Who’s Electing Whom? Politicians or the Voters?
Professor Nick Seabrook on the Threat to Democracy Posed by Gerrymandering
The essence of democracy is that voters pick their leaders. In America today, our leaders get to pick their voters as a result of the pernicious practice of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has a fascinating history and has become a major threat to majority rule. Even worse, it seems to defy any solution. Or does it?
Nick Seabrook, the author of just published One Person, One Vote, recently joined me to discuss the history, the problems, and the solution for gerrymandering before it is too late.
Nick is a Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida. His book was recently named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker — an honor which is well-deserved.
Every student of American democracy should read the book. If you don’t have time, read the key concepts:
*One Person, One Vote* - Summarized
Elbridge Gerry, a key founding father and attendee of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, was persuaded to engage in an…
Listen or read the interview summary below:
Bob Zadek: Nick, welcome to the show.
Nick Seabrook: Thank you, Bob. It’s great to be here.
What is the Threat of Gerrymandering?
Bob Zadek: Now, we’ll discuss in the course of discussing the history, where this funny-sounding word came from, which itself has a rich history. But tell us first, what gerrymandering is and how it takes place. And in doing so, tell us in broad strokes, is it a threat to democracy?
Nick Seabrook: Gerrymandering refers to the practice where the people who are responsible for drawing the districts in which candidates will run — in which campaigns will be conducted, in which voters will elect their representatives in government — manipulate the drawing and the boundaries of those districts in order to achieve their preferred political outcome.
Often, not surprisingly, their preferred political outcome is that they themselves get reelected along with their cronies in the legislature. But gerrymandering is also often used by the party that is in power to keep their majority — to guarantee that however the people end up voting in subsequent elections (whether it’s for them or against them) they get to stay in power. They get to continue to implement their policy agenda without having to worry about whether that agenda is popular with the constituents that they are supposed to represent.
The Rotten Borough
Bob Zadek: You use the phrase, ‘districts’. Now, help us understand, in the mechanics of democracy, the purpose of districts. I will start off the conversation by suggesting the theoretical purpose of districts is so that a representative knows who he or she is representing and so that we get representatives representing relatively small units of society so that the specific goals of a small segment can be represented in Congress. It’s designed to make sure that each segment has its person in office so that the representative knows what his electorate or her electorate expects of them and the electorate can operate as one to pick the right representative. So, I think it’s fair to say that the whole concept of districts is to give a vote more meaning. Is that a reasonable starting point?
Nick Seabrook: Yeah, I think that’s a very good way to think about it. There are essentially two ways that you can structure a representative democracy, where the people have a voice in who represents them in government. You can have some kind of proportional representation system, where instead of voting for a specific candidate, you’re voting for a political party, whose agenda you presumably support. Based on the results of the election, a certain number of representatives from that party and usually, they’ll have a list that’s prepared ahead of the election, however many seats they win, the first x names on that list become members of the legislature.
But as you point out, in such a system, there’s no fundamental connection between you, and your community, and your neighborhood, and the identity of the person who is representing your interests in government, which is why a lot of countries — including the United States — use districts as a mechanism for forging a greater link between politicians and their voters. So, you divide the jurisdiction into a certain number of discrete geographical units corresponding to voters who have a shared identity, who live in a common community, who have a consensus of interest and opinions. The job of that elected representative is to serve their constituents, to pay attention to what the people they represent would like to happen, and to vote accordingly in the legislature.
A lot of the antidemocratic effects of gerrymandering stems from the fact that it either disrupts or sometimes severs that link between elected representatives and the people who they are supposed to represent.
Bob Zadek: Okay, you said it perfectly — there is a connection between the elected official and those who elected them. The elected official knows what the people who elected him expect of him or her based upon the geography, where they live, their demographics, and the like. A wonderful place to start.
I guess we would have imagined that going back to when districts are first drawn, first, you have the state of New York and somebody says, “Let’s make it into districts.” You quite naturally look for natural boundaries and you look for commonality of the ethnicity, perhaps economic status, and cities as a unit, and you try to combine people who had something in common into a district. In the pure sense of the word, it never happened. But as a starting point, they sit down with a feather with a point on it and so they think and they start to draw stuff on a map, they’re trying to make districts that the people in the district have a lot in common. Is that how districts would have started, if in Adams’s words, all men were in fact angels?
