ARE YOU AGAINST gerrymandering? Of course you are! You've laughed at the shapes of districts with nicknames like the Praying Mantis, the Steam Shovel, and Goofy Kicking Donald Duck. Like almost everyone who follows politics, you agree that it's wrong to fiddle with legislative maps to help a favored party or candidate.
Or do you? To test your commitment, here's a composite example from a fictional 51st state of the union we'll call the State of Madison.
Public opinion in Madison is strongly opposed to extreme partisan gerrymandering, the sort where the more powerful of two major parties redraws the map to hurt the other. The leadership of the state legislature has taken this to heart and entrusted the task of drawing the next set of district lines to a bipartisan commission. It's split half and half between the two major parties; the tiebreaker is a genial retired lawmaker who gets along with everyone. True, there are no Libertarians or Greens on the panel, nor even any registered independents. But that's understandable--isn't it?--since voters have not chosen to elect anyone from those groups to the legislature.
And there's more good news. Some were worried that the majority party, which got about 54 percent of the vote and 56 percent of the seats last time around, would engineer matters so as to grab many more safe seats. Not so. When seasoned political analysts look at the lines that were drawn, they can predict exactly which party is going to win nearly every seat next time, and they say hardly any will change hands. There had been some grumbling about how only three seats were competitive in the last general election; the commission must have been listening, because this time there will be four competitive seats instead of three--not enough to tip any balance, but at least enough to provide some interest come November.
One curious thing about those four competitive-in-November seats: They're all open seats where an incumbent is retiring. That's because none of the incumbents who planned to run again volunteered their districts to be made into the competitive ones. In fact, when you look more closely, many incumbents got their districts snipped here and expanded there so as to make them safer, not just in the general election but also--this will be less obvious, except to the well-informed--in the primaries. Sometimes the voters in a town never really warm up to you, in which case the best course is to pass that town on to the next lawmaker over.
Once you look more closely, you see that many of the districts have shapes that are a little more stretchy and boundary lines that are a little more jiggly than they would strictly need to be. Also, they crisscross county and city borders more than they have to. In two or three instances, you notice a thin peninsula of land that juts out from the main body of a district to capture a remote neighborhood. You ask an insider, who explains that those fingers are meant to connect the home residence of some lawmaker with the district he or she wishes to represent. In fact, the starting point for most of the districts had simply been to ask incumbent members of both parties how they wanted their districts to look. To paraphrase a famous line: Officials had succeeded in picking their voters, rather than letting voters pick their officials.
In one case (and only one), the new map throws two incumbents from the same party into a single district. Your insider friend explains that that was to get rid of a member of the majority party who just caused trouble all the time--making noise about supposed scandals, never cooperating with more senior colleagues. No one likes him, really. Or at least no one in the leadership does. Without this disruptive personality, the next legislature will be more collegial and less polarized. And that's to the good, right? Also, seeing what happened to this troublemaker, none of the members are going to think about crossing the leadership next term.
EVERYONE WANTS REFORM--BUT WHAT KIND?
I CALL THIS kind of arrangement a "buddymander." Many people who hate partisan gerrymandering hate it too, but others are willing to let it slide or even are fine with it. The animating logic is: Well protect our guys and you can protect yours. It's outwardly different from extreme partisan gerrymandering, since the main goal is not to take away seats from the opposition. But the two spring from the same underlying temptation: When the system gives insiders wide discretion over line drawing, they are apt to use it to advance their own interests.
The main task of redistricting reform is to confine that discretion. To appreciate the difficulty of that task, let's switch for the moment to a seemingly remote question: Why allow any discretion in drawing legislative maps at all?
When you serve on a redistricting commission, as I have now done in Maryland twice, that's one of the most common questions you get: Why can't we turn the whole thing over to a computer algorithm? At its simplest, this can take the form of proposing that the state simply be divided into...