Gerrymandering persists because it’s the rational choice for elected officials.
The way electoral districts are drawn in most of the U.S. is that state legislators decide what they want their districts to look like. The majority party that controls the legislature draws their own districts to allow them to cruise to reelection, using fancy redistricting software with household-level party membership data. And then they draw the minority party’s districts to make their lives difficult, such as by pitting incumbents against each other, lumping together unrelated communities, and making sprawling districts that are difficult to travel. This might sound complex, but the redistricting software makes it easy.
In short, legislators draw their own districts, ensuring their reelection. And why wouldn’t they, given the choice? It’d be completely irrational to do otherwise.
Legislators generally get to do this once each decade, right after the decennial census determines how many people live where. The census is in 2000, 2010, 2020, etc., so redistricting is in 2001, 2011, 2021, etc.
Democrats and Republicans both gerrymander. It’s not an affliction of partisanship, it’s an affliction of power. Every time, the majority party defends their gerrymandering as mere redistricting, and the minority party decries the evils of gerrymandering and promises they’ll get rid of it when they’re in charge. This has gone back and forth for many decades.
Gerrymandering has lots of terrible effects. Especially the very premise: that legislators choose their constituents, instead of vice versa. There’s the effect on voters who are of the opposite party as their representatives, knowing that their votes will have no effect. Perhaps most important, there’s the resulting extremism. When the general election isn’t competitive, then the competition happens in the primaries. This results in the nomination of candidates who have no incentive to appeal to the opposing party, who get the nomination on the basis of promising to give no quarter to their opponents. This creates a spiral of extremism, and eliminates the possibility of bipartisan cooperation within the legislature.
In much of the U.S., there’s nothing that you and I can do about gerrymandering, because that requires a constitutional amendment…which legislatures must approve of. (Except in Delaware — they don’t bother with voter approval.) The majority party is quite happy with how redistricting is working for them, so they don’t pass those constitutional amendments. There’s nothing the public can do about it. (You might be thinking “well, people could vote them out of office.” No, they couldn’t. That’s the underlying problem here.)
So we’re stuck with gerrymandered districts.
* * *
In Virginia, right now, we have a chance to fix this, thanks to an extraordinary coincidence of timing.
Advocates for redistricting reform got to work a decade ago to get a constitutional amendment in place by 2021. With Republicans firmly in control of the General Assembly, it was easy to persuade Democrats in the legislature to get behind the cause. In fact, Democrats were so eager to support it that there was real danger that the movement would be perceived as a partisan one, so organizers had to go to considerable pains to avoid that.
In the 2019 session, the Virginia Senate was on the knife’s edge of control between Democrats and Republicans. Demographic changes in Virginia over the past decade had reached the point where Democrats had made big gains a few months prior, and Republicans were deeply concerned that they could find themselves a minority party by 2021. So the General Assembly was able to pass the legislation to amend the constitution to reform the redistricting process, by an 85-13 margin. Democrats supported it overwhelmingly. Sure, they watered it down, moving from nonpartisan redistricting to bipartisan redistricting, but it passed. But passing it once wasn’t enough — by law, they needed to pass the same amendment again the next year, after an intervening General Assembly election.
Before that could happen, though, something remarkable happened. Last November, Democrats flipped the House and the Senate, taking control of both chambers. Those new legislators were seated this year. And then the constitutional amendment came up for its second vote. By something had happened in the interim: Democrats were no longer so enthusiastic.
The same Democrats who cheerfully voted for the bill a year prior now had “concerns.” They wanted to “tweak” the legislation and perhaps delay when it would take effect, proposing substitute legislation.
But here’s the crucial fact about that substitute legislation: those changes would have reset the clock. That is, it wouldn’t have been the second time that the legislature had voted on this amendment, but the first time they had voted on a new amendment, requiring a pause of two years (so there could be an intervening legislative election) before the legislature could have the second vote. If it passed in 2023, and then voters backed it that November, that amendment would happen years too late for the 2021 redistricting, and have no effect at all until 2031.
Whatever the legitimacy of these newfound concerns, these Democratic legislators well knew that there were only two options: pass the amendment as it was, or vote against the amendment so they could gerrymander next year. There was no third option.
When forced to vote on the very bill they’d passed the prior year, what was the outcome? Well, every House Republican voted for the amendment, and nearly every House Democrat voted against it. Just nine House Democrats joined with Republicans in supporting it. (The Senate, on other hand, passed it 38-2, with two Democrats dissenting.)
Here are the 23 legislators who voted for the bill in 2019, and then voted against it this year:
- Hala Ayala (D-51)
- Betsy Carr (D-69)
- Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2)
- Lee J. Carter (D-50)
- Karrie Delaney (D-67)
- Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41)
- Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10)
- Elizabeth Guzman (D-31)
- Charniele Herring (D-46)
- Patrick Hope (D-47)
- Chris Hurst (D-12)
- Mark Keam (D-35)
- Kaye Kory (D-38)
- Paul Krizek (D-44)
- Mark Levine (D-45)
- Kathleen Murphy (D-34)
- David Reid (D-32)
- Danica A. Roem (D-13)
- Mark Sickles (D-43)
- Marcus Simon (D-53)
- Rip Sullivan (D-48)
- Kathy Tran (D-42)
- Vivian Watts (D-39)
(Of course, thanks to the intervening election, some legislators who voted for it in 2019 were gone by 2020, and some legislators were new in 2020. That’s the purpose of requiring an election between the first and second votes.)
When these Democrats were in the minority, they were all for redistricting reform. But now that they’re in the majority, one year later, now they’re against it.
As St. Augustine prayed, “Grant me chastity and self-control…but not yet.”
* * *
Gerrymandering persists because it’s the rational choice for elected officials.
Are legislators being hypocritical in voting for a bill and then voting against it? Yes. Are they behaving rationally? Absolutely. Left to their own devices, legislators will never vote to restrict their own power, only others’ power.
In 2007, then-House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong came to Charlottesville to speak at a public event that I held on redistricting. I asked him, before an audience of fifty or so Democrats, whether he supported redistricting reform. He delivered some relatively impassioned remarks about the importance of redistricting reform, about how we’ve got to get rid of gerrymandering. Then I asked him whether he’d still support that if Democrats controlled the legislature. He didn’t even pause before saying that, no, then he’d be against any kind of reform.
Extraordinarily, Virginia managed to get redistricting reform on the ballot, through an amazing coincidence of timing and, again, hard work by a small, dedicated group who pushed this for years.
Could we do better than bipartisan redistricting? Absolutely. Is bipartisan redistricting better than partisan redistricting? Absolutely. Should we let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Absolutely not.
Let’s make bipartisan redistricting a stop on the way to nonpartisan redistricting. Let’s move past the harms of gerrymandering, the extremism that comes of packed districts, the constant back and forth of each party punishing the other after they claw their way back from redistricting oblivion.
Let’s vote to pass amendment #1, making bipartisan redistricting the law of the land.