Bipartisan Election Reform Should Include Limits on Gerrymandering

Requiring compactness in congressional voting districts would help stop the worst abuses

Rorschach. Part of Maryland’s Third Congressional District. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

News reports indicate that a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is attempting to negotiate an election reform bill in the wake of Senate Democrats’ failure to advance their own bill earlier this month. Several useful proposals are already on the table, but the senators could make reform stronger and more meaningful if their final product includes a limit on gerrymandering.

If published reports are accurate, the bipartisan Senate group is doing the right thing by starting from scratch and identifying election reforms that serve Americans’ broader interests irrespective of party affiliation. Voting reforms tend to fail, or at least tend to earn the unified opposition of one political party, whenever they are designed to shift power from one party to the other. So it’s important that members of both parties are happy with the final product.

Rightly or wrongly, many Democrats have developed a fear that partisan Republicans seek to limit voter turnout, while across the aisle many Republicans have developed a fear that partisan Democrats seek to widen opportunities for vote fraud. Undoubtedly, there are some rabid partisans on both sides who harbor such sinister objectives. However, the vast majority of Democrats (like Americans generally) simply want to enable individuals to vote without impediments, while the vast majority of Republicans (again, like Americans generally) simply want to ensure that the integrity of the vote is protected. In any event, no legislation will pass a 50-50 Senate if it is perceived either as suppressing the vote or widening opportunities for fraud. Hence, negotiators must focus on provisions that do neither.

An obvious place to start is with the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which played a problematic role in the tragic events of January 6, 2021. The current act creates too many opportunities for senators to erect procedural roadblocks to certification of the electoral college’s votes for president, when the U.S. Constitution clearly intends that state electors hold the power to determine the election result, and that the U.S. Senate’s role be narrowly administrative. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has given his blessing to reconsidering the Electoral Count Act, while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is giving the bipartisan group latitude to work out a solution.

Other potentially fertile ground for bipartisan legislation includes strengthened protections for poll workers and election officials against threats of violence and other forms of intimidation, to which too many were subjected during the last presidential election. Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin have publicly stated that the group may tackle these important issues as well.

Like the above proposals, a federal limitation on the gerrymandering of congressional districts is also worthy of this bipartisan group’s attention. Though districting reform has become intensely controversial when pursued with a partisan framing, there are better ways to go about it that could advance the public interest without necessarily undermining either party.

Gerrymandering is the practice of severely warping voting district shapes for the purpose of political advantage. Districts are constructed to ensure a favored candidate has enough support to safely win, often by strategically overconcentrating or splitting the projected opposition vote. In practice, this often means districts that have little meaningful geographic integrity or connection to a particular area, but instead twist and turn through geographically distant places.

Not surprisingly, gerrymandering is condemned by the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, too many reform advocates have counterproductively framed the issue in terms of the “political advantage” part of the definition, i.e., measuring gerrymandering in terms of the advantage it purportedly gives to one party or the other. When framed this way, supposed “solutions” are devised with the aim of redistributing power between the parties, for example, by changing the balance of partisan interests ostensibly served by district maps, or by controlling the partisan affiliations of those who draw them.

These too-common but counterproductive approaches to districting reforms precipitate the usual reactions: specifically, support from those whose political sympathies lie with those who would gain power from the changes, and opposition from those who would lose it. Worse yet, such reform approaches don’t even fix gerrymandering; they simply require that gerrymandering that benefits one party in one place be “balanced” by gerrymandering that benefits an opposing party elsewhere. This leaves all the problematic consequences of gerrymandering in place; the warped district shapes, the reduced accountability to voters and increased residential segregation by political opinion, as political parties are left free to play to their own bases and ignore opposing views. We won’t be able to fix gerrymandering until we get the focus off of party interests and back onto to the underlying purpose of geographical districting: Namely, that we voters should form constituencies with those who live nearest us.

Fortunately, not only is it relatively easy to reform gerrymandering in a nonpartisan way, there is precedent for it in previous federal election law. Earlier federal apportionment acts required that congressional districts be “compact”—meaning not grossly irregular in shape. While federal law didn’t precisely define how “compact” districts had to be, simply having a requirement seems to do substantial good. In my 2019 study of gerrymandering, I found that the most gerrymandered congressional districts arose in states that lacked even a vague compactness requirement.

If Congress wants to be somewhat more ambitious, it could specify a minimum compactness standard in federal law, with which all congressional districts must comply. Many potentially useful standards exist, essentially constraining how long a district’s perimeter can be relative to its area. My study discusses a metric devised by John Mackenzie known as the “G score.” Another commonly-used measure, the Polsby-Popper score, is frequently used to diagnose gerrymandering. Legislators could set a national standard as loosely or tightly as they wished, based on how much mischief they wish to eliminate completely. Importantly, such a federal standard would be objective and politically neutral, and it would directly constrain gerrymandering itself, unlike most of the process-based reforms that have been tried.

For federal election reforms to pass muster with both parties, they must both be neutral in their political effects and address practices of genuine public concern. If any attempt to constrain gerrymandering fails these tests, then obviously the bipartisan Senate group will not be able to incorporate it. But a simple compactness requirement for all congressional districts passes these tests. It has ample precedent in federal law, is clearly within established federal authority and would likely address the worst gerrymandering practices that Americans abhor without systematically advantaging either party. It’s worth trying.

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