal is to let independent officials, rather than state legislators, draw the boundary lines for congressional districts. These officials would be obligated not to let political considerations influence their work.
It sounds very objective and nonpartisan—very sensible, in fact. Except it isn’t.
One problem: In moving redistricting away from legislative bodies to "independent" commissions, we've seen that these commissions aren't very independent. With the new Census Bureau population figures in hand, state legislators and commissioners are now in the process of redrawing political maps. If this redistricting cycle is anything like the last one, the supposedly scientific and nonpolitical drawing of maps by "independent" commissions may prove just as lopsided as those of the "political gerrymanders."
Don’t believe us?
Compare California and Texas. In Texas, the legislature is responsible for redistricting, as was the case in every state from the founding until the 20th century. The Republicans controlling the state legislature in the post-2010 census period drew an old-fashioned gerrymander, repaying in spades a similar 1990s action by the state’s Democrats.
Meanwhile, California uses an independent commission that is supposed to draw districts without consideration of partisan interests while keeping "communities of interest" (a polite term for racial gerrymandering) whole and represented. Yet, under the boundaries drawn by this "independent" commission, California Democrats sent seven more representatives to Congress in 2020 than they would be entitled to under a proportional test.
This 13% deviation from the proportional vote far exceeded the pro-Republican deviation (8%) registered that year in Texas. This was no fluke. California’s pro-Democrat deviation was higher in the 2018 elections as well. How did that happen?
Reporting by ProPublica in the 2010 cycle revealed that Democratic advocacy organizations had pressured the commission to interpret "communities of interest" to help Democratic officeholders. In other words, it was partisan gerrymandering hidden under a virtuous-sounding objective. In drawing representative districts, independent commissions are even less accountable to citizens than legislators. If voters are unhappy with their lawmakers' work, they can vote them out of office. They can’t do that with appointed members of a commission.
Moreover, since legislators' actions are obviously self-interested, the public, courts, the media, and statewide officeholders (whose offices cannot be gerrymandered by definition) will more closely scrutinize their boundary-drawing decisions than those of a supposedly independent commission.
And lest anyone think, as the New York Times’s Twitter feed apparently does, that drawing districts for partisan advantage is a uniquely Republican vice, one needs only to look at the current Congress. Compared to proportional representation assessed by state, Republicans' and Democrats' gerrymandering (and natural efficiency) advantages have canceled each other out. The parties would be the same size if we used proportional representation like most of Europe.
There isn’t a gerrymandering crisis, and the proposed solution simply moves political decision-making behind the closed doors of commission meetings. This works to the benefit of the special interests and organized activists. In their attempt to divorce politics from representation, the activists have only shown that representation is inherently subject to political forces.
As it should be in a representational republic.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner