“Democrats Can’t Be Afraid to Gerrymander Now”

My latest for Slate (though not the title I would have chosen). I first describe the new gerrymandering techniques we may see after Rucho:

Let’s start with the schemes we’re likely to see now that the federal courts have been relegated to the sidelines. One of them is exploiting the redistricting algorithms that social scientists have recently developed. These algorithms churn out huge numbers of maps based on whichever criteria the user specifies. These criteria can be nonpartisan, prioritizing compactness, respect for town and county boundaries, and so on. But they can also be partisan, producing the largest and most durable possible advantage for the line-drawing party. The algorithms thus make possible a new breed of gerrymander—one that looks reasonable to the naked eye, but in fact is optimized to maximally benefit one side over the other.

Another strategy will be to imitate the re-redistricting of the 19th-century mapmakers. Say that, in the last election, a party won one district by a tighter margin than it expected, and came close to victory in another district but ultimately fell short. Historically, this party would try to do better next time: to raise more money, recruit stronger candidates, and hope for a more favorable electoral environment. After Rucho, however, the party can skip all that and just redraw the lines. It can bolster its position in the district that was slipping away, and add enough of its voters to flip the district that was trending in its direction. And the party can repeat these steps as often as it likes—even every two years, if necessary to keep its edge in the face of a changing electorate.

A final ploy will be to start creating noncontiguous districts: districts made up of separate, unconnected groups of voters. The contiguity norm that has held until now hurts any party whose voters are distributed inefficiently: for example, by living mostly in urban centers. But in the post-Rucho world, no party has to put up with a geographic disadvantage. It can simply take clusters of its voters in one part of a state (like a city) and pair them with smaller pockets of the other side’s voters in some other region (like the exurbs). If these populations are far from one another and different in their needs and interests—well, that’s a shame, but it’s not illegal.

I then think through how progressives (or, alternatively, those who oppose gerrymandering and want fairer maps) should operate in the post-Rucho world:

The best idea, though, is for blue states to design their congressional plans using a criterion of countrywide fairness. If the whole U.S. House was biased in a Republican direction, the states would thus manipulate district lines in favor of Democrats. But if the House was balanced or tilted toward Democrats, the states would pass neutral or even pro-Republican maps. This approach would prevent Democrats from being played for suckers in the post-Rucho world. But it would also allow progressives to stay true to their principles: to gerrymander only to make elections fairer overall, and to stop gerrymandering as soon as the national playing field is level.


Comments are closed.