Most debate about gerrymandering reform focuses on partisan outcomes. Reformers argue that objectionable election maps favor one major political party while hurting the other.
But focusing on the pros and cons for D’s and R’s distracts would-be reformers from a change that would benefit all voters. That’s the gist of a new report on gerrymandering from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Because of the nature and timing of its recommendations, the report could attract some attention. It follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month in North Carolina’s Rucho v. Common Cause case. That 5-4 decision shut the door on federal courts’ involvement in partisan gerrymandering cases.
Reformers looking for a national solution now must pursue options outside the legal system. The Mercatus report urges action from Congress instead of the courts.
“Gerrymandering is a substantial public policy problem and should be constrained,” said report author Charles Blahous, Mercatus senior research strategist. That assessment clearly places Blahous on the side of reformers, not defenders of the status quo.
But Blahous questions the way reformers have pursued their goal. “The focus on the political effects of gerrymandering has been somewhat misguided,” he said during an interview for the John Locke Foundation’s “HeadLocke” podcast. “Gerrymandering reform, if you want to do it right, shouldn’t be a matter of a political balancing exercise.”
The Rucho ruling affirmed a key aspect of previous Supreme Court opinions linked to gerrymandering, Blahous said. “The Constitution guarantees individual voting rights,” he said. “It does not protect every combination of political interests or political affiliations and guarantee them proportional representation.”
Rather than attempt to draw election maps that set aside a certain number of safe seats for Democrats and Republicans, reformers should take a different approach. “Clearly, the foundation idea of geographical districting is that people who share a constituency ought to live reasonably close to one another,” Blahous said. “To the extent that gerrymandering really warps and distorts the shapes of congressional districts, it’s departing from that principle.”
So gerrymandering reform ought to focus on “limiting the irregularity of district shapes.”
“You often see instances where there is a common-sense understanding of things from the person on the street, but when the political class gets hold of an issue, it twists it beyond all recognition,” Blahous explained to podcast listeners. “I think most people, when they look at a map and they see districts twisting this way and that in all sorts of crazy ways, that offends their sense of how districting is supposed to be done.”
Only partisans and interest groups focus more attention on gerrymandering’s political outcomes. “I just don’t think that’s the way most people on the street think about it,” Blahous said. “And I think people on the street are right not to think about it that way.”
Blahous recommends that Congress adopt a standard limiting the degree to which an election district can stray from its most compact geographic option. That standard would say nothing about how the resulting districts would affect partisan splits in a congressional delegation.
Why turn to Congress to take action? The Supreme Court reminded us in Rucho that the U.S. Constitution’s framers wanted to leave details of elections to state officials, with the federal legislative branch playing an oversight role.
Blahous also favors congressional action because he places little faith in independent commissions. Academic research offers minimal support for the argument that those commissions draw election maps with less gerrymandering, he said. “If the goal is a stable, enduring solution to gerrymandering, a straightforward modification of federal law offers a much more promising approach than the disparate results of various commissions established in different states around the country.”
It’s worth noting that the new research focuses on congressional districts and the U.S. Constitution. The Common Cause v. Lewis lawsuit before a three-judge state panel this week deals instead with N.C. House and Senate districts. Plaintiffs contend that legislators drew election maps using partisan gerrymandering that violates the N.C. Constitution. Legislative leaders dispute that constitutional claim.
As for future political and legal fights over congressional maps, Blahous believes his proposal could have a positive impact. “Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I think it would help create a bit of a truce on the issue,” he said. “I think what’s happening now is that people who feel they are being gerrymandered against are raising challenges in the courts. By framing the issue in partisan terms, it naturally draws resistance from the other side.”
“Both sides in the issue really have a stake in a neutral, rules-based reform,” Blahous added. “It constrains the amount of gaming or gimmicking that the mapmakers would do.”
“But if you’re in the majority, I would think you would want this as well,” he said. “It basically protects you from second-guessing by the courts. It also protects the perceived legitimacy of your decisions while governing.”
Courts have spent decades second-guessing N.C. legislative mapmaking — whether Democrats or Republicans drafted the maps. More than any other state, perhaps, North Carolina should value a reform that keeps its electoral districts out of court.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.