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Columns

Why Congress’ Plan to Fix Gerrymandering Falls Short

By Oliver S. York, Contributing Opinion Writer
Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

If you’re concerned about gerrymandering, the last few weeks have been painful. But instead of stewing over the Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in the North Carolina gerrymandering case or the Trump Administration’s attempts to interfere with the next census, I’ve tried to hold on to one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s favorite lines: “We don’t agonize, we organize.”

In Congress, this organizing has already begun. Under Pelosi’s gavel, the new Democratic majority opened this legislative session with a flourish, reserving the prime designation of House Resolution 1 for a sweeping package of reforms to voting rights, campaign finance, and government ethics policies. Nestled in the 571-page bill is the little-noticed Redistricting Reform Act of 2019, Congress’ radical push to fix gerrymandering.

H.R. 1 calls for brand new, nonpartisan, redistricting commissions in every state in the country, as opposed to the more traditional process of having state legislatures draw maps. The bill is a tremendous step, in that it represents Congress acknowledging that partisan gerrymandering needs a legislative fix.

But while H.R. 1 should be celebrated as an expansive statement of values, the solution it proposes is premature. The legislative text delves into the nitty gritty: how many people should be selected for each commission (five Democrats, five Republicans, and five independents), how commissioners should be selected (it’s complicated), what would happen if the commission fails to agree on a map (“Order in the court!”), and even what belongs on the commissions’ websites (really?).

Here’s the problem: it’s not clear where these specifics came from. With only eight states currently using (quite varied) redistricting commissions, there is no way to justify the bill’s details as being grounded in best practices. What is the rationale for having 15 commissioners, when, under current law, California favors 14, Michigan 13, and Idaho only six?

I appreciate Congress’ urgency in taking action before the next redistricting cycle in 2022. But before adopting unproven rules as a national standard, we should pump the brakes and prepare a rigorous fact-finding mission. While the Senate refuses to debate election reform, the House has time to go back to the drawing board and get gerrymandering right. That process should begin with hearings, research grants, and commissions to develop best practices.

Gerrymandering is an existential threat to free and fair elections. If the details of our solution are wrong, we risk losing the entire enterprise of reform. Worse, we might exacerbate the problem by entrenching practices that result in lopsided districts before naively calling it a day.

Some questions will be answered by academics. Some already have. Before Congress chooses national criteria, we need to know how maps are affected by different values, like Voting Rights Act compliance, district compactness, or political competitiveness, and how these values interact. Also: where’s the game theoretician who can tell me the optimal number of commissioners?

Other questions will be answered by the various commissions already in service. Should Congress mandate equal splits in party affiliation? Do independent commissioners truly vote independently, or will nonpartisan quotas be filled with libertarians who might favor the Republican Party? Will the partisan affiliation of potential commissioners be a meaningful distinction in a world where younger voters shun political parties?

After watching state level fixes fall sadly short, I tend to agree that we need Congress’ help. Just ask the well-meaning voters who endorsed redistricting commissions by ballot initiative in four states in 2018. In Utah, the measure is simply window dressing — a loophole will allow the legislature to completely circumvent the new commission and continue its old process. In Missouri, the reform package instructed commissioners to draw hexagonal districts, a legislative detail that left political scientists scratching their heads. (This might explain why the authors of H.R. 1 left no room for states to keep existing commissions, though the choice may upset constituents in California.)

Even if Congress comes up with a perfect bill, advocates for reform must recognize that standardization comes with risks. Just as the decentralization of the American voting system offers protection from meddling, the great variability in local political conditions protects our institutions from coordinated influence.

For example, the Heritage Foundation has already made it clear in congressional testimony that conservatives will challenge the constitutionality of H.R. 1. If every commission in the country operates under the same legislative text, one successful challenge in court may shutter mapping operations nationwide and shunt us back to the gerrymandered present.

Now that the Supreme Court has abdicated its responsibility to curtail partisan gerrymandering, Congress is on the hook for coming up with a solution. I’m unabashedly thrilled about H.R. 1. But the devil is in the details, and for something sacrosanct like the integrity of our elections, the American people deserve nuanced policy based on transparent and rigorous study.

Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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