Nick Seabrook: Yes, I think that is the Platonic ideal of how a district-based system of political representation is supposed to function.
In the book, I trace the origins of gerrymandering all the way back to before the United States back into the mists of English political history to the creation of the Parliament of England after the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta, of course, was a negotiated settlement between the British monarchy and the groups who had attempted to overthrow it in order to provide some kind of modicum of check and democratic representation into the British system. But what it turned out to be is a veneer of democracy that was grafted onto a system that still allowed the aristocracy and the elites to dictate policy and politics. And they did so by configuring the districts in such a way that they could keep control of the levers of power.
The earliest manifestations of something that looks a lot like modern gerrymandering is in this British tradition of the so-called rotten borough, which fairly quickly came about as soon as districts started to be used in British politics. The districts would be configured in such a way that it included a very small number of inhabitants. The districts were, in some cases, sufficiently small — less than a dozen voters — that the landowners, the aristocrats were able to use bribery and patronage to essentially bribe their constituents into electing candidates of their choice.
While this has been the ideal of a district-based system, I would certainly say that as long as we have had districts, we have had those in power manipulating districts in order to keep that power, that’s been something that has occurred all the way back throughout US history back into British history. It would be nice if we could move closer to the connection between politicians and their constituencies. But gerrymandering has always been the tool by which politicians try to push back against those demographic checks and democratic checks.
The Infamous Gerry-Mander of 1812
Bob Zadek: Our founders certainly studied with a passion, with diligence, with intensity the political history of the world as they sat down to create the foundation, the two-by-fours of our country. They knew British history quite well. Now the standings are the rotten borough system that developed in England would they had to have been aware of, of course. They designed a system of districts, which was susceptible to the same — I’ll say corruption, but corruption is perhaps too strong. Gaming the system is better, because corruption doesn’t really nail it. So, we’ll say gaming the system. They were aware of the ability of those who aspire to stay in office of being able to game the system. Did they attempt to draft away — whether in the Constitution, in statutes or behavior — any of those evils, or did they just assume it came with the product of democracy?
Nick Seabrook: I think they did take steps to try and address some of the problems that they had identified in the British system and the British Parliament. But the problem with gerrymandering is that it’s a many-headed monster. As soon as you cut one of those heads off, because politicians are strategic and they can come up with creative solutions to these problems, immediately, another head pops up and you’re playing whack-a-mole with whatever the latest technique that’s being used to gerrymander and to manipulate district.
There were a couple of things that the framer’s did in the Constitution — most notably was the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives between states on the basis of population guarantee to ensure that representation in Congress would be based not on patronage necessarily or on the rotten borough type system from the UK, but a system where each state would receive a number of seats that was proportional to the number of people who lived there. There was also early legislation passed by Congress, which said that these members of Congress had to be elected from districts and that these districts, instead of being drawn in the rotten borough style, should be configured so that they had roughly equal numbers of inhabitants. But that then led to the early gerrymandering that we saw in the wake of the Constitution — most famously, the example from which the practice gained its name — from the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry.
There was a lot more to the story that I discovered when I was researching the book than I had anticipated. But the common origin story of gerrymandering is that this governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, was attempting to consolidate his own power over the state. He was worried about the Federalists and the fact that the State Senate was thwarting his legislative agenda. And so, he drew the boundaries of the state senate districts in Essex County, in order to ensure that the maximum number of Democratic-Republican candidates would be elected. He did so not by manipulating the populations of the districts and placing a lot more people in this one and a lot fewer people in that one. He did so by instead manipulating who lived in particular districts. He found that by packing as many Federalists as possible into a single district in Essex County, where they represented an overwhelming majority of the population, that would allow his political party, the Democratic-Republicans to win all of the other districts in the area.
That is one of the most common techniques in gerrymandering, known as packing, where you reduce the influence of your opponents by cramming them together into as few districts as possible, where they make up massive super majorities and that then allows you to win the rest of the seats by smaller majorities. I would say that, yes, the framers did try to create a system that would not be as susceptible to the same kinds of manipulations that were present in the British system. But in so doing, they opened the door to a different gerrymandering, one that can operate even when the populations of districts are approximately equal.
