During his final State of the Union President Obama singled out redistricting as an issue plaguing US politics which he hopes to tackle during his last year in office. In his address he said that, "we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” It is widely known that redistricting has created more “safe” congressional seats where members are unlikely to face a real challenge from outside their party leading to complacent members and to more political polarization since members have little need to appeal to voters from the opposite party in their district.
Although President Obama brought the subject to national attention it is not new and frequently comes up in election years- ahead of the 2014 election for example the Washington Post gave the “most gerrymandered states” title jointly to Maryland and North Carolina. The image above is of the bizarre-looking national “winner,” Maryland’s 3rd district which is represented by Democratic Representative John Sarbanes.
According to You Draw the Lines 2021, a bi-partisan group led by former Congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher (D-CA) and Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA) which is dedicated to reforming redistricting by creating independent, non-partisan citizens redistricting commissions, of the 435 congressional districts only thirty have a member from a different party than the party of the presidential candidate who won their district in 2012. The group argues that the thirty members (twenty-five Republicans and five Democrats) from these districts are more moderate and open to compromise than other members in their parties. In previous decades there were usually at least sixty to eighty “competitive” districts. According to the most recent Cook Political Report only sixteen House races in the 2016 election are “competitive,” thus the number of competitive races appears to have decreased even further.
Though many acknowledge that the way in which redistricting is undertaken is problematic, few states have kicked off initiatives to curb gerrymandering. The state which has gone the farthest is California, which in 2010 granted redistricting authority to a ten-person independent citizen’s panel. In the 2012 election 74 percent of incumbents retained their seats. According to Bloomberg, in every national election between 1964 and 2012 on average 85 percent of congressmen keep their seats. Other states which have tackled redistricting reform include Iowa, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and New York, but compared to California, they grant more redistricting oversight and/or leave the final say over the district map to their respective state legislatures.
Some state legislatures redistricting plans have been so egregious that civil society groups have initiated lawsuits. During the upcoming session the US Supreme Court will review cases related to redistricting in Virginia and Maryland. In the Virginia lawsuit the plaintiffs allege that the state was redistricted so as to cram all minority voters into one district, diminishing their political clout. Lower courts in Virginia have already invalidated the election map but congressional Republicans in Virginia appealed and it now sits before the Supreme Court.
According to scholars who analyze redistricting, the goal of gerrymandering is often to grant the minority party a “safe” district by concentrating their voters in one area, which is precisely what seems to have happened in Virginia. In theory, districts should be geographically “compact,” so as to group voters with similar interests and concerns in one area; however, in practice the United States has a number of unevenly shaped and strange looking districts often taken as proof of gerrymandering.
President Obama and groups like You Draw the Lines 2021 are correct in saying that redistricting is an issue which needs to be tackled. Reducing the political polarization in Congress would enable lawmakers to cross the aisle and work together more effectively and could theoretically introduce more civil dialogue into Washington, something which has been missing of late.