What kind of political districts do Americans want?

Once the U.S. Supreme Court issues its gerrymandering decision, we will be barraged with claims about what this means for the political parties. Before the inevitable jump to partisan interpretations, it might make sense to reflect first on the types of districts that Americans would want to see.

Consider an election with two hypothetical districts.

The first district has been drawn in such a way as to protect one political party, and the incumbent is always reelected with over 65 percent of the vote, often without any credible challengers. This type of district is frequently seen in a state with a clearly dominant party — like Maryland, which packs its minority party voters into a few districts — or in states with divided governments where the parties come up with mutually beneficial compromise maps.

The second district has been gerrymandered as part of a plan by one party — perhaps the minority party among the state’s voters — to give itself a disproportionate advantage by creating many districts with a 55 percent to 45 percent outcome, while packing the other party’s voters into fewer districts with overwhelming majorities. This is what happened in Pennsylvania after Democratic losses in the 2010 elections resulted in unified Republican control just in time for the new census and redistricting plan. (That map was struck down earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for violating the state’s laws and constitution, and will result in new maps for the November elections.)

Which situation is worse?

In the first district, two thirds of the voters are happy with the outcome of the election. But their member of Congress has no need to moderate her views to attract more centrists, and can go to Washington without any need to seek compromise with the other party.

In the second district, a much higher percentage of the district’s voters is unhappy with the outcome of the election. On the other hand, this district might actually change hands when there is a shift in voter sentiment, thus forcing the representative to attempt to find ways to appease some of his constituents.

There are competing values at stake. There is the value of having overall election outcomes that are proportional to statewide voter sentiment. There is the value of maximizing the number of voters who are happy with their elected representative. And there is the value of electing people who have some motivation to temper their partisan impulses and reach across the aisle.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision will not resolve this underlying conflict. The court might be able to resolve some of the questions of proportionality, but as long as we draw lines to elect one representative per district, the process of drawing lines will be a choice between larger numbers of dissatisfied voters, or districts with representatives who have no need to curb their partisan impulses.

Most democracies try to lessen the effects of these conflicting values through election systems that either: increase the number of representatives from each district, create proportional outcomes or require run-off elections to force a minimum threshold of support and interparty compromises.

But these systems also tend to result in multiple political parties. It is generally accepted among political scientists that the election method used in the United States to elect the House tends to result in two dominant political parties. For all their partisan squabbling, the one thing that Democrats and Republicans would agree upon is that there should only be two parties. And as long as they have a hold on our government system, we are unlikely to escape from this.

Michael Towle (towle@msmary.edu) is a professor of Political Science at Mount Saint Mary's University.

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