Does Gerrymandering Increase Polarization?

Rob Richie (FairVote) and Sean Theriault (University of Texas at Austin) debate the impact of gerrymandering on political polarization.
Image by Johnny Silvercloud vis Shutterstock

Debating the Impact of Gerrymandering and What to Do About It

By Rob Richie and Sean Theriault, with the collaboration of Grant Scherer. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Getting to the Electoral Root of Political Polarization

By Rob Richie – CEO of FairVote

As we near the end of the latest decennial exercise in drawing legislative districts in the wake of the Census, redistricting again has its partisan winners. But it has two clear losers — the voters and the health of our republic.

Let’s start with voters. The Cook Political Report estimates that nearly 95% of U.S. House races this November will be safe for one party. Control of Congress effectively comes down to a few swing seats, with most of us left as spectators. No wonder turnout is sure to be less than half of eligible voters despite the high stakes.

Election Rules in Representative Democracy

The impact of district lines on governance runs far deeper than partisan outcomes, however. A game’s rules create incentives for players. If basketball nets were lower and courts bigger, short people might rule the game. In a representative democracy, nothing affects the incentives for our representatives more than the rules for their election.

As established by federal and state laws, our congressional elections have two features that are deeply problematic. We are limited to only one choice and one representative.

The resulting effect on incentives starts with how few general elections matter. When partisans draw districts, avoiding competition is the norm. In Texas, the presidential vote in 2020 was within five percentage points in 12 congressional districts. State Republicans have gerrymandered that down to one. In New York, a Democratic gerrymander is likely to give them three new seats while reducing competitive districts to two.

The Impact of Independent Commissions on Elections  

A growing number of states now use independent commissions. Such commissions are clearly better for protecting public interest values, like preserving communities in one district. But commissions fall short of our current voting rules. No matter how drawn, every district line creates a tradeoff. Partisan fairness versus competitive districts. Geographic compactness versus fair access for racial minorities. And so on.

As a result, commissions rarely increase competition. As reported by FiveThirtyEight, only 8% of commission-drawn districts this year are truly competitive. That’s one in 12 seats, and the same low percentage as in plans drawn by partisans. California’s commission created only two competitive congressional seats in a 52-member delegation.

This uncomfortable fact highlights a major obstacle for reformers. American voters live in areas with increasingly decisive partisan tilts. Combined with sharply fewer swing voters today, such tilts make general elections immune from competition. In 1993, nearly one in four U.S. House Members represented a district that had been won by the other major party’s presidential nominee. Now the number of such “crossover members” is vanishingly small- less than 4%.

Having so few competitive districts and so few swing voters twists the incentives for members of Congress. The “real” election for more House members is in low-turnout primaries. Those primaries are dominated by super-motivated voters who fear the other party as an existential threat.

Add in our low rates of representation for women and how racial minorities may lose ground in Congress, and we have a toxic mix of conditions that threaten our republic. It’s no wonder that so many disillusioned Americans feel the system is rigged against them.

Changing the Rules: A Proportional Voting System

So, what now? The answer lies in voting rules tested in states and cities. The Fair Representation Act would establish what’s called a proportional voting system. It’s a truly transformative change that Congress has the constitutional right to enact by a simple law.

The first step is to combine single-member districts into larger multi-member districts drawn according to sensible criteria like compactness and keeping counties intact. The second step is to elect members with ranked-choice voting according to rules that will ensure like-minded voters elect candidates in proportion to their voting strength.

Due to a 1967 federal law, all Americans have only one U.S. House member. The candidate with a plurality of votes “represents” everyone. The result is winner-take-all elections. If a district is 60% Democratic, that’s the ball game. The Democrat will always win, and if the incumbent at the start of the decade wants to stay in office, it’s theirs for the decade unless they lose in a primary. Hundreds of thousands of Republicans, independents, third-party supporters, and Democrats seeking change will be locked out.

The Case for Ranked Choice Voting  

Now imagine that district is part of a larger one – again 60% Democratic, but with five seats. Rather than allowing the majority to win every seat, voters would instead cast ranked-choice voting ballots that have proven easy for voters in states and cities across the country. Candidates would win seats in proportion to their vote share. Democrats would elect three of five seats, but everyone would earn a place at the table.

