Congressional redistricting is one of those seemingly boring, deeply political processes that happens infrequently enough that we can be forgiven for ignoring it. It’s easy to see that how a congressional district is defined geographically will influence who wins elections in it, and that the manipulation of district boundaries is potentially anti-democratic. But when we go looking for the causes of the current divisiveness of American politics and the fractiousness of the American electorate, we tend to blame the news media or the internet or the failure of education or the weaponizing of wedge issues by campaign operatives, and overlook the fact that we’ve descended into political tribalism in large part because most states’ voting populations have been actively, deliberately segregated into political ghettoes by partisan redistricting, better known as gerrymandering.1
This means, in turn, that members of Congress have no incentive to represent more than one narrow political point of view, much less try to appeal to voters of another party. Rather, the incentive is to appeal to the overwhelmingly one-sided constituency that the representative’s home district was designed to be. A more powerful prescription for dead-end partisanship is hard to imagine. And it’s in that dead end that our national discourse has been mired for far too long.
Gerrymandering – the drawing of Congressional district boundaries to achieve single-party dominance within a state by concentrating a party’s voting power within certain districts while diluting the opposing party’s voting power in others2– is a time-honored tradition in American politics, but in recent years has been raised to new heights of sophistication and chutzpah by the Republican Party. One of conservative Republicans’ favorite tropes is that Democrats are all about seizing power for its own sake – H.R. 1 is a “power grab,” Biden’s infrastructure plan is a “power grab,” expanding the Supreme Court is a blatant “power grab.” But while Democrats spent their time over the last decade fretting and venting about their pet policy causes, Republicans were systematically consolidating actual political power by winning control of competitive statehouses and, thereby, control of the redistricting process that would perpetuate that power indefinitely.3 Compared to Republicans, today’s Democrats are rank amateurs at power-grabbing, though not without their own instincts to game the redistricting process for partisan advantage, as evidenced by current shenanigans in the Democrat-controlled New York and Illinois legislatures.4
This year, Republican-dominated statehouses control the redistricting of 187 congressional districts, while Democrats control 75.5 The consequences are predictable, though not inevitable: a Republican majority in the House following mid-term elections, and a redoubling of partisan stonewalling until a Republican again inhabits the White House.
Last week, the US Census Bureau announced the results of the 2020 census, which determine, among other things, how many representatives each state has in Congress, and how many votes each state will have in the Electoral College in the next two presidential elections (before the next census in 2030). This adding and subtracting of the fixed number of 435 seats and electoral votes among the states of the Union according to their populations is called reapportionment, and while it’s the product of a recursive algebraic calculation,6 reapportionment is the easy part (though unduly complicated by the limit on House seats, as previously discussed in these pages). The Constitution calls for the decennial census and reapportionment, and the math of reapportionment is stubbornly nonpartisan.
Redistricting is an entirely different matter. The Constitution is silent as to how congressional seats are to be assigned within a state (except to quaintly prescribe that there can be no more than one representative for every 30,000 persons7), and federal statutory law requires only that districts within particular state be roughly equal in population and, under the Voting Rights Act, not be designed to dilute minority voting strength. The result of this near-vacuum of federal standards is the usual American hodgepodge of approaches under state constitutions and statutes that govern redistricting within their borders.8 Further complicating the picture is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), in which the Court essentially recused itself and all federal courts from inquiring into partisan gerrymandering.
Most states at least pay lip service to certain rational standards for drawing district lines. These tend to be contiguity (you should be able to get from any point in the district to any other point in the district without crossing the district’s border); compactness (a vague concept sometimes defined more concretely as a low perimeter-to-area ratio); and respect for political boundaries or communities of interest (respecting county lines, or respecting common rural/urban political groupings – though this principle, even where it’s ostensibly observed, is routinely violated). Some states come right out and say that partisan gerrymandering should be avoided, but essentially nowhere is it prohibited by law.9
Most state laws only require that these and other principles be “taken into account” or observed “to the extent practicable,” leaving the politicians who run the redistricting process broad leeway to serve their own partisan interests.
