America’s democracy is under attack. The latest offender? Weird shapes! That’s right, congressional districts in many states look odd and this lack of aesthetics is clearly about to bring down the Republic.
Of course, the controversy over gerrymandering is really just about power. The Democrats, who controlled the redistricting process for decades and did their own gerrymandering, have lost control to the Republicans. And the GOP is using advanced analytics to press its advantage. The focus on strange-looking congressional districts is just a fetish designed to rally a news media and public whose worldview is dominated by superficiality.
In re-drawing lines, both parties sought to limit the number of truly competitive congressional seats. Using past voting behavior and matching that behavior with demographics, each party developed their own pretty solid predictive models of electorate behavior. Both parties essentially walked away from actually persuading neutral or opposing voters.
Beyond this devaluation of persuasion, the current debate avoids important and fundamental questions about representation in a democracy. Namely, what is fair representation? Is it districts that contain all the same kinds of people (conservative or liberal; rural, urban or suburban and so on) – likely electing a Member of Congress who will be the pure representation of a particular political philosophy or economic interest? Or are we better served with mixed districts where the Member has to compromise among many interests (and those interests need to try to accommodate one another)?
Should representation be about profit-maximization? In other words, should states protect Members with seniority (i.e. power) so as to get more out of the federal government? Certainly state legislators and local elected officials, whose own budgets and policy are heavily impacted by the federal government, would rather keep their Appropriations Committee Chair in place rather than protect some first-termer who can’t even find the Capitol cafeteria.
Perhaps districts should have the same demographic and partisan proportions as each state. If that were the case, large swathes of the electorate would actually lose representation. A purely proportional map where people voted by racial identity would result in zero African-Americans in Congress. If we go by economic interests or rural v. urban, there would be no representation for rural or agricultural interests in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois – states which are mostly urban, but still have large rural constituencies.
In the end it is partisanship that has been placed front and center. Democrats are claiming that their voters have been treated unfairly by mapmakers in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (ignoring the always-present option of actually persuading voters). Their opening gambit has been the argument against weirdly shaped districts.
But the Democrats have a problem, their own voters are heavily clustered in cities, which means more Democratic votes are “wasted” in non-competitive contests than Republican votes. There are urban congressional districts that vote in excess of 85% Democratic. No such districts exist for Republicans.
The upshot: In order for Democrats to get an equal proportion of Congressional seats they have to draw Congressional districts just as oddly shaped as Republican did. The Democrats and their supporters in academia have come up with a thing called the “efficiency gap” – which is just a made-up concept meant to excuse their own gerrymandering.
In the end, there really is no proof that weird looking congressional districts are inherently unjust. Nor is there a coherent argument against challenging both parties to simply work to persuade people in supposedly non-competitive districts. Vote history is just that – history. People can change their minds, it just involves effort and a bit of compromise.
Those who shake their fists at gerrymandering and clog the courts with their lawsuits are really announcing their own rigidity and intellectual bankruptcy to the world.