In conservative areas, you might elect two Republicans and a Democrat. You also would see fairer representation within the parties – both progressive and moderate Democrats winning in Chicago, a libertarian Republican in Colorado, and more traditional Republicans from New England. Votes for minor parties and independents would give those candidates a chance to win without “splitting the vote.” Nearly all voters would rank winners – proof that the system is not rigged and that their vote counts.

Giving voters greater choice and fair representation would effectively eliminate partisan gerrymandering and create electoral rewards for better governance. With districts always having representatives of both major parties, the whole country would remain in the room when members retreat to their separate caucuses. Due to sharing constituents, House members would have incentives to seek common ground. Women and racial minorities would have far more opportunities to win.

Nearly all major, successful democracies have proportional voting. Rather than party-based models seen in Europe, the Fair Representation Act is a candidate-based approach that draws on our political traditions. Most local officials are elected at large, and as recently as the 1950s, more than 40 state legislatures had multi-member districts.

Proportional Voting in the US 

Illinois showed us what a proportional system can mean. From 1870 to 1980, its state house of representatives was elected with such a system, with each voter having three representatives. Without winner-take-all, both parties won in nearly every district. Although Illinois lost the system after a referendum cut the size of its house by a third, senior state leaders talk powerfully about its positive impact.

Former Republican Congressman John Porter first served in the state legislature and commented, “It led to a much more independent and cooperative body that was not divided along party lines and run by a few leaders on each side. It allowed legislators to pursue the ideas that they had for improving government and work with members on both sides of the aisle in a very collegial atmosphere.”

Ranked-choice voting will deepen its impact. This simple voting change allows voters to rank candidates instead of being limited to one choice. It has become the nation’s single fastest-growing reform because of how well it works in practice. Its positive impact includes rewarding candidates for engaging with more voters, freeing voters from fear of “wasting their vote,” and creating more representative outcomes.

It’s fully constitutional for Congress to establish an American, candidate-based form of proportional voting. The Fair Representation Act is the best means to provide real choice, improve representation for all of us and mitigate the impact of the polarization that threatens to undermine the American experiment.


Despite Not Being A Main Cause Of Polarization, Gerrymandering Needs Reforms

By Sean Theriault — Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with Grant Scherer

The consequences of polarization in Congress are well-known: shutdown, stalemate, incivility, and the persistence of public policy problems. Sadly, each new week seems to add another episode to this long-running horror series.

The causes of party polarization in Congress have also been well-studied. Some causes are external to Congress, such as the media, the social media landscape, and the extremism of party activists. However, others are internal, such as the consolidation of power in party leaders and the evolving congressional agenda.    

One cause of polarization that receives significant attention is partisan gerrymandering which is the purposeful drawing of district lines to elect members of Congress from one party or the other. The absurdity of some districts’ lines gives face validity to their arguments. While popular, the systematic explanation of how partisan gerrymandering causes polarization is a bit more complicated and the evidence is not particularly compelling. Let’s deal with both in turn.

The Evidence of Gerrymandering

Districts not only have lines, but they also have people. What we know is that over time, people move from neighborhood-to-neighborhood and even state-to-state, not necessarily for partisan reasons, but for reasons that are increasingly correlated with partisanship such as low taxes, good schools, low crime, or even good coffee. These moves are at least as consequential as the districts’ lines. If urban centers are 80 percent Democrat and the rural counties are 70 percent Republican, line drawers hands are increasingly tied by simple geography. 

Yet three simple facts show that gerrymandering cannot be a very big part of polarization. First, we see that states that only have one congressional district are electing as ideologically extreme members as those states with multiple members. Second, the Senate is almost as polarized as the House. By definition, there is no gerrymandering in the Senate, considering their “district” encompasses the entire state. Therefore, the main cause of political polarization must come from something else. Third, the increase in polarization in the immediate aftermath of a census, reapportionment, and redistricting does not look any different than the increase in polarization in the middle of the decades. Opponents of partisan gerrymandering can spin a story of how each of these can be explained within the gerrymandering argument, but in those explanations, it becomes clear that forces beyond redistricting are also at play.

