Headlines: The gerrymandering wars are bleeding us dry
Proportional-ranked choice voting offers a way out of this partisan race to the bottom
It’s hardly news by now that our democracy has a massive redistricting problem. But if you needed another reminder, the news keeps providing disturbing new examples.
Last week, Florida lawmakers embraced an aggressive new gerrymander that seems certain to add four new GOP seats and dismantle two voting-rights districts held by Black lawmakers. In Ohio, where voters passed reforms in 2015 and 2018 that Republican lawmakers have followed only in the breach, the state supreme court has rejected legislative and congressional maps some half-dozen times. Meanwhile in New York, a Democratic gerrymander enacted after lawmakers engineered the collapse of a redistricting commission succeeded in wiping away four GOP seats. That plan just got tossed by the state supreme court.
Brazen election-rigging is the new normal. Both parties have no incentive to do anything else; indeed, to the partisans, proactive reform looks like unilateral disarmament. The U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed extreme gerrymanders when it shut the federal courts to these claims in 2019, and Congress then failed to pass any national standard that would have reined in this anti-democratic scourge. Five seats separate the two parties in the House. It’s a high-stakes race-to-the-bottom, everywhere.
This partisan bloodbath has reinforced that the process we use for drawing districts and electing U.S. House members is broken, perhaps irreparably. Even the old solutions, such as redistricting commissions, aren’t working. Voter-demanded reforms have been undermined by bad-faith actors. State court enforcement has been wildly inconsistent, helping create fairer maps in some states, but reinforcing the gerrymandered status quo elsewhere. What little remains of the Voting Rights Act has not prevented the weakening of minority representation, even where Black and Latino populations have surged.
This is no way to run a democracy. But we won’t fix it until we realize that our redistricting problem is, at its heart, a problem with districting itself. It’s our system of single-member districts that makes the placement of each district line so powerful. It’s single-member districts that make it possible for New York Democrats and Ohio Republicans to draw 85 percent of U.S. House seats for themselves in states that are nowhere near that lopsided. They are literally choosing their voters before their voters have a chance to choose them.
There is a much better way to ensure fair representation. The gerrymandering fix we need would combine larger, multi-member districts (drawn by commissions) with ranked choice voting. That combo would result in what is known as “proportional representation.” Rep, Don Beyer has already introduced such a bill in Congress, the Fair Representation Act, which would elect members of the US House by ranked choice voting-proportional. As another dreary redistricting cycle unfolds, it deserves a closer look.
Larger, multi-member districts would make each district line much less important and transform the fight over redistricting – perhaps even ending it altogether. Ranked choice voting would create a proportional result in each district, turning every district into a swing seat and ensuring representation for all– rural Democrats, urban Republicans, and independents of all stripes.
It would mean the end of “orphaned voters,” in which millions of Republicans living in heavily Democratic districts and Democrats in heavy GOP districts – and third party supporters everywhere – are left without an electoral home.
It would put an end to the shenanigans we see right now in New York, Florida and Ohio. If a commission in New York drew five districts with five members each, elected by RCV, it’s likely that each district would elect three Democrats and two Republicans – roughly in line with the 2020 presidential results that saw 61 percent support for Joe Biden.
In Ohio’s 15 House seats, meanwhile, three districts of five members each might produce the opposite result – nine Republicans and six Democrats overall. That’s quite a change from the 13-2 map that could still be enacted.
There are other benefits as well. In one-party states like blue Massachusetts or red Oklahoma, for example, there are plenty of orphaned voters from the losing side. They just can’t win any seats under the current system. But if we could elect Democrats from the south and Republicans from New England again, those viewpoints could help lubricate our politics, and maybe elect some bridge-builders, which are nearly an extinct species today.
We see that dysfunction every day, and the brokenness of redistricting just once a decade. Yet redistricting has become such bloodsport because in a winner-takes-all, single-member system, the district lines determine winners and losers, and incentivizes politicians to talk to their base and avoid a primary challenge, the only election they can really lose.
The gerrymandering wars are bleeding us dry. The current solutions haven’t been sufficient. We can have better choices, more equitable representation, and diminish the polarization that grips our nation. It just requires thinking bigger about the problem – and opening ourselves to new ideas.
David Daley, @davedaley3
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