Bob Zadek: There is a gerrymandering issue that I don’t believe you discussed in your book. None of your reviewers have caught you, but I’ll put it to you now. The name of the governor of Massachusetts is Elbridge Gerry (with a hard G). He was an interesting fellow. He was one of the three representatives in the Continental Congress who refused to sign the Constitution. He didn’t like it. That’s not my point. It’s just a slight footnote. My point is, his name is Elbridge Gerry (with a hard G). Now, the process we’re talking about is called gerrymandering. Shouldn’t it be gerrymandering (with a hard G)? I’m not going to ask you to explain why everybody reads that word as ‘gerrymandering’, even though the guy’s name is Gerry (with a hard G) and not Gerry. But that’s a question which is 100% rhetorical. Your next book, maybe you can discuss that.
Tell us about the ‘mandering.’ It’s just an interesting story. The word was invented around 1812 by, I believe a reporter, a newspaper reporter at the time, but why the “mandering” in gerrymandering?
Nick Seabrook: Well, on the question of the pronunciation, this was actually something that I looked into for the book, because not just the term ‘gerrymandering’, but indeed Elbridge Gerry’s last name is something that is often mispronounced by people. When the term was first coined, it was in fact pronounced gerrymandering (with a hard G). And so, I looked back to see if I could find any historical references to the pronunciation of the word, which is obviously difficult to do, because this was an era where we don’t have recordings of people pronouncing things. But I did find an obscure reference in the transcripts of the Indiana state constitutional convention from the mid-19th century. There was a reference by one of the delegates while they were considering a proposed amendment that would have banned gerrymandering in the state of Indiana as part of their constitution.
One of the delegates during those deliberations turns to one of his opponents on the other side of the aisle and says, “You’re constantly gerrymandering the state, or ‘jerrymandering,’ as I maintain it should be pronounced, the G being soft. That was the earliest reference I could find to someone preferring the gerrymandering pronunciation over — [crosstalk]
Bob Zadek: Oh, my God, you’re my idol, Nick. You’re my idol. Now, tell us about the mandering.
Nick Seabrook: The manner in part of the word stems from a famous cartoon that was published in a newspaper called The Boston Gazette in 1812. Immediately after Governor Gerry unveiled his new state senate map and the legislature started considering it. It was ridiculed by his political opponents in the tabloids as being a naked and transparent power grab. As the story goes, an editor from the Boston Gazette put a map of the districts up on his wall and drew a salamander shape on one particular district that snakes around the border of Essex County. This was the district into which his federalist foes had been packed in order to reduce their political influence.
One of his associates is supposed to have remarked, “Well, it looks like a salamander,” and he said, “Well, better say a gerrymander.” That was the origin of the term, the cartoon that was published in the newspaper the next day depicting this district as this somewhat sad-looking salamander.
The portmanteau of ‘gerry’ and ‘salamander’, which gives us gerrymander became something of a phenomenon in 1812, the cartoon, which had run in the Boston Gazette was reprinted in more than 80 different newspapers across the country in the six months following this original incident in Massachusetts and went viral to the extent that something could be said to do so in 1812. It was the trending topic of the political debates of the time. Within a year in Maryland, the politicians there were being accused by their own local newspaper of gerrymandering, of manipulating the districts in the true gerrymander style. So, it was something that very, very quickly caught on and came to be referenced, not just in Massachusetts, but within a year in other states as well.
Bob Zadek: Now, fast forward to more contemporary times. We have now a two-party system. Each party has two goals: to retain political power to the extent that they have it and they retain political power by having more members of their representative bodies — by having more of their people in than the other party’s team. And since we have a district election system that you have to win the most test districts, not the most votes statewide. It’s not a statewide ballot. It’s a district-by-district ballot.
Therefore, if you represent a minority of the people, but a majority of the districts, it’s your state and not the other guy’s state. So, tell us about how the party is in contemporary times, how it’s decided, who designs the districts, how often they are designed and redesigned, and how do states retain either their permanent red color or their permanent blue color as a direct result of gerrymandering?