Attack of the Duck District
I live in the state of Ohio, which currently has 16 congressional districts and electoral votes, but is about to lose one as a result of the 2020 census.10
One of Ohio’s 16 representatives to Congress is Jim Jordan. You know Jim Jordan: he wears a butch haircut and a yellow tie, is an acolyte of the conservative Freedom Caucus, voted not to certify the last Electoral College results, has been embroiled in a sex abuse scandal stemming from his days as a wrestling coach at Ohio State, has been denounced by fellow Republican John Boehner, his former boss in Congress, as a “bomb-thrower” and a “legislative terrorist,” recently conducted a demeaning interrogation of Dr. Anthony Fauci and got into a shouting match with one of his Black, female, Democrat colleagues in a recent committee hearing. That Jim Jordan.
Jim Jordan represents the Fourth Congressional District of Ohio, affectionately known as the “Duck District,” not, as you might think, because it supports an abundance of waterfoul, but because the outline of his district resembles nothing so much as, well, a duck. Here’s a graphic of Ohio’s congressional districts – see if you can spot the Duck District.
Yep, that’s it – District 4, right across a jagged border from my home district, District 12, which sort of resembles a decomposing toilet seat, and not far from District 3, encompassing parts of Columbus, that looks like a bullet hit a car windshield. Up north is District 9, popularly known as the “Snake on the Lake,” with two long, skinny, separate segments that blithely violate the principle of contiguity.
What accounts for this menagerie of district shapes, these chaotic district boundaries, many of which cut across multiple county lines? Ask yourself: what’s the love child of a slimy amphibian and a politician? You guessed it: a gerrymander.
Jim Jordan, despite his divisive antics and robust unpopularity even within his own party, has been reelected by the Duck District seven times. If ever there were a poster child for term limits, Jordan would be him. And if ever there were a poster child for redistricting reform, the Duck District would be it. The 4th District cuts across 14 counties and splits no less than five of them, almost comically at odds with the principles of compactness and respect for political boundaries. It bestows on one of Ohio’s most liberal towns, Oberlin, home of Oberlin College, one of Congress’s most conservative representatives, because Oberlin has been separated from more like-minded precincts to the north and east and its voting power diluted among the rural conservatives that populate most of the district’s wandering land mass. And the Duck District is not unique; thanks in no small measure to the redistricting process that followed the 2010 census, Republicans hold 14 of Ohio’s current 16 House seats, despite a voting population that is over 40% Democrat.11
But now Ohio will have one less representative in Congress, one less congressional district to play with, and its district borders will have to be redrawn this year. Under an amendment to the Ohio constitution, passed in 2018 in response to the obvious gerrymandering that followed the 2010 census, Ohio’s legislature has until the end of this September to adopt a new district map by a 3/5 supermajority vote.12 Failing that, a “backup” commission (composed rather one-sidedly of the Governor, the State Auditor, the Secretary of State, all of whom are Republicans, and four state legislators, two from each party) has another month to try to agree on a new map by simple majority. On its face, this backup commission would seem highly likely to simply adopt the map favored by a majority of Republicans in the statehouse, but if they too are unsuccessful, the legislature gets one more month for another crack at it, and can ultimately adopt a map by simple majority vote, though a map that fails to win a supermajority will apply for only four years, rather than the usual ten, at which point we get to go through the whole rigmarole again.
Make your head hurt? If there’s any good news here, it’s that the new Ohio law requires that the legislature hold at least two public hearings before its initial vote on a new district map, and the backup commission must hold at least three public hearings, so the old method, where Republicans hole up in a Columbus hotel, invite the party’s congressional leader, and draw the state’s districts out of the light of day should be less easy to pull off.
