One of the difficulties in the gerrymandering debate is that there are different approaches to the good faith drawing of districts. More often than not, what many people deride as gerrymandering is simply a disagreement over how the drawing of districts was done.
Consider the four following different approaches to drawing district lines:
The Enclave Approach
This is the argument that constituents are best represented when grouped into similarly minded enclaves so that a vast majority of citizens feel their views and values are fully represented. This perspective suggests that competitive districts are less representative because, regardless of how the election goes, upwards of half the citizens in a district won’t actually be represented.
The Competitive Approach
This is the argument that competitive elections are healthy for the body politic and introduce more accountability because prospective representatives must put together coalitions to win elections, and keep those coalitions happy to get re-elected. This perspective argues that a district drawn to be competitive encourages compromise and keeps extreme elements from having an out-weighed say in representation since the election isn’t a shoo-in campaign after the primaries.
The Community Approach
This is the argument that the balance or imbalance of partisan concerns isn’t as important as keeping geopolitical communities together. Rather than getting representatives who represent an arbitrary district that fails to reflect where people live and who people interact with, this approach suggests that representatives should represent cohesive neighborhoods, communities, cities, and counties. This perspective argues that drawing districts this way would help create a more cohesive and healthy society. Under this approach representatives, arguably could be more linked to how the people have chosen to group themselves and where they live, and would engender a healthier sense of civic pride in the community.
The State Delegation Approach
This is the argument that representatives ultimately represent their state, rather than just communities, local concerns, or partisan interests. Districts, under this approach, are just means for choosing representatives and should be drawn to evenly balance different interests and lifestyles that exist in a state. Under this kind of districting, proponents would argue, a congressional delegation can properly represent the state as a whole (rural and urban balance, inner-city and suburb balance, coastal and interior balance, ethnic balances, religious balances, etc.)
Who Determines the Right and Wrong Way?
My honest estimation finds both merits and pitfalls to all of these approaches. In some situations, any of these approaches could lead to “true representation.” In other cases, any of these approaches could easily become gerrymandering.
This is why the issue of “gerrymandering” isn’t just some scientific consideration where we can definitively say what gerrymandering is and what it isn’t. It’s an ongoing discussion and debate, which is why it’s best left to state legislatures to draw up districts, however imperfect that process sometimes is. They, at least, answer to the people of the state who alone can truly determine which approach they feel best represents them and which approach is gerrymandering.
I personally prefer the competitive approach, with due consideration given to the community approach and the state delegation approach (I find the enclave approach too prone to electing loud and feckless hardliners like the MTGs and AOCs of the world). But that’s just my perspective, and it wouldn’t be wholly fair of me to call adherence to another approach or a different combination of approaches “gerrymandering.”
Now, yes, there is gerrymandering, and it’s a concerning reality in the American Republic. But given that there are so many different views over what good redistricting looks like and what we should denounce as gerrymandering, the best solution from where I’m sitting is to educate and empower the people to understand the process and the various approaches to the process. We should continue to allow legislatures to perform this fraught duty so that those making these all-important decisions are ultimately answerable to the people.