Want Less Partisanship? Change Who Draws the Lines

04/30/2015 04:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Should voters elect their representatives, or should politicians choose their voters?

While this may seem like a ridiculous question, it is time to think critically about redistricting -- the re-drawing of legislative districts. The legality of independent commissions drawing district lines is being questioned, and it is time to think critically about how our election districts are drawn.

At the heart of the problem is an age-old practice in the United States: Gerrymandering. Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century, oversaw a redrawing of election districts to favor his own party, the Democratic-Republicans, over his opponents, the Federalists. The result was a salamander-shaped district that was nicknamed "Gerry's Salamander." Today, with the power of rich datasets about potential voters and sophisticated computing algorithms, gerrymandering has taken on a new face, and the implications are severe.

In a representative democracy, citizens vote for their preferred candidate to represent their interests in the legislature. Districts are taken as given. But in most states, the legislators themselves can creatively draw districts that yield their desired outcome -- this is akin to the politicians choosing their constituents. When districts are uncompetitive, elected officials can take extreme stances without worrying about the consequences in the next election. Members of both parties take more extreme stances, and the end result is an increase in polarization.

If I were a politician drawing legislative districts, I would try to minimize the number of seats that the opposition party would win. An effective way to do that is to "pack" the opposition into a handful of districts that are highly concentrated with their supporters. Similarly, I would also want the districts for my party to be "safe" (but not too safe -- I would spread out our own supporters over many districts). I might also take advantage of redistricting to protect an embattled colleague, or I might ensure that an incumbent from the opposition party loses the next election. This is gerrymandering in a nutshell.

Alternatively, districts could be drawn not by a political party, but instead by an independent, nonpartisan commission. Some states have moved to more "neutral" methods of redistricting, but that is being challenged. Last month, the Supreme Court heard Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which challenges the legality of independent redistricting panels. At the same time, a new bill has been introduced in Congress that would require states to use independent panels in the redistricting process (H.R. 1347: John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act).

Polarization has been increasing over time, and it is difficult to pin down its root causes. However, as an interesting example, one could look to California, which has seen an interesting quasi-experiment over the past half-century. In the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s, districts were drawn by the Democratic legislature. In the 1970s and 1990s, due to two political impasses with Republican governors, districts were drawn by panels of retired judges. (The most recent set of districts was drawn by an independent commission, as a result of Proposition 20.) Comparing districts before and after each redistricting, it is clear that gerrymandered districts are less competitive and that the legislature is more polarized than when districts are drawn by independent panels.

My research (and that of many other scholars) has shown that the districts created by legislators are generally uncompetitive. As a result, when a political party has secure control over a district, that legislator is free to take extreme positions in her roll-call votes. Democrats can move to the left, and Republicans can move to the right. The result is political polarization. Both parties have incentives to take extreme stances in their voting behavior, and since the controlling party gets to redraw districts after the next census, that gridlock will likely persist.

What type of district would be best for a representative democracy? Districts drawn by the politicians themselves, or districts drawn independently according to an objective set of criteria? Given the political gridlock in Congress, where the two parties seem incapable of governing, it is time to reconsider how their election districts are drawn. The gerrymander has survived for two centuries, and it is time to put it to rest.