BLAHOUS: Gerrymandering reform should empower voters, not political parties

FILE - In this July 26, 2017, file photo, a lawmaker studies a district map during a joint select committee meeting on redistricting in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

On July 22, I was honored to testify, before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Committee on State Government, about congressional redistricting. My testimony drew heavily from my 2019 study on gerrymandering for the Mercatus Center.

Most Americans across the political spectrum oppose gerrymandering — that is, the warping of legislative districts for the purpose of political advantage. Unfortunately, most efforts to fix gerrymandering don’t bear fruit because too many reform advocates equate reform with settling political scores. This approach is both counterproductive and lacks a sound constitutional basis.

Real gerrymandering reform would shift the focus away from how political parties fare under alternative maps, back to the foundational purpose of geographical districting — namely, that we form constituencies with those who live nearest to us.

My testimony focused on four primary points. First, gerrymandering is a genuine problem with observable adverse consequences. Gerrymandering reduces the accountability of elected officials, disadvantages some voters relative to others and fosters political polarization. Moreover, there is evidence that these adverse effects may be self-reinforcing, because they reward voters for clustering with others who share their political opinions and distort the information flow through which voters and candidates move. A supposed remedy is no remedy at all if it leaves these problematic effects unchecked — for example, if it simply redistributes the gains of districting to a different set of equally partisan actors.

Second, our representational system is based on where we live. This organizing principle is neither inevitable nor accidental. We could have arrived at a very different system; for example, one based on proportional representation of opposing political parties. Instead, we formed a national consensus for districting by residence, and both federal and state apportionment law have often codified requirements that districts be “compact” — that is, not wildly irregular in shape. Future efforts to constrain gerrymandering in the manner most consistent with this longstanding consensus would focus on compactness, a characteristic that can be objectively measured and controlled — rather than on divining or circumscribing mapmakers’ subjective considerations.

Third, fixing gerrymandering is not about politics or process. It has become too common for advocates to define gerrymandering reform in terms of redistributing power between parties. This is problematic for many reasons. Although our political opinions, affiliations and allegiances may be dear to many of us, the blunt truth is that the U.S. Constitution is indifferent to them. In fact, many of the drafters of the Constitution were abidingly fearful of political factions of any kind, and the last thing they would have done would have been to structure our Constitution to protect or institutionalize them. So, while we have rights as individuals to equal treatment under election law, we do not have the right to demand proportional representation of any particular political group to which we might attach ourselves.

Perhaps the most important reason not to conceive of gerrymandering reform as a partisan rebalancing act is that doing so is unresponsive to its adverse consequences. If a purported reform simply results in balancing one party’s advantage in one district, with another party’s advantage in a different district, all of gerrymandering’s problematic effects will continue.

Finally, there are simple mathematical tools available to constrain gerrymandering. All that is needed is to establish and observe a minimum compactness standard. Experts have developed many standards that could be employed; the ones I find most intuitive simply limit the ratio of the square of a district’s perimeter to its area.

An important attribute of such a standard is that it is objective. It reduces the scope for subjective judgments of all kinds, whether one regards those judgments as malicious, benign or necessary.

Neutrality and objectivity are important guarantors of legitimacy, especially given that what one political interest sees as vital and good, another may see as partisan mischief.

To the extent a compactness standard is observed, it takes off the table any political agenda that requires dramatic warping of district shapes to achieve. No doubt this is unsatisfying to those looking to assert their cherished objectives in the redistricting process, but then, that is precisely the point. Objective standards of compactness force all political interests to compete on a leveled playing field.

The sooner we get the focus of districting reform off of the stakes for political parties and back onto the interests of voters, the sooner we can make real progress in constraining gerrymandering.

Guaranteeing the compactness of congressional districts would fulfill the only criterion rooted directly in the foundational purpose of geographical districting itself.

Charles Blahous holds the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Chair at the Mercatus Center, and is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.