The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases pertaining to gerrymandering, and its rulings are eagerly awaited by those concerned about the practice. Many commentators take it as axiomatic that gerrymandering is an ongoing scandal, but how problematic is it? The case is not as straightforward as it may first appear.
First, not only the U.S. Constitution but multiple federal apportionment acts have historically permitted a certain amount of political gerrymandering. Moreover, analysts have struggled to demonstrate certain adverse consequences alleged of gerrymandering, such as its contributions to making U.S. politics more polarized and divisive.
A recent study I conducted for the Mercatus Center concluded that gerrymandering is nevertheless a pressing problem warranting remedy. Gerrymandering’s consequences are empirically demonstrable. Where gerrymandering is effective, it renders general elections less competitive while making primary races more so.
These effects are observed: for example, the number of U.S. congressional races more competitive in primary contests than in general elections roughly doubled (from 41 to 81) from 2004 to 2016. This trend increases the electoral value of a political candidate’s appeal to a plurality of a district’s majority party, while diminishing incentives for candidates to accommodate the views of other parties’ members, both during campaigns and while serving in office.
Most common definitions of gerrymandering include references to distorting the shapes of legislative districts for the purpose of gaining political advantage. However, these two concepts — district shape distortion and political advantage—are distinct and separable. When considering reforms, it is far more fruitful to focus on constraining the irregularity of district shapes than on attacking perceived partisan advantage.
This conclusion is contrary to much conventional wisdom. Anti-gerrymandering advocacy groups often focus intently on its partisan effects. Treating gerrymandering reform as a political balancing act, however, is unlikely to produce solutions that are enduring or widely accepted as fair.
The U.S. Constitution protects individual voting rights, but it does not protect every combination of interests, and it certainly does not seek to protect the welfare of political factions. But more compellingly, framing reform in terms of partisan balancing would tend toward results unlikely to be unresponsive to many of the ills Americans find in gerrymandering.
For example, a map redrawn to balance the interests of two political parties isn’t necessarily any less gerrymandered than a map drawn to secure the advantage of one. Indeed, depending on how voters are arranged within a state, making the symmetric treatment of political parties the essential criterion for reform could actually result in more gerrymandering rather than less.
This last point is particularly important because American society is becoming more segregated along political lines. Just as we should not want gerrymandering to worsen political polarization and self-segregation, we similarly should not want gerrymandering reform to reward political segregation.
Reforms that focus instead on reducing the irregularity of congressional district shapes offer greater promise. Compactness requirements have a firm historical grounding in both federal and state apportionment laws. Unlike party-based approaches, compactness standards operate against ongoing societal trends toward segregation and polarization. They offer simplicity, neutrality and clarity, while also reducing the risk of capricious judicial interpretation. And they can readily be implemented in federal law, in a manner both practical and straightforwardly constitutional.
A simple rule of thumb in federal law limiting the irregularity of congressional district shapes would curtail the potential scope for gerrymandering without injecting partisan objectives. The study discusses many possible standards but focuses on the potential of setting a maximum value for the ratio of the square of a district’s perimeter to its area, with adjustments for the proportion of a district’s boundary over which mapmakers have no discretion. Setting such a maximum allowable ratio of somewhere between 125-150 would require redrawing the boundaries of roughly 5-8% of current U.S. congressional districts (as well as their neighboring districts).
Such a limit in federal law would be preferable to recruiting the courts to invent a nebulous and controversial standard for determining when partisan gerrymandering has become excessive. It would also be a better solution than delegating the job of districting to ostensibly independent commissions, which academic research shows do not necessarily draw better or less gerrymandered maps than state legislatures.
The current politically focused discussion of the genuine problem of gerrymandering ill serves the objective of enduring reform. Gerrymandering’s reformers would do well to abandon initiatives and metrics that focus on balancing partisan interests and refocus their efforts on the historical purpose of legislative districting — which is, simply, that Americans who vote within the same constituency should live reasonably near one another.
Charles Blahous is the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith chair and senior research strategist at the Mercatus Center, a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, and a contributor to E21. He recently served as a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. This article was originally published on economics21.org.