Morris: It’s More Serious than Gerrymandering
by Leo Morris
“Indiana must rid itself of the electoral cancer of gerrymandering so it can have more competitive legislative districts.”
That’s one of those political truisms – like “Not enough people vote, so we must make the process easier” – so unquestioned that hardly anyone ever looks at the other side. And voting rights advocates, public interest groups and editorial pages are building up such pressure for a change that we’re likely to see the General Assembly give up its redistricting duties to some kind of citizens group.
But informed voters should always be skeptical enough to think carefully about what they’re being offered and what they might actually get.
The downside of gerrymandering is well known because it’s been pounded into our heads forever. It results, the Politico website succinctly noted in 2015, “in districts that are dominated by one party, which makes elected legislators beholden only to their party’s base, which then gives them the incentive to be hardcore ideologues, which in turn makes politics so polarized.”
The evidence, however, does not quite support such a sweeping generalization. A 2005 Emory University study of more than 50 years of U.S. House races found that the decline in competitive races was not caused by incumbent-protecting redistricting but rather by demographic changes and ideological realignment in the electorate and by challengers’ lack of financial resources. And a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that polarization “is primarily a function in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences.”
But even if we accept at face value the shortcomings of “redistricting for partisan advantage,” it is fair to ask if the simple substitution of “redistricting to create competitive districts” is the silver bullet some claim it to be.
“Gerrymandering” got its designation from combining the last name of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and “salamander” for that politician’s 1812 creation of an odd-shaped district the boundaries of which were designed solely for the purpose of favoring his political party.
That should be a clue to a problem with competitiveness creation. A competitive district is one in which the number of Democrats and Republicans are so close together that an election can go either way. Coming up with an optimum number of such districts is likely to create as many odd shapes as the most blatant gerrymandering effort. Why is one electoral map full of odd shapes “fairer” than the other map full of odd shapes? And fairer to whom?
What might we have lost while optimizing the perfect political balance? How do we juggle the interests of urban, suburban and rural constituents to ensure that all have their voices heard? What about the pockets of poverty and the enclaves of the well-to-do, which have very different concerns? Should racial and ethnic minorities be packed into districts so they are guaranteed representation, or would that in reality dilute their overall influence? How do we deal with people who feel they have common interests and values because their daily lives are defined by some geographic boundary?
Complicated questions that deserve more than a simple answer, especially considering how little we are to actually likely to gain from our ruthless excisement of gerrymandering.
An analysis of districts and voting patterns last year by The Associated Press found that Indiana’s “unfair” districts resulted in Republicans getting five more Indiana House seats than “experts would expect” – 70 out of 100 instead of 65. And they have one more U.S. House seat – seven of nine instead of six of nine – than they “should” have.
Roughly three-quarters of the federal budget goes to the uncuttable, locked-in costs of defense, entitlement programs and interest on the national debt. And according to a study by the Indiana Policy Review, the great majority of bills introduced by the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly seek to make government bigger, and only a fraction of them seek to make it smaller.
That’s what we should be worrying about, not whether we can engineer an elaborate plan to replace literally a handful or fewer of Republicans with Democrats.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.