Nick Seabrook: In the book, I distinguish between historical gerrymandering, which was something that certainly happened, but it didn’t happen all the time. It was something that politicians did, infrequently, and not especially effectively. The gerrymander from Massachusetts, basically worked for one election, and then the Democratic-Republicans immediately lost their majority in the next election. The map that they had created was swiftly repealed. This is something that recurs frequently in the historical gerrymanders that I analyze in the book that they were not especially effective, largely because the tools that they were using to create them were fairly blunt and fairly ineffective. You could use census data, certainly. But these were times when districts were drawn using pen and paper or Quill and parchment. You’re patching together districts from these reams of census statistics and making your best guess about how those districts might vote in the future.
I distinguish those types of gerrymanders from what I call in the book, the modern era of gerrymandering, which began in the 1960s with a series of Supreme Court decisions that established the constitutional principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ which is, of course, what the book is named after. Those Supreme Court decisions required that all 50 states — after every census — have to redraw all of their districts at every level of government, because those decisions require that those districts have to have almost precisely equal populations in order for everyone’s vote to count the same. That development was followed fairly soon thereafter in the 1970s and the 1980s by the first computer software programs that could be used to draw districts much more efficiently, quickly, and effectively than had been possible before. Of course, since then, those tools have only become more sophisticated.
The politicians of today have access to reams of incredibly granular data on the voting public, and exactly where they live, and their preferences, and their histories. But they also have access to powerful software that is able to simulate how districts will perform in future elections. It’s largely because of those tools that gerrymandering today is a very different beast than the kinds of gerrymanders we saw back in 1812, Massachusetts. They can be fine-tuned and tinkered with in such a way that they don’t just allow a party to keep its majority for one or sometimes, two elections. They can be figured in such a way that they’re robust throughout, sometimes an entire decade. You can have situations, as you say, where a party loses the popular vote overall by a fairly significant amount and is able to maintain its majority, because that was something that they had planned for.
This was one of the conceivable eventualities that they had anticipated and that they had fine-tuned their gerrymander to be robust in the face of a variety of plausible future scenarios. And that is the state of things as I see it today and that’s the reason why I wrote the book, because I think we’re at a crossroads where gerrymandering has become a tool that is effective enough that it threatens not just the fairness of democracy, but also whether we can meaningfully say that number of states are ever or even really democratic anymore.
An Intractable Problem?
Bob Zadek: Doesn’t that mean, given the art of gerrymandering, that once a party has designed districts that assure their continued success, it’s impossible for them to lose that success, because once they are in control, there’s no way the other party can gain statewide control? The party may be able to flip a district now and again. But if we say the Democratic Party is in control of Illinois and they continue with that power to draw the districts every 10 years, it’s impossible for Illinois to ever become Republican unless the population shift was so profound that there simply weren’t enough Democrats to get 51% of enough districts. So, it’s permanent-absent some external cure.
It can’t be cured by the operation of the democratic process alone. It’ll just never happen. So, that brings us to we have a situation that cannot be fixed in the ballot box, given the software. Whatever the status quo was, when this software was refined, that got baked in, or am I exaggerating, forever, absent some extra democratic solution as in the courts or we’ll get to the solutions in a moment. But am I correct so far or am I overstating it?
Nick Seabrook: I certainly think that there are some places where that is true. You mentioned Illinois. The state of Wisconsin is another good example. My home state of Florida is another one. What’s notable about places like Florida and Wisconsin is that these are not heavily Republican or heavily Democratic states — somewhere like Illinois, or New York, or California on the Democratic side or some of the red states that you find on the other side. These are purple states. These are states that have been competitive at the national level — that have voted for both Republicans and Democrats for presidents, for Senate, for governor. And yet the districts in their state legislatures have been configured in such a way that as you say, absent a shock to the system, it’s essentially impossible without seeing the kind of landslide popular votes that we really don’t see anymore in American politics in this era where things are so polarized between Republicans and Democrats.
It will take something like the opposition party’s candidate winning the election and being Governor at the time of the next redistricting, so that they might be in a position to veto the map that the legislature creates to try and roll back that gerrymander for a second decade. It may be that the state Supreme Court exercises checks and balances over the legislature and maybe strikes down an extreme partisan gerrymander as a violation of the state constitution. We saw that happen, for instance, in New York, where the Democrats in the legislature tried to gerrymander New York’s congressional districts to ensure that they would win the vast majority of those seats. And the New York judiciary fought back and struck down that plan and replaced it with a new map that was considerably more fair.