Nonetheless, we do not mean to argue that partisan gerrymandering is good. Indeed, even if it did not contribute at all to polarization, we still think it is unacceptable for two simple reasons.

First, the American public doesn’t like partisan gerrymandering. In a poll conducted last year, 67 percent of the American public think that “states drawing legislative districts that intentionally favor one party” is a “major problem.” An additional 26 percent think it is a “minor problem.” In a time when Democrats and Republicans cannot even agree on basic facts, an overwhelming majority in both parties oppose gerrymandering. 

Second, partisan gerrymandering spoils the well in state legislatures who redraw the lines. Rather than solving problems that persist, state legislatures expand finite resources (time, energy, and goodwill) on schemes that can only advantage one party as they disadvantage another party. The ill will that follows the redistricting fights frequently makes compromise more difficult in solving other public policy problems. 

Even if partisan gerrymandering does not cause polarization, it should still be reformed.

Potential Solution: Independent Redistricting Commissions

The reform of partisan gerrymandering that seems to have caught on the most is Independent Redistricting Commissions. Independent Redistricting Commissions (IRCs) have been touted as an effective control for partisan gerrymandering. Through “packing” and “cracking,” line drawers can manipulate the shape of districts to systematically advantage a political party in turning votes into seats – a phenomenon known as partisan bias. This partisan bias manifests itself in disproportionate representation for a certain party. 

A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice found that partisan bias is consistently highest in states where one party controls the legislature. Independent Redistricting Commissions attempt to prevent such bias by removing the line-drawing power from the hands of the legislature and placing the responsibility with carefully selected commission members. Arizona and California are prime examples. In both states, an evenly-divided bipartisan commission of citizens with a tie-breaking chair member are tasked with creating district plans consistent with certain criteria widely considered to reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering. Such criteria include contiguity, equal population, and preservation of communities of interest.. 

In following these criteria, IRCs attempt to increase the legitimacy of district plans and ensure fair representation in Congress.

Political Effects

The record from the 8 states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington) that used redistricting commissions to draw their lines after the 2010 census elected members with slightly lower levels of ideological polarization than those states that did not. States using commissions elected members who cast roll-call votes that were 41 percent as polarized as they could have been, as compared to states that drew their lines in some other manner who elected members that were 45 percent as polarized as they could have been. This 4 percent difference is not nothing, but it surely shows that other polarizing forces are at play.

Polarization is, indeed, a problem, but the solution to it must contain more than just independent redistricting commissions, unless a 4-percent reduction in polarization would suddenly make Congress once again functional. It is likely that IRCs would be better at restoring some legitimacy to politics in the public’s eye and helping state legislatures solve real problems rather than playing political games. On this basis alone, we advocate that states adopt these commissions.

Whether it is open primaries or ranked-choice voting, the largest ills of polarization will not be cured until the American voting public decides that it is more important to elect problem solvers that know how to talk across the political aisle rather than ideologues who are better at starting partisan wars.

If you liked this post, you can read more of our Encouraging Bipartisanship series here

Rob Richie
President and CEO of FairVote | + posts

Rob Richie has been the leader of FairVote since co-founding the organization in 1992 and was named president and CEO in 2018. He has been involved in helping to develop, win, and implement ranked-choice voting in states and cities, fair representation voting systems in numerous Voting Rights Act cases, Electoral College reform in 16 states, and voter access proposals like voter preregistration and automatic voter registration. Richie is a frequent media source and his writings have appeared in every major national publication as well as in 11 books. He is a graduate of Haverford College, where he serves on its Corporation.

Sean Theriault
Distinguished Professor, Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin | + posts

Sean M. Theriault, a University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of five books and dozens of articles on decision-making in Congress.  His most recent book, The Great Broadening (co-authored by Bryan Jones and Michelle Whyman) won the Fenno Prize for the best book on legislatures published in 2019. He is inspired by working with smart students like Grant Scherer.

Grant Scherer
+ posts

Grant Scherer is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently enrolled in Dr. Theriault’s Research on the US Congress course, Grant is researching the effects of independent redistricting commissions on gerrymandering and competition at the Congressional district level. After graduating from UT Austin this Spring, Grant plans to take a gap year before applying to law school to pursue a Juris Doctor degree. 

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