Will Redistricting Reforms Stave off Partisan Gerrymandering?

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Benjamin Schneer sat down with the Ash Center to discuss the once-in-a-decade reapportionment process now underway, the potential for partisan gerrymandering and its impact on politics nationwide.

Published on November 19, 2021 

Across the country, state legislatures are embarking on the once-in-a-decade legislative reapportionment process known as redistricting. We sat down with Benjamin Schneer, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at HKS and a faculty affiliate of the Ash Center, to discuss trends in the redistricting process, the role that non-partisan redistricting commissions are likely to play over the coming year, and how partisan gerrymandering might tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., and state capitals nationwide.

Ash Center: Why has redistricting reform been thrust into the political spotlight over the past year?

Benjamin Schneer: How congressional and legislative district lines are drawn in a state has important implications for which party wins congressional and legislative elections. In many states, the redrawing of district lines can lead to pretty dramatic swings in how many seats a particular party is likely to win, which intersects with national politics. Given how closely divided the parties are in Congress, redistricting may end up being pivotal in determining who controls Congress and who controls various state legislatures.

Many observers faulted the decennial redistricting in 2012 for the extreme degree to which partisan political gain was injected into the map-making process. Do you expect to see even more partisan gerrymanders of legislative districts over this coming year?

Not necessarily. Many states have implemented measures such as independent redistricting commissions or other checks meant to reduce partisan gerrymandering. At the same time, in states where these checks are not in place, there are huge incentives to continue to gerrymander because the national stakes are so high and the parties are so polarized. So this is a key issue in states such as North Carolina, Texas, Florida, New York, and Maryland. If they care about the national political picture, both parties have incentives to engage in pretty extreme gerrymanders where they can?

As voting rights legislation remains stalled in Congress, how have individual states moved to reform the redistricting process themselves?

Over the last 10 years, several states have taken measures to try to make the redistricting process more insulated from overt partisan gerrymandering by politicians. Traditionally, state legislatures have drawn congressional and legislative maps. In terms of fairness, this process can be problematic if the politicians drawing the maps try to grant their party an undue partisan advantage. One popular approach to reform has been to take the drawing of the maps out of the hands of politicians and instead have an independent commission of non-politicians do it. California and Arizona are two examples of states that have done this for several redistricting cycles. And in 2021, a number of new states have tried some version of this, including Michigan, Colorado, and Virginia.

The extent to which independent commissions actually work to make the process better really depends on the institutional details of the commission. For example, how does a commission that has an equal number of commissioners chosen by each party break ties? What happens if the commission cannot agree on a map? In some states, the line-drawing defaults back to the legislature if there is no agreement, so then it may not help matters. Does the legislature have to approve the map? Can the state legislature deny the commission adequate funding?

In states where commissions can't agree on a map or the map isn't enacted, citizens may become disillusioned with the power of redistricting committees predicts Schneer.

In your research on redistricting, have you been able to identify specific models for redistricting reform that are more efficacious than others? What key factors should states consider when trying to draw neutral legislative boundaries?

As I mentioned, the details of the institutional design are pretty crucial. One issue is if a commission is not actually independent. For example, in Ohio, if the commission does not garner bipartisan support for their map, then map-drawing reverts back to the party that controls the Legislature and the governorship. Similarly, in New York, it looks like the governor and Legislature are likely to not take the maps from the commission and will instead implement their own lines. Ultimately, these edge cases really matter for the fairness of the process in a state. States can pay lip service to ideals about partisan fairness and independent commissions, but if one party can wrest control of the map-drawing process, then it is not addressing the issue.

All these caveats aside, if you simply look at how fair people thought their state’s process was after the previous redistricting cycle, it seems to be the case that people in states with independent commissions think it is a bit fairer than states with court-drawn maps or legislature-drawn maps. My guess is in this cycle, because there are states that have commissions that will likely not agree on a map or will produce a map that is not enacted, citizens in some states may come to a less rosy view on commissions.

Besides independent commissions, what could states be doing to make the redistricting process fairer?

I think an interesting avenue for research is the development of procedures other than commissions that both parties might commit to but that doesn't require any real cooperation on the part of the parties. I have been working on a project with Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University and PhD Candidate in Political Economy and Government at Harvard Kennedy School Kevin DeLuca about one such procedure that does not require partisan cooperation but still produces fairer maps. Each party gets to control one aspect of the redistricting process. One party draws double the number of districts needed in a state, and the second party pairs them. We are able to show that this simple intervention dramatically constrains the extent to which parties can gerrymander. The key to this idea is that it doesn’t require the parties to agree on any third-party arbiter to break ties or disagreements, but it still produces a fairer map than under unilateral redistricting.

How much of a role is redistricting likely to play in the fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year?

There are a few ways to think about this question. First, since the parties are relatively evenly divided in the U.S., the specifics of how districts are drawn will always affect how many seats a party wins. Even states that are not gerrymandering worse than in previous redistricting cycles are still having a big impact on who wins seats in Congress.

Another way to think about this question is in terms of changes on the margins. Will the margin between the parties in the 2022 election be close enough that new efforts to enact more extreme gerrymanders than in 2012 prove pivotal? I think this is less clear. In the past, it has been a safe bet that the party of the incumbent President loses vote share and seats in mid-term elections. Unless something dramatic and unanticipated happens, we seem to be on course for that to happen again in 2022. If I were guessing today, Republicans probably would re-take the House in 2022 even if the old districts were frozen in place. But it looks like Republicans may pick up a few additional seats from changes in apportionment and redistricting this cycle. If the forecast for the mid-terms tightens in the next year, then those efforts could still prove pivotal.