But those external shocks don’t always happen. You don’t always get a governor elected from the opposition at the time of gerrymandering, who can exercise that check. You don’t always have a state Supreme Court that is willing to exercise judicial review. You don’t always have the option of citizens putting initiatives on the ballot to try and reform the system as happened in Michigan. And for states like Wisconsin, that is my concern that gerrymandering is something that can be used to effectively install a political party into a permanent single-party rule in the legislature. And once that happens, absent one of those external shocks, it’s extremely difficult to break that control. When the problem is the subversion of democracy, you can’t vote your way out of that problem.
Bob Zadek: We seem to have concluded that if this problem is to be fixed — Before I go on, I want to make sure our audience appreciates what the problem is. It’s a district-related problem. It doesn’t affect presidential elections. It affects the House of Representatives for the most part, but they have a lot of power collectively. The problem is, Illinois could have 60% Democrat and 40% Republican by registered voters. But yet, the political affiliation of the elected officials is much more skewered to the Democrat than 60/40. One would think that in a more perfect world, the political breakdown in the legislature would more or less equal the political party breakdown among the population. But gerrymandering assures that’s not going to be the case. So, there’s no connection between the political party profile of the population and the profile of their elected officials.
The related problem is that if you are in the minority — you’re in California and you happen to be a Republican — then you have been disenfranchised, because you know, as a result of gerrymandering, not as a result of the will of the people, as a result of gerrymandering, you will never have your state. California never represents your point of view. Your choice is to live unrepresented or move to Florida. Those are the choices.
If you don’t consider that to be a problem, touch your dial, turn somewhere else, listen to a different podcast.
The Solution: Remove Politicians from the Process
So, Nick, where might the voters look in the hope of finding a solution? Where would the solution come from, if not from the legislature, who would have to be voting against their self-interest?
Nick Seabrook: This was a problem as I talked about that was imported to the United States from Great Britain. I think we can also look to Great Britain, to England for our solution, because England did eventually figure out how to fix its problem with gerrymandering. That was to fundamentally restructure the incentives and to avoid the fundamental conflict of interest that you’re talking about.
You say, “All men are not angels, politicians are rational actors.” If there’s some legal way that they can put their thumbs on the scale of democracy in order to keep their jobs, in order to maintain their power, it’s unreasonable to expect them not to take advantage of it.
They’ve done it throughout US history, whether they were Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Federalists, Democratic-Republicans — it’s happened across every political party and across every ideological persuasion. What the Brits eventually figured out was that the fundamental problem here was the involvement of politicians in this process and that fundamental conflict of interest. Once you removed them from the equation entirely — once you took away their responsibility for drawing districts from the politicians who will then run for reelection in those districts — you ended up with a process that was considerably fairer.
Now, it’s not always going to be perfect. It’s not always going to produce results that are perfectly proportional to the breakdown of opinions and partisanship in your state, but when the districts are drawn by some independent entity. The first country to experiment with this was New Zealand in the late 19th century, back when it was still a part of the British colonial empire. They created an entity known as a Boundaries Commission, which was an independent agency separate from the elected branches of the government that had its own independent authority and was staffed by people that were not beholden to the politicians for their positions, who didn’t have the same kinds of incentives to favor one side or the other, when it came to the drawing of districts. And that system spread throughout the British Commonwealth to Australia, to Great Britain itself, to Canada.
Pretty much every other nation that uses districts for its elections has some kind of independent agency, a commission, a government board, something that is independent to some extent of political control and influence, and which doesn’t have that fundamental conflict of interest. Whatever that solution looks like, I think the fundamental thing that we have to be doing is simply removing politicians from this process. Politicians can’t choose their voters if the politicians are not the ones who are drawing the districts in the first place.
