Ditch the District
Lines are generally things to avoid. From airlines to pick-up lines to line dancing, they’re far more likely to be met with angst than eagerness. While these examples are exasperating in their own right, when we bring lines into our politics, the stakes are even higher. From Obama’s Syrian Red Line Policy to the line-item veto to the ever-increasing party line votes in Congress, rigid lines can preclude possibilities for executive initiatives or preordain Congressional decisions before decorum is even called. And, when it comes to these lines, one type, in particular, has a reputation for being suspect: gerrymandering.
The Current Crisis: Districts Strategically Dilute Voices
Gerrymandering, the strategic and purposeful drawing of poorly-balanced political boundaries, is having its moment in the sun. Famous figures like Eric Holder and John Oliver have addressed its effects on their respective platforms in recent months. And, in many ways, gerrymandering has never been a more relevant issue, with Congressional partisanship—which is exacerbated by the extremism that festers in lopsided districts—at an all-time high.
This has been especially true since the famed REDMAP initiative. While funneling millions into state legislature elections, GOP coalitions controlled vital houses and redrew Congressional districts. This transformed a comfortably Democratic House into one where Republicans held 52 percent of the seats, despite only winning 49 percent of the votes. The so-labeled “bonus seats” won through redistricting are the difference between a minority and the unshakable majority currently dictating the national agenda.
With the Supreme Court seeing two different voting-based cases this session, this issue’s prominence has been amplified all the more. Cooper v. Harris and Gill v. Whitford address redistricting around race and partisan affiliation, respectively.
Nevertheless, even with such work being done, every layer of corruption weathered off gerrymandering seems to reveal another. Even reform initiatives have generated their share of skeptics. While allowing state legislatures to draw districts obviously leaves results susceptible to initiatives like REDMAP, some analysts question even independent commissions’ abilities to draw truly “fair” districts.
Some tech-based solutions, like using the US Census Bureau’s Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) database, have shown promise. The premise seems simple; since we can parse our population through a plethora of gradients. However, even then, one would have to combine several distinct graphs, with variables ranging from racial demographics to topography, in order to complete a singular map. To do this would inherently require human hands, and with this would come doubt of impartiality.
With this predicament, perhaps we ought to question not how to draw these lines but rather why we draw them at all. Perhaps their very existence is the problem. Because districts naturally divide regardless of imposed boundaries, they render votes for all but the most popular candidates insignificant. This exponentially multiplies the power of even the slightest majorities. It yields situations like Maryland’s, where all but one representative dons blue despite only 60 percent of constituents voting Democrat in the 2016 presidential election. This isn’t a one-party problem; in Alabama, six out of seven representatives are Republican, despite the party only receiving 62 percent of popular votes.
Gerrymandering reform is an imperative, but it will take more extreme action to achieve a Congress truly representative of the American people. The only way we can effectively reform our legislative system is by doing away with Congressional districts altogether, establishing statewide proportional representation systems in their place.
The Application of the Abstraction: Proportional Voting in Practice
What would this system look like? Imagine Washington state, where there are ten Representatives, establishes a statewide proportional system for the 2018 election. Instead of going to the polls for a particular legislator, constituents would then cast their ballots for a party. Since there are ten seats up for grabs, every ten percent of a vote that a party wins will, in turn, win them a seat.
So, if the Democrats win 60 percent of the statewide vote, they gain six seats, going down a list of candidates predetermined by either a general primary or party caucus. If there is one seat without a “complete” ten percent of the vote left to claim it, the spoils would go to the party with the most remaining percentage points. For example, if the Democrats actually won 63% and Republicans won the remaining 37%, the GOP takes the fourth seat.
The Reasoning Behind Restructuring
While this doesn’t create exact representation down to the final percentage point, it selects a legislature far more in accordance with what people actually vote for. The smallest states won’t see any negative adjustments while larger states receive results that become more indicative of their populaces. All this for a simple shift in voter behavior.
The mechanism may be simple, but the impact would be huge.
First, abolishing single-member districts makes our legislature more like the whole American people. Minority party voices, like conservatives on the coasts and liberals in the south, will be heard whereas today they are relegated to obscurity.
The primary problem with single-member districts is that 51 percent of the population can entirely silence everyone else. Proportional voting acknowledges that a constant, statewide minority voice should still have ordinate representation.
Take California, where a 12–point Democrat tilt proliferates to consume 73.5% of their House envoy. In this system, the small liberal majority is able to drown out an inordinately large opposition such that a rational Republican might not even bother going to the polls. This is only one reason our voter turnout rate lags behind our international peers, but it is a decidedly reparable one.
If we can consolidate all the voices within a state, we can amplify and recognize them accordingly. In a truly representative California, a seat for a party would come with every two percent of the constituency’s support. This lowered threshold will both pull voters to polling stations and catalyze grassroots movements.
Creating incentives to show up to the ballot box wouldn’t just guarantee we exceed the dismal turnout of the last midterm, but would also ensure our voter base more accurately portrays the economic and racial distribution of our country. This is conducive to better politician accountability and increased engagement alike.
Moreover, minority-party mobilization wouldn’t only benefit Democrats in the Deep South. Third parties become viable when they no longer need a plurality to grab a single seat. And, when a vote for a third party is no longer a “throwaway” vote, we can expect votes to diffuse amongst multiple parties. If the needs of any given coalition are not being met by major parties, there are few barriers to entry for a new party. This concept also extends to curtailing radicalism in major, coalition-leading parties, as third parties threaten to provide moderate alternatives for those alienated by extremism. What better way to reduce polarization than to drive major parties to the middle?
Most importantly, abandoning districting will lead to a diversity of ideas. While more eclectic parties like the Democratic Socialists wouldn’t control coalitions, they might be able to have a seat at the table. The benefits of this are twofold:
- Major parties will be forced to build coalitions instead of majority leaders being able to force through any policies desired.
- Non-major parties have historically forced new issues to the vanguard, from the Free Soilers’ notions of abolitionism decades before the Civil War to the Progressives’ universal healthcare advocacy early in the 1900s.
Inserting new issues into the dialogue will foster discussion of substantive issues, as opposed to slinging virulent rhetoric and negative campaigns, as well as force people to do research for themselves. As Americans identify as independents more than ever, this is the way forward.
As of yet, it’s hard to say where the first steps of this change will originate. But be sure that the SCOTUS rulings of 2017 will say little-to-nothing on this style of reform. For this we can thank the court’s legacy of not wading into “political questions” and giving suggestions of its own.
Still, from California’s citizen-led redistricting reform to Maine and Nebraska’s splitting their electoral college votes, our states are constantly searching for new improvements. The first states to experiment with this reform will likely be the ones where it first garners popular support.
So drop your legislators a line. Tell them that regardless of our partisan bent, we know we are stronger through diverse discussions, and that this rings true from town halls to the House of Representatives. Tell them that arbitrary borders almost always obstruct unnecessary obstacles to our unity, and our Congress is no exception. Tell them that now is the time to end the single-member district and take the next grand step in American democratization.
Trent Kannegieter is a freshman in Saybrook College.