That’s just Ohio. All 50 states will go through the redistricting process, most to address the federal requirement that districts have approximately equal-sized populations and, in 13 states, to account for changes in their number of representatives to Congress.13 In only seven states are ostensibly independent commissions in charge of the process14; the rest are run either by the majority in the legislature, or by some combination of the legislature and the governor. And as noted, the vast majority of districts will be redrawn by legislatures that are predominantly Republican.
What Can We Do?
What can we as voting citizens do about all this divisive nonsense? We can pay attention. We can learn in detail about our own state’s redistricting process, support it where it’s fair and protest when it’s clearly partisan – even when it’s partisan in our party’s favor (the shoe will one day be on the other foot). We can demand transparency and public input. Above all, we can insist that the process be governed by truly independent commissions rather than politicians from the legislature.
There’s no mystery to defining congressional districts in a more evenhanded way: strictly observe the principles of contiguity and compactness; keep metro and rural areas of like political leaning together; keep counties whole rather than subdivide them; don’t split up cities unless they cross county lines or are too big for any one district.
Here’s a map of Ohio, un-gerrymandered in conformity with these principles. It not only looks more rational, it looks more fair.
One of the most important processes in all of American government – more consequential than any particular election – is transpiring this year under our noses, and as usual we’re paying almost no attention to it. We’re paying almost no attention because it’s legally and mathematically complicated, and because it’s a protracted process rather than a single event, but also because it’s in the interest of those already in power that we don’t try to understand it, much less influence it. But that has got to stop, and we must begin to pay very close attention to the process, because the effective functioning of our representative democracy, and a chance at reducing the toxic partisanship that divides us, depends on our getting it right. The political apparatchiks want us to do what we usually do — groan and turn away.
This time, let’s not.
- So named for Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1812 signed a bill that redrew state legislative districts to favor the then Democratic-Republican Party, resulting in district boundaries so bizarre that one was said to resemble a salamander or, in the inventive parlance of the Boston Gazette, a “Gerrymander.”
- Called “packing” and “cracking” by gerrymandering aficionados.
- As documented in David Daley’s piquantly-titled book, “Ratf**ked” (Norton, 2016).
- See “The Blue State Gerrymander Walk-Back,” The Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2021).
- The Wall Street Journal (April 27, 2021).
- The “method of equal proportions” takes the 435 seats in the House (fixed by federal statute in 1929 by Republicans who, even then, feared the growth of the urban voting base), allocates one seat to each state as the Constitution requires, and doles out the remaining 385 sequentially by state in priority of population size.
- Due to population growth and the cap on the number of House seats, the average district today numbers around a whopping 750,000 persons (as compared with about 280,000 when House seats were fixed at 435, and around 40,000 when the first census was taken in 1790). James Madison (deserving of his own Broadway show) wanted the Constitution to require that the size of the House be proportional to the country’s population, but that amendment failed.
- In virtually all states, there is an entirely separate process for defining state legislative districts, and as a result US House districts and state legislative districts can have dramatically different boundaries within a given state.
- For an excellent survey of the states’ redistricting rules, see J. Levitt, “All About Redistricting,” redistricting.lls.edu.
- This is part of a general migratory trend that has resulted in population growth slowing in the northern and eastern states while it accelerates in the sunbelt. After the 2010 census, 12 seats changed hands, with Ohio and New York each losing two, Texas picking up four, and Florida gaining two. This year 13 seats change hands, with Texas picking up another two, and Florida one more.
- Pew Research Center.
- In a cynical nod to the principle of respecting political boundaries, the new law requires that redistricting can split no more than 23 of the state’s 88 counties (18 counties can be split once, and the five most populous counties can be split twice).
- They are: California (-1); Oregon (+1); Montana (+1); Colorado (+1); Texas (+2); Illinois (-1); Michigan (-1); Ohio (-1); New York (-1); Pennsylvania (-1); West Virginia (-1); North Carolina (+1); and Florida (+1). New York Times (April 26, 2021).
- California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan.