The Gerrymandering Problem

The conventional wisdom is that partisan gerrymandering–the process of drawing political district boundaries to favor a particular party (usually the party in charge of the process)–is the cause , or at least a major contributor to the problem, of political polarization in our country.  Polarization, it is believed, contributes to the ineffectiveness of government by making compromise, which is the essence of politics, more difficult.  In his State of the Union remarks in January 2016, President Obama even listed partisan gerrymandering as one of the top problems facing the country.

Much to my surprise, a growing body of research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong.  Yes, gerrymandering is a contributing factor to the partisanship problem, but it does not appear to be nearly as significant a factor as commonly supposed.

Nevertheless, partisan gerrymandering is inconsistent with the principles of good governance; it undermines public confidence in government by contributing to the sense that the system is rigged.

A plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2004 that partisan gerrymandering (as opposed to racial gerrymandering) is a non-justiciable issue, meaning that the courts generally cannot provide a remedy. But individual states can address the problem through legislation or constitutional amendments.  For example, they can create independent, non-partisan commissions and charge them with the responsibility to draw political district boundaries. Provided that the commissions are truly independent, they can reduce the gerrymandering problem across the country and thereby help restore public confidence in government.

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