Earlier this month, the Brennan Center released a scathing report on gerrymandering in America. Using multiple metrics, they uncovered several damning findings:
A net structural advantage towards Republicans of 16 to 17 seats across states with six or more congressional representatives (85% of House seats).
Most of the bias against Democrats comes from seven large states with roughly even partisanship where Republicans had unified control during redistricting.
Some bias towards Democrats in Democrat-controlled states, blunted by the scarcity of states in which Democrats had control over the 2010 redistricting cycle.
Lower levels of bias in states with independent redistricting commissions.
These conclusions correspond well to the results of our own work, particularly Monopoly Politics 2018, wherein we find a 27-seat advantage towards Republicans across all states in a 50-50 year. Our analysis includes incumbency and the 15% of seats which the Brennan center report omits, but overall reaches the same conclusion--that Republican advantage is a product of both demographic patterns and intentional gerrymandering.
The Brennan Center stops short of offering solutions to the problem of gerrymandering, but their findings on independent redistricting suggest their focus is on independent commissions as a solution. FairVote applauds the efforts of activists across the country to implement independent commissions in their states, and our Fair Representation Act proposal includes a mandate for all states to implement independent redistricting commissions with best practices to ensure true independence.
However, independent redistricting has its limits, which is why we believe multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting are needed to ensure accurate representation for all communities. Moreover, while independent redistricting commissions do put a dent in partisan bias, it is important to recognize the implementation challenges in ensuring true independence, as well as the significant hurdles to ensuring both competition and proportional representation.
The Brennan Center’s use of a typology of commissions first popularized by Justin Levitt at All About Redistricting, which separates truly independent commissions from commissions dominated by partisan interests, demonstrates that they are aware that not all promises of independent commissions pan out. Establishing a truly independent commission is a complicated process, and relies on the creation of informal norms in addition to clear rules about partisan involvement.
The Brennan Center report focuses on partisan skew, and largely ignores the issue of competition. However, in the overall conversation about independent redistricting, structural lack of competition within the US Congress cannot be ignored. The average congressional district was won 70-30 in 2016, which not only entrenches partisan skew, but disincentivizes participation in our democracy for many Americans. This is an issue that some independent commissions are mandated to solve, but which is in tension with partisan fairness in legislatures comprised of single-winner districts.
The problems highlighted in the Brennan Center report deserve the utmost attention. Gerrymandered single-winner districts hobble the ability of our Congress to respond to partisan shifts, and disincentivize civility and bipartisan co-operation in both the legislature and the public square. We hope that discussion of these issues continues to gain traction, and that those who understand the dire challenge these issues pose to our democracy will join us in calling for common sense reforms such as independent commissions, multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting for state legislatures, and the Fair Representation Act.