A New York Times editorial blames gerrymandering for substantially increased rates of reelected incumbents, calling gerrymandering “among the most corrosive practices in modern American democracy.” Offering “a permanent fix for partisan gerrymandering would be to take redistricting entirely out of the hands of self-interested lawmakers and give it to independent commissions.”
Would redistricting in the hands of independent commissions really solve the problem?
A new working paper by UCLA and Yale researches suggests ‘no.’
To measure the relative competitiveness of various House redistricting processes in 2010, the researchers first simulated a set of counterfactual district maps based solely on equal population and geographic contiguity. They then aggregated what the margin of victory for Republican and Democratic candidates would have been in the simulated districts, comparing them to the actual electoral results in 2016.
Next they collected a set of 1,473 proposed district maps from 13 states made publically available by state legislatures or redistricting commissions. The researchers compared the margins of victories in those proposed districts with both simulated and actual results.
The median state redistricting plans were less competitive than 99 percent of the simulated alternatives. In fact, 43 percent of the states produced final maps that were less competitive than every single simulated map.
So the simulated alternatives were more competitive than most gerrymandered plans.
That would support the New York Times editorial’s conclusion, if independent commissions’s proposals received the same results.
The problem is, they didn’t.
Next, the researchers compared the enacted redistricting maps to the publically proposed maps. Not surprisingly, state legislatures’ maps turned out to be safer for incumbents than 77 percent of the simulated alternatives. But the maps produced by independent commissions were only marginally less safe: 75 percent of the simulations were more competitive than most of plans adopted by the commissions.
When they compared the final redistricting maps devised the state legislators with the publically proposed alternative maps, the researchers found that the legislators’ efforts were less competitive than 71 percent of the proposed alternatives. But the maps created by nonpartisan redistricting commissions were worse; 76 percent were less competitive than the proposed alternatives.
So the “independent” commissions produced maps roughly as competitive as partisan gerrymandering has has produced, while clearly the commissions were coming up with something entirely different from the maps “based solely on equal population and geographic contiguity.”
“In sum, independent commissions do not draw House maps that encourage greater electoral competition any more than partisan legislature do,” the researchers conclude. “Overall, our results suggest caution in overhauling state redistricting institutions to increase electoral competition: independent commissions may not be as politically-neutral as theorized.”
Are independent commissions getting the same results as gerrymandering?
Or are they doing something wrong?
Let us know what you think, and sound off in the comments below.