Bob Zadek: In this country, we have experimented with getting politicians out of the political process about a decade or so ago. In the House of Representatives, they knew they had too many military bases costing too much money, but no congressman who wanted to get reelected could ever vote to close a vase in his or her district, but they had close districts. They appointed an independent commission and Congress by statute said, “We agree to be bound up or down by whatever the commission does.” And the commission closed districts, Congress voted, they achieved the result by doing just what Nick had pointed out. Get politicians out of the political process and you succeed. So, we have a successful history of doing that in this country, which gives politicians political cover, because they’re voting for a bill in total that closes bases and saves money, so they can’t be criticized, but they didn’t specifically agree to close a base in their district. It was a pretty interesting solution and it worked perfectly given the goals.
Now, Nick, a question that I can’t really answer for myself. Assuming there was an independent commission and they were told to redesign districts, what would be the test or what would be the standard by which they would design a district? Would they ignore everything and just do geometry and just draw a lot of hexagons in a state and call it a day with the right number of people? If you wanted to do it the right way, what would be your two or three requirements for what makes a district properly drawn?
Nick Seabrook: Well, this I think brings us quite nicely back to the kinds of first principles that we began this discussion with, because when you’re starting from scratch in that way, you have the opportunity to emphasize the drawing of districts that do what districts are supposed to be. I think the best way to approach this is, when you have this commission and you’re deciding what kinds of instructions you want to give to it, what types of things that you want it to emphasize or deemphasize is to say, when you’re going about this, pay no attention to where the incumbents live. Pay no attention to where the district lines may have been gerrymandered to exist before. Pay no attention to the partisanship of the people that you’re drawing into one place or another.
Ask the people in these places, what their community looks like. Ask the people who live in the cities, what the neighborhoods are, and then draw districts that group together citizens, and neighborhoods, and communities that have shared interests, that have a shared culture, whatever variables you’re going to include there. I think part of the problem is that we’ve become entrenched in this churning system, where every 10 years, we tinker with the districts here in order to achieve this political goal, we tinker with the districts over here in order to make sure that this incumbent gets reelected. And over time, those districts get further and further away from the underlying communities that they are supposed to be there to represent.
I think you wipe the slate clean and I think you say to this independent commission, don’t pay attention to politics whatsoever. We’re going to have hearings, we’re going to hear from members of these communities, and they’re going to tell us what the interests are that need to be represented. They’re going to tell us what the communities are and then you start building districts from there grouping together neighborhoods and communities that have something in common rather than starting from the opposite direction and saying, “Well, what types of people do I have to cram into this district over here, no matter how different their circumstances might be in order to save my job or in order to ensure that my party gets to keep power?” You go back to those first principles and you draw districts based on what it is that these districts are supposed to be and the role that they are supposed to play in our political system.
Bob Zadek: Now, Nick, I had given gerrymandering a lot of thought. In the few minutes we have left, I’m going to share with you my solution, so you can critique it. I abhor a district being drafted so that a representative can pick their voters obviously. I also happen to abhor the process in the House of Representatives of earmarking of bringing money back to the district, bringing home the pork to get reelected, putting an airport, or road, whatever. Given those principles, my system would be, you do not draw districts on a map. They do not have any geographic identity. But rather, you take the state, you decide how many voters are to be in each district.
Let’s say, it’s 400,000 in California, and you decide California has 55 districts. You then randomly throughout the state, take every voter scattered throughout the state and randomly assign them to a district. In effect, there is no place. It’s just an arbitrary 400,000 people who have only one thing in common. The computer put them in the same district. And anybody who wants to run for office can run in any district, because there’s no in. You just take a district, I’m going to run as a Democratic candidate in the 53rd district, which really means a 400,000 randomly selected voters. That would be my goal. No gerrymandering.
I say now, Nick, to you as a political scientist, if you were running for office in the 53rd district in California and all you knew was there were 400,000 randomly selected people scattered throughout the state. How would you organize your campaign? What would be your campaign issue? You couldn’t pander, you couldn’t say, how you feel about abortion, because you don’t know if you’re in a religious district, or a not religious district. In fact, there is no in. The only way to run for office is to say who you are, what you stand for, and hope 50.1% of the people in your district like it. That would bring all elections into the middle. Primaries don’t matter, nothing matters, except that you have to appeal to a majority of the vote without even knowing who they are. Therefore, you just present yourself stark naked. This is who I am, please elect me.
Nick Seabrook: I think that there are both good things and perhaps, downsides to your idea here.
Bob Zadek: We only have time for the good things, Nick. We only- [crosstalk]
Nick Seabrook: [laughs] The good thing is that it is incredibly fair because it’s random.
