How Gerrymandering Works

Gerrymander-Proofing Congressional Districts

Advocates of reforming the political process say that there's a way to eliminate gerrymandering and make elections fairer. They'd like to take control of the legislative and congressional redistricting process away from elected politicians whose parties stand to benefit from drawing skewed maps. Instead, they want states to turn redistricting over to independent, non-partisan commissions.

It's an idea that sounds promising, at least in theory. But so far, only six states — California, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, New Jersey and Hawaii —give complete control over congressional redistricting to commissions, whose maps don't need final approval from state legislators or governors. And as Vox journalist Andrew Prokop noted in a recent article, simply setting up a commission doesn't keep politics out of the process, because the political leaders get to decide who's on the commission, and seats are reserved for Democratic and Republican appointees — though some states also reserve seats for independents or non-partisan commissioners.

So far, there's mixed evidence on whether commissions can open up the political process and reduce unfairness. In California, for example, a referendum turned congressional redistricting over to a commission in 2010. But since then there hasn't been that much change in the partisan make up of California's congressional delegation. In 2016, for example, all the state's 53 congressional districts were won by the party that previously controlled them. But the new map has led to more races being competitive. One example: Longtime Republican incumbent. Rep. Darrell Issa, who won 63 percent of the vote in 2010, squeaked by in 2016 with a margin of less than 1 percent [source: Blake].

But Americans also can look to the north for an example of how commissions can make politics fairer. In 1964, Canada — where extreme gerrymandering once was common — passed a law that set up a three-member commission to draw up electoral districts for each province, with a superior court judge — a non-elected official — as the chairperson. The other two members are either political science professors affiliated with universities, or else retired government officials. Members of Parliament are allowed to raise concerns about the draft versions of the maps, but the commission's decision is final. The population of each electoral district must correspond with the province's electoral quota as much as possible [source: Courtney].

As legal scholar Charles Paul Hoffman has written in the Manitoba Law Journal: "The commissions have been largely successful since their implementation." As a result, Canada has morphed into a country where people might still complain about their elected officials, but the make up of districts is no longer a source of bitter controversy.

Last editorial update on Jun 18, 2018 12:21:02 pm.

Author's Note: How Gerrymandering Works

I've been interested in this subject since I covered the Congressional redistricting process in Maryland in the early 1990s, and got to see the sometimes-bitter disputes over the boundaries of districts. Back then, the big innovation was being able to draw multiple versions of the map on a computer and print them on paper.

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More Great Links


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