Gerrymandering Must Die, But It Won't Stop Polarization

In this essay adapted from his book, ‘Dead Center,’ former congressman Jason Altmire argues that abolishing rigged voting districts is no cure all for political gridlock.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The recent federal judicial ruling invalidating North Carolina’s congressional map sent shock waves rolling across America’s political landscape. Although the Supreme Court has put a hold on the ruling pending their own review of two additional state gerrymandering cases—one from Maryland and one from Wisconsin—it is quite possible that we will soon see the end of partisan redistricting as we know it. This would certainly be a positive development, but it wouldn’t have much of an effect on ending polarization as we know it.

Implementation of the North Carolina ruling would be a major victory for Democrats, who expect to pick up two to three additional seats in the state’s congressional delegation if district boundaries are redrawn. Excited liberal activists unsurprisingly framed the ruling in partisan terms, sparking heated cable news and social media debate about which party is most guilty of using the redistricting process to partisan advantage.

In the first congressional elections following the most recent round of redistricting, Republicans won a 234-201 seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives despite the fact that Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans nationwide. Democrats point to the fact that in North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—states where Republicans controlled the redistricting process—Republicans won sizable majorities in the state congressional delegations even though Democrats in each of those states won more overall congressional votes. Republicans point to states like Illinois and Maryland—which are controlled by Democrats—where congressional lines were drawn to disadvantage the GOP in a similarly partisan manner.

Republicans also point to the notorious “I-85 District” drawn in 1992 by the then-Democratic-controlled General Assembly in … you guessed it, North Carolina. Ultimately struck down by the courts, the state’s 12th congressional district became perhaps the most well-known gerrymander in American history—or at least since the original 1812 salamander-shaped Massachusetts district fathered by Governor Elbridge Gerry—the namesake of the infamous process of partisan redistricting. The stunningly thin 12th District meandered 160 miles through central North Carolina, picking up Democratic voters along the way, closely following the path of Interstate 85. For long stretches, the boundaries of the district were no wider than the freeway itself.

Both parties have proven that they will abuse the process if given the chance. Thankfully, the days of political leaders choosing their voters (rather than voters choosing their political leaders) appears to be nearing an end. Unfortunately, as the raging debate following the North Carolina ruling demonstrated, it is going to take more than a scaling back on partisan gerrymandering to reduce the level of polarization in America.

Although much of the focus on polarization has focused on Congress, state legislatures have become more divided as well. A recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that there is “significant—and increasing—polarization” in state legislatures “comparable to that experienced by Congress.” Political scientist Boris Shor, perhaps the nation’s preeminent scholar on the subject, has published research showing that approximately half the states have levels of polarization greater even than those found in Congress. The problem has left many Americans feeling that they are not being represented.

The solution to the epidemic of polarization that has infected our state capitals and paralyzed Washington is to institute reforms that will marginalize the influence of the political extremes.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, a majority of Americans identify more toward the political center than the extremes. The survey also found that “the most deeply partisan and ideological groups … are also the most likely vote, pay attention to politics and to be invested in the outcome of the 2018 congressional elections,” and that “these highly partisan ideological groups also donate money, contact elected officials and discuss politics with others at the highest rates.” It is these Americans—those on the political extremes—who are choosing our nation’s leaders. This explains why research has shown that members of Congress generally hold more extreme views than the majority of constituents they were elected to represent. In order to win election and continue in office, candidates must appeal to the most partisan citizens our nation has to offer.

Because extreme partisans are the most likely to vote in primary elections, centrist and moderate candidates of both parties are at a distinct disadvantage. The power of precision data is not just used to draw the boundaries of congressional districts, it is used to identify and mobilize the most likely supporters of each party—the extreme partisans. Chuck Todd has lamented that this has led to today’s “crisis of governing, with the halls of Congress populated by lawmakers who feel beholden not to all their constituents, but only to their supporters.” This is why gerrymandering reform is not the panacea some make it out to be. Even in districts that are drawn 50/50—half Republican and half Democrat—the primary election is still likely to produce candidates representing the extreme wings of each party. This does little to solve the problem of polarization in Washington.

The solution to the epidemic of polarization that has infected our state capitals and paralyzed Washington is to institute reforms that will marginalize the influence of the political extremes. While it is not the entire solution, turning over the process of gerrymandering to independent commissions would make a positive difference. After California utilized a commission for the first time prior to the 2012 elections, 12 of the state’s 53 congressional districts were drawn to be legitimately competitive. This may not seem like a lot until one considers the fact that exactly zero of the of the state’s districts were competitive under the map that had been in place during the prior decade.

At the same time, California also changed its primary election process to a “top-two” open primary, where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, compete in the same primary election and all registered voters are able to participate. The top two finishers move on to the general election. Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton has written that the combination of the two reforms has resulted in less polarization and more moderation among elected officials in both Sacramento and the state’s congressional delegation in Washington. More extreme candidates who in the past would have easily won their party’s nomination in closed primaries have been forced to moderate their message to appeal to the much wider voting block necessary to compete in the top-two open primary. For the first time in decades, California has seen numerous incumbents lose their re-elections because they could no longer compete in the new system. Open primaries work, and they would do more to reduce the level of polarization in Washington than any other single reform.

Although the potential demise of partisan gerrymandering is cause for celebration, the venomously partisan response to the court ruling should give us pause. The reforms that will have the most positive impact will be those which limit the disproportionate influence of the partisan extremes in primary elections, thereby making Congress and state legislatures more representative of the constituents they were elected to serve. Only then will we see an effort among our politicians to appeal to the center, and return to an environment where compromise and cooperation are not viewed as four-letter words.