Tuesday, September 2, 2014

US elections are rigged. But Canada knows how to fix them.

The Mounties know how to stop gerrymandering. William MacKenzie/Getty Images

When Americans voted for the House of Representatives in 2012, Democratic candidates won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans. Yet after the dust settled, the GOP ended up with a 234-201 majority in the chamber. And several recently-gerrymandered states had particularly odd results — for instance, in Pennsylvania, Republicans won 49 percent of the votes, but 69 percent of the seats.


Gerrymandering isn't the only reason that election results only occasionally match vote totals. "Does redistricting explain why Democrats got a majority of the votes, but not a majority of the seats? Probably not," says Eric McGhee, a fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Several analyses find that simple geography matters more — many Democratic voters are packed closer together in urban areas.

But gerrymandering infuriates voters because it feels so unfair. Letting partisan politicians — or their appointees — draw congressional districts reverses the normal order of politics. Voters are supposed to choose their politicians. Gerrymandering lets politicians choose their voters.

So is it possible to end gerrymandering? Well, the country just north of us managed to pull it off. "Canadian reapportionment was highly partisan from the beginning until the 1960s," writes Charles Paul Hoffman in the Manitoba Law Journal. This "led to frequent denunciations by the media and opposition parties. Every ten years, editorial writers would condemn the crass gerrymanders that had resulted." Sound familiar?

Eventually, in 1955, one province — Manitoba — decided to experiment, and handed over the redistricting process to an independent commission. Its members were the province's chief justice, its chief electoral officer, and the University of Manitoba president. The new policy became popular, and within a decade, it was backed by both major national parties, and signed into law.

Independent commissions now handle the redistricting in every province. "Today, most Canadian ridings [districts] are simple and uncontroversial, chunky and geometric, and usually conform to the vague borders of some existing geographic / civic region knowable to the average citizen who lives there," writes JJ McCullough. "Of the many matters Canadians have cause to grieve their government for, corrupt redistricting is not one of them." Hoffman concurs, writing, "The commissions have been largely successful since their implementation."

So why hasn't the US done this yet? One reason is that in Canada, there was a long tradition of the national parliament being involved in the redistricting process. But the US leaves the boundary-drawing to the states. The national government and the courts have only interfered for two main reasons: to keep each district roughly equal in population, and to combat racial discrimination. So a national law requiring independent redistricting commissions in each state would go against the US tradition of state independence, and might not even be constitutional.

And it's important to note that these commissions can be little better than the system that preceded them. Some US states have ostensible redistricting commissions, but let politicians name the appointees. "Those commissions are not really independent per se, they're just a separate venue where Democrats and Republicans can hash out their differences," McGhee says.

The specifics of the commission's instructions also matter. "Some of these commissions are specifically charged with creating competitive districts, but that process has costs to it," Nicholas Goedert, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, warns. "You can end up with districts that are not as amenable to representing minority interests."

Only six US states use commissions to do their redistricting, but none of them have fully embraced the Canadian solution. The key difference is that Canada's commission members are all nonpartisan — they're mostly judges, political scientists, or retired civil servants. But our states with redistricting commissions, like California and New Jersey, reserve many seats for members of political parties. "There are no truly nonpartisan redistricting commissions in the United States," political scientist Bruce Cain of Stanford University told me. Iowa uses a nonpartisan agency that's not permitted to take party registration into account, but it still gives final say to the governor and legislature.

California's commission does take several steps toward independence. It doesn't let politicians specifically choose commissioners — instead, it uses a complex selection process with thousands of applicants that includes random drawings as well as input from the legislature. And while the commission reserves 5 seats for Democrats and 5 for Republicans, it has 4 "tie-breaking" seats for people of neither major party.

But in 2012, California Democrats won 62% of the House vote, and got 72% of the seats — so some have argued that the state just ended up gerrymandered anyway. Yet McGhee, the researcher from the Public Policy Institute of California, says those kinds of numbers are to be expected. That's because the US only elects one winner from each district — so the losing voters in each district don't affect the House delegation at all. When one simulates various districts and election outcomes under such a system, the winning side naturally ends up with some advantage in the results — a winner's bonus.

Though McGhee was originally skeptical of California's commission, he now says, "I think they did a great job. Compared to the previous decade, the new plans were more fair, more compact, and provided better minority representation." As for reported attempts by Democrats to influence the process, McGhee says, "If you talk to the commissioners, they say, 'Yeah, we knew that was going on, we could tell which people were likely shills for one side or the other.' The only question is whether the outside forces will play the commission better next time around."

Replacing gerrymandering with independent commissions won't solve all our problems. But 50 years of Canadian experience shows that it can make elections more fair — and that it's possible to make one of the worst features of our politics a thing of the past.

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