Let the People Gerrymander Themselves
Drawing congressional district lines is a messy process in the current political system. The rise of computers has made it so that gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to be advantageous to your side, is extremely easy to accomplish. Sometimes the goal is to draw a map that allows one party to hold the most seats, other times it’s used to protect incumbent representatives. The number of competitive races has begun to dwindle, and the real battle for who represents an area increasingly falls on who can outflank the others in a primary. Voters clearly want a change as they continue to vote in favor of redistricting reform when it is placed on the ballot even if it backfires politically. Recently in blood red Utah, a measure for fair redistricting that could likely give the Democrats a safer seat narrowly passed, even though it would hurt the partisan side that most of its residents favor. The problem with this is that independent commissions fail in their missions: they are overwhelmed by the twin factors of the colossal resources of the parties and their own inability to predict the future.
While lots of new gerrymandering decisions are now made at the behest of partisan-aligned courts to even out maps, voters that want to take control can pass a balanced or independent redistricting commission, which several states have now and even more have approved for the next cycle after 2020. These have shortcomings, and the twin current examples of this are California and Arizona. In California, the dominant Democratic party posed as community groups to receive more favorable and stable districts drawn, and they coordinated without revealing their intent to the redistricting commission. This is a bipartisan tactic, as Republicans did the same in Florida after the court ordered new maps, and leaked emails show that professionally-made maps were given to citizens to submit on behalf of a fake neutral third party. They also have different priorities, though mostly the ballot measures are passed with the directive to create the most competitive districts possible.
This was the case in Arizona, and it’s the other reason that these maps can and do fail: trends that nobody could have expected years before manifesting themselves and becoming lopsided. Lots of maps, even ones that Republicans drew themselves, were based on the belief that the Democrats would continue the Obama coalition, and collapsed this last cycle because they were built on the suburbs, which nobody saw flipping. In Arizona, three competitive districts were drawn, but one of those has shifted hard left while the other maintains a popular moderate Democrat and the last flipped hard as the Pima suburbs shifted and the Republicans didn’t spend $8 million to hold on. This wasn’t a matter of poor intent, but merely the fact that it’s impossible to know what will happen this far out.
Many of the arguments about gerrymandering now fall back on complex mathematical overlays to geography and the Civil Rights Act, but the Supreme Court justices remain bewildered and unimpressed. There is, however, a much more elegant and simple solution to the problem that allows for a far fairer representative system: eliminate the district lines altogether.
I propose that instead of arbitrary lines drawn in contention, all House seats are elected at large. The election dates will be similar to what they are now, with a primary and a general. During the primary, anybody who wants to run and hits a signature or proven support threshold can get onto the ballot. Everybody has exactly one vote for a single candidate and the number of candidates who advance equals the number of seats available doubled. For example, Pennsylvania has 18 congressional districts, so the top 36 can make it to the general election. In Rhode Island which has two districts, only the Top 4 go forward. This process then repeats itself on the general election day and the top half of the vote-getters are the new representatives for that state.
This sounds crazy, but it helps to fix all the relevant problems with poor representation in the House and is the truest way to capture the intended end goal of the Lower Chamber and bypassing the whole process to even draw the seats. The major problems under the current system are poor minority or real communities of interest having fair representation and incumbents being reelected based on placement, not virtue.
First, any group can band together to elect candidates that will accurately reflect them, but also can think strategically, marshaling their votes behind a sure thing or risking it to encourage their members to split and attempt to vote for more than one. This could lead to geographical candidates, or different demographic or racial groups pushing a candidate, but that’s not different from what we have now, except the support will measure the true lines of a community and not drawn in a certain way. This not only abides by, but probably goes farther than the Voting Rights Act provisions. Here, minority districts are not packed together, but rather it is up to the groups themselves to find candidates with the ability to do more than settle for one candidate with the clear majority of support as the only option.
Second, incumbents will now have to deliver to their constituents and can no longer glide to victory. They will always be contested, both in the general and in the primary, and will need to prove why they deserve to stick around. Not only will they have to differentiate themselves back home, but because everybody only gets one vote, they will also have to break the partisan mold and differentiate themselves from people from their own party to stay in, leading to an improved quality of candidate that is able to sustain a voting bloc and not rest in a safe district able to win repeatedly because of how the district is drawn. These rules also mean that the national and state parties will have to think more strategically and cannot play as heavy of a hand in elections deciding the outcomes, but also promises a steady stream of turnover in DC and the opportunity for a chance election of a minor party candidate that can usher in the desire for more change.
Voters will have the widest, and in their opinion, best range of selections to choose from. Eliminating the lines in favor of a runoff at large system gives the most power to people to determine who they want to see represent them and encourages communities to organize and express themselves, rather than let a formula in a computer spit out what’s safest for the national organizations. The current and upcoming fixes are plagued with errors or overly complicated, but the alternative is to not waste our time with these geographical divides at all and empower those who do the voting themselves.