It is a truth universally acknowledged that the practice of politics in America cannot begin to repair itself without addressing the problem of gerrymandered Congressional districts. And yet the solutions on offer are remarkably modest.
Perhaps we should be thinking outside the box, especially once it has taken on the shape of Latin earmuffs or a fork-tongued salamander—to name just two famous district shapes. We are so accustomed to geographical districts electing one congressperson each by a plurality vote that it is reasonable to assume this is universally the case throughout the Union.
What all states with more than one representative allotted to them by the Census have in common, however, is the division of their territory into single member districts. Each parcel of land sits in exactly one district and each district has exactly one representative in the House and no Representative exists who does not represent some geographically defined district. Districts must be territorially contiguous, not cross state lines, and contain the same number of residents as each of the other districts in the same state (but not nationwide).
Observers upset at the lack of competitiveness in Congressional races are keen to suggest more “optimally compact” district borders. But why do we need single-member districts at all? Nothing in the constitution mandates this method or any other for that matter. Which is a good thing, since in the late 18th century there weren’t too many options available.
But today there are several methods in use in some of the most successful and stable democracies in the world. And they reflect better our intuitions about what makes an elected body effective as well as representative.
Let’s think for a moment about how critics of gerrymandering illustrate the deficiencies of the status quo, especially when they want to use numbers. Invariably, they will point to something like the “popular vote” to show how out of proportion the actual result is. Democrats outpolled Republicans in Maryland in the 2016 Congressional races 60 percent to 36 percent, but took seven out of eight seats (88 percent!); in Kentucky Republicans outpolled the Democrats 71 percent to 30 percent, but went to Washington claiming five out of six seats (83 percent). Similar Republican majorities in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma left the Democrats shut out entirely, leaving them with zero Representatives despite winning nearly a third of the vote in both states.
Maybe the popular vote doesn’t matter. If the job of the representative were to be a delegate of the community which sent him at all times, then it would make sense to just send the winner of that community’s vote, whether by plurality or automatic runoff or, as in Louisiana, a second round. That was certainly the ideal the framers strove for, and one which reigned in Britain too. But in an era of partisan politics, this ideal simply doesn’t make sense. And indeed, almost no democracy with a constitution written in the last century has opted for such a system, and many with older constitutions have abandoned them.
If the worst thing we can say about today’s gerrymandered districts is that they yield results out of proportion with the popular vote, why not go for a method which is a bit more, well, proportional? There are lots of ways to do it, and different methods might meet different states’ unique circumstances more adequately.
Small states, especially those with one urban conurbation and a rural hinterland, could find that electing a small delegation by single transferable vote (or “ranked choice”) better reflects their citizens while maintaining a personal connection between voters and representatives. It would also give the liberal minority in rural areas and the conservative minority in cities some kind of voice too.
Medium-sized Southern states could open-list proportional systems as a way of consolidating recent gains in Black representation without resorting to the kind of gerrymandering that has rendered nearly all Southern congressional races uncompetitive — and fostered a two-parties-for-two-races status quo.
A large state like New York, which already allows fusion ballots, could hold statewide Congressional elections on closed lists that belong to smaller New York parties while at the same time being clearly tied to major national parties. Are you a Tea Partier? You could vote for the Freedom Caucus list knowing that it will still caucus with the Republicans. And it wouldn’t matter that you live in the Upper West Side. Same goes for the Main Street Coalition, the Progressive Alliance, and the Democratic Leadership Council List.
The other three large states (California, Texas, and Florida) might consider going into a full mixed member system, as has successfully been implemented in Germany and New Zealand. Texas doesn’t need to draw boundaries for each of its 36 Representatives. It could just as easily have boundaries for 18 territorial districts and send the rest based on the outcome of a proportional vote, as in Germany or New Zealand.
These changes would not need to be immediate or simultaneous or permanent. And that’s the point. States could experiment, and as one model succeeds more it could be emulated and modified for other states. No constitutional amendment is required, and no sweeping reformist spirit across the country is needed either. It could start in one or two states and spread. The only legal impediment currently standing in the way is the is the 1967 Uniform Congressional District Act, which can be repealed (or challenged in court) without threatening any incumbent’s immediate interests.
On the contrary: what many incumbents, ensconced in their gerrymandered districts, fear now is being “primary-ed.” This fear, more than any other, is what prevents any cross-aisle cooperation. Moreover, those who rely on partisan gerrymandering come from the states that would be least likely to jump on the reform bandwagon once the Uniform District Act is repealed.
Fine. Let them (for now). This is the kind of reform that can progress slowly, state by state, with prudent experimentation. There are, after all, fifty states out there. Why shouldn’t they live up to their calling as “laboratories of democracy”?
Shany Mor is a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. He is currently writing a book on representative democracy.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.