Bob Zadek: And pure.
Nick Seabrook: There’s no way to manipulate things, there’s no way to put your thumbs on the scale. I will say that there are likely to be some logistical challenges when you’re randomly assigning 400,000 people to a district. Did they still vote in their local polling places? Maybe you have some online voting system that works with that thing? I think my main issue with it is that when you’re assigning those districts at random, let’s say, using your hypothetical of California. While you may not know precisely who ended up in your randomly selected district, you can be pretty sure in California that any randomly selected district of 400,000 people is likely to have far more Democrats in it than Republicans. If I’m a candidate running in that district, I figured the odds are in my favor. If I run a campaign, that appeals more to Democrats than Republicans, because it’s more likely than not that the district I ended up drawing by random is one that has a majority of Democrats.
Bob Zadek: But you use ‘“more likely than not”. Today, it’s absolutely true, if you’re a Democrat, you will win. Therefore, I removed automatic to more likely than not, which means a bad Democrat candidate will lose to a good Republican candidate under my system. And as you say, logistical issues, Nick, I’m an important guy, I leave that stuff to my staff.
The Hope of a Redistricting Commission
Bob Zadek: I don’t know where they’re going to vote or how. So, I’ll leave my hand with those low-level problems. Nick, we have a couple of minutes left. The prospects for the future, are we likely to continue to suffer under your metaphor earlier, under the thumb on the scale of gerrymandering? Is there a reason for hope and what do we have to look forward to in the next five years will say?
Nick Seabrook: Well, I try not to make the conclusion of this book too pessimistic, because while a lot of things are bad right now when it comes to gerrymandering, I do think that there is hope for the future. And that hope comes from the fact that every time you give the people the opportunity to vote on this question — red states, blue states, swing states — they decide that they want to get rid of gerrymandering, whatever the proposed solution might be. In the last few years, we’ve had redistricting reform measures that have passed in places like New York, in Michigan, and in Utah, red state — [crosstalk]
Bob Zadek: California. California has a redistricting commission as well.
Nick Seabrook: Right, exactly. I like the California model, because it’s a citizen’s commission. You’re a fan of random selection. The actual members of the Commission are selected through this application process and then there’s a random component to that selection. So, it’s impossible- [crosstalk]
Bob Zadek: Random selection doesn’t work, because I applied and they rejected me.
Nick Seabrook: [laughs] But that’s the silver lining that I see in this whole debate that momentum seems to be picking up. Congress has debated legislation to require independent commissions for redistricting in the US House of Representatives elections. And more and more states have adopted some form of a redistricting commission or some kind of procedure that tries to constrain the worst impulses of politicians who are conducting this process. So, my hope is that the people are much wiser on this subject than the politicians are.
The Role of the Courts
Bob Zadek: Nick, you discuss in great detail and a beautiful discussion of the role or the absence of the role of the courts. The courts have not been especially effective. They’ve created a confusing series of cases that are a bit contradictory. A lot of well-known judges have weighed in over the decades. But the Supreme Court tends to avoid what are called political questions. They don’t like to wade into the political process deferring to the political process itself — the ballot box and the electoral process. So, they haven’t been especially helpful and they’re also not helped by the fact that the Constitution gives very little guidance to the minutiae of government.
We have a blank slate and the Supreme Court doesn’t have ultimate guidance. If we’re going to find help as Nick says, the help is going to come from voters, either from politicians who can put political party below good government, lots of luck. Or, from citizens using perhaps, the proposition process, or the like, or moral suasion to cause there to be a bottom-up change in the system of district drawings that we have now. But right now, drawing of districts has a profound effect on the composition of the lower house usually. So, the help has to come from those of us who had the wisdom to listen to my conversation with Nick.
I spent the last hour speaking with Nick Seabrook. Nick has written a history, a discussion, and a prognosis for the evil of gerrymandering or, if you will, gerrymandering (with a hard G). Nick, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with your book, which has just been published to, I might add, very wonderful reviews, especially a very recent review in The New Yorker magazine. Congratulations for that. Nick, thank you so much and thank you to my friends out there for giving us generously an hour of your time.
Nick Seabrook: Thank you, Bob.