With the Supreme Court recently hearing oral arguments in Gill v Whitford, partisan gerrymandering has been a hot political topic. FairVote got to catch up with Emily Bazelon, who wrote an interesting New York Times piece about partisan gerrymandering and redistricting. We got her thoughts about the Supreme Court moving forward with addressing the issue and remedies like the Fair Representation Act.
FairVote: This is the first time in over a decade that the Supreme Court will hear a case on partisan gerrymandering. If the Supreme Court holds that the judiciary should stay out of redistricting, as mentioned in your article, then what?
Emily Bazelon: Well, then nothing would change because the Supreme Court has never struck down a redistricting map for partisan gerrymandering, so the status quo would be in place and people who think that gerrymandering is a problem would try to pass laws more referendum in their states that would allow them to set up nonpartisan commissions to draw the lines.
FV: We’re very close to the 2020 redistricting cycle. As you note, the technology will only be better this time. Do you have a sense of what that might look like -- and how sophisticated the maps could be next decade?
EB: I think the maps will be more sophisticated, but I think they’ve already become very sophisticated. So I don’t think we’ll see some huge jump in that making technology, but what’s also important is that people’s voting behavior and patterns have become more predictable. So if you know someone whose registered as a Republican will vote Republican, it’s easier to draw maps that are reliably giving one party an advantage over the other. And that’s something we can expect more of.
FV: There was a gathering of mathematicians at Tufts University this summer, who were looking to refine their approaches to solving this problem. The title of your piece frames the problem as Democracy vs Math. Do you think math also might provide a solution?
EB: Yes, I think that one of the important aspects of this issue is that the same tools that let people draw sophisticated maps could allow judges to harness expertise, to access those maps and evaluate them. Right, so if experts can help the legislature experts could also help the court decide when gerrymandering goes too far.
FV: Do you have a sense of the kind of standard, if any, that Justice Kennedy is most likely to find persuasive? Or is it an argument, and not math, as some of the professors in your piece suggest -- perhaps that partisan identity needs to be protected?
EB: I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t. Justice Kennedy has said things that are encouraging for both sides in this case and I feel like it’s very hard for me to predict where he’s going to come down.
FV: In your opinion, after reporting this story, what needs to occur so the next round of redistricting allows voters to be in control, rather than legislators choosing their voters?
EB: Well, I think that redistricting is not a cause that usually gets people rallying in the streets and it’s pretty wonky, it’s a background structural issue, but it matters tremendously for the health of our democracy and for who gets elected in most states, and so the states that have these nonpartisan commissions or people who are not directly involved in politics, draw the lines, have a larger number of competitive races. And there’s some other advantages that those commissions offer. So I think that the idea of taking the map making out of the hands of the legislators, like we were saying before, that’s something that people can push for with or about a Supreme Court ruling
FV: Are you familiar with Congressman Don Beyer’s Fair Representation Act? It would combat gerrymandering and partisan polarization by creating larger, multi-member districts that elect representatives with ranked choice voting.
EB: That kind of solution would be a big shift from how we’ve conducted our elections in Congress since the founding. There are reasons to wonder how feasible that is and there are disadvantages. One advantage is that it allows for more parties and for a greater chance for proportional representation. Meaning that if 20 percent of the voters support a candidate/party, that party will take 20 percent of the seats. There is no avenue for that for a minority party, any representation beyond those two parties in the American current system.
FV: Instead of trying to come up with a measurable standard as a solution for redistricting, could the problem be redistricting itself -- and require a new way of thinking about how we elect representatives?
EB: I think that if partisan gerrymandering seems like a problem, there are multiple ways to address it. The proposal that you just explained (The Fair Representation Act) is one way and commissions is another way and the courts are a third way. It sort of depends whether you want to root it out, whether you think politics has no place in redistricting or whether you think, okay well politics is part of redistricting, we just want to control how much politics. We want to set some kind of limit.
Emily Bazelon is an American journalist, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, Co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, and Lecturer in Law and Senior Research Scholar in Law at Yale Law School.