Why Hedrick Smith's challenge to gerrymandering demands thinking bigger

Posted by Rob Richie on October 19, 2015
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith has been zeroing in on the problem of gerrymandering in American democracy, including in this new commentary in the Sacramento Bee. My hat is off to Smith for confronting this kind of structural problem with our elections, and he's right that putting legislators in charge of redistricting is like putting foxes in charge of the henhouse.

But we can't stop at his reform prescription of independent redistricting commission. Instead, we must go further with the Ranked Choice Voting Act that we expect to see introduced in Congress early next year. Smith's own words are telling, when he suggests that in 2011 Republicans in many states both created a partisan gerrymander and safe seats that led to extremists doing well, writing "The Great Gerrymander of 2011 that helped cement the party’s House majority also embedded the rump faction of anti-government extremists that toppled Boehner and now faces whomever becomes his successor."

As Drew Spencer points out in his analysis of Virginia congressional district options last week, however, the best partisan gerrymanders in fact typically create fewer ultra-safe seats for the majority party by seeking to more efficiently spread their party's vote. Plans that seek overall partisan balance typically do so by creating a number of very safe seats.

Take the example of the Freedom Caucus that Smith suggests is a product of gerrymandering. Of its 36 members (as of today), fully three are from Arizona: Matt Salmon, Paul Gosar, and David Schweikert. That means more than eight percent of the caucus comes from a state that only has two percent of House seats- - and is one of the few states with an independent redistricting process. A fourth member, Rod Blum, holds one of the four Iowa seats also created by an independent process.

The three Arizona commission-drawn districts represented by Salmon, Gosar and Schweikert have an average underlying partisan lean of more than 66% Republican -- far beyond the reach of Democrats in a general election. As we explain in our Monopoly Politics analysis of Arizona, six of the state's nine districts overall are one-party-dominated. Overall, the plan also contributed to Republicans winning only 44% of seats in 2012 despite winning more than half the overall House vote in the state, helping to explain Republican allies' ongoing legal assault against the commission's plan for state and congressional districts.

The same story applies to California's much-praised independent redistricting plan plan. While doing far more to put congressional incumbents at risk in 2012, the California plan did not reduce the number of "landslide" partisan districts, as Devin McCarthy showed in 2013, and in 2014 did not lead to any incumbent turnover despite the nation's strong shift that year toward Republicans.

If we want both partisan fairness and meaningful competition, we must think bigger, with multi-winner districts and ranked choice voting. Although Smith is right that state efforts to reform redistricting are important and worthy of support, we ultimately must go to the source: Congress. Just as Congress imposed a national standard for single-winner districts in 1842 to avoid partisan gaming of winner-take-all statewide elections, it's time to stop state gaming of single-winner districts and give voters in all states the power to use their votes to determine their own representation in every election.
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