In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a review of a lower-court decision against the state of Wisconsin, which would have required the state to redistrict before the next election. The court agreed in December to join a case from Maryland, Benisek vs. Lamone, which raised the same issues; though, interestingly, while Wisconsin's redistricting case alleges gerrymandering by Republicans, the Maryland case posits gerrymanders by Democrats. In the interim, the Supreme Court also has stayed a lower-court decision that would have required North Carolina to redistrict in a matter of weeks.
There can be no question that some districts, in these instances specifically related to U.S. House elections, bear no relation to common interests or geographic and political boundaries and are visible contortions of no recognizable geometric shape to achieve a predictable electoral result. In creating these districts, the parties, typically controlled by their respective most extreme constituencies, further polarize the Congress with disastrous results.
However, in a commentary by FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie in the Jan. 29 News Tribune ("Is social media polarizing us?"), a truly radical and revolutionary remedy was proposed as a solution under a guise of seeming reasonableness.
Richie first twisted historical facts to underlie his contention that voting rules cause our problems, specifically citing the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860. His proposition was that polarized politics led to the Civil War. But it was not voting rules that led to this result; it was the election for the first time of a specifically regional candidate, pledged to limit any increase in states that allowed slavery and who received little if any support in 13 states, not eight as stated.
No voting system could have prevented this because the divisions already had broken apart nearly every national institution, religious as well as political, virtually eliminating any common national identity. That war resulted was a choice made by Lincoln and left a different nation as a result, with force of arms substituting for a voluntary association of states.
Richie's viewpoint included that, "What's really dividing us is winner-take-all binary politics." His solution was ranked-choice voting, which recently was overwhelmingly rejected by Duluth voters. Among many practical problems with it is that with an already low voter turnout, the proposal asks voters to make even more choices when voting, probably discouraging more voters from voting at all.
Conjoined with ranked-choice voting is a system of proportional representation with even larger districts to avoid enlarging membership in the Congress. With districts already so large that the supposedly popular branch of government is ever more remote from its constituents, this would make elected officials not more representative but less, as they are chosen from unwieldy districts with no common economic, historic, or demographic homogeneity. And electing more than one candidate per district, as proposed, would balkanize our politics even further by encouraging minority political groups to gain even more influence and result in multi-party systems, as in Europe, where governments are not infrequently unstable patchwork coalitions of parties, often one-issue groups that create even more instability and polarization.
Some states, notably Iowa, have come up with commissions, distinctly nonpartisan, which are forbidden to consider voting patterns or incumbencies but look to equal representation by numbers and achieve districts of recognizable, contiguous shapes. Similar ideas have been advanced in Arizona, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Hopefully the Supreme Court will allow the states, our laboratories of democracy, to pursue their own solutions rather than again imposing the will of an unelected branch of government.
Whatever the solution, it will be less radical and revolutionary than Richie's perilous suggestion.
In the meantime, it is not voting rules that divide us. To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the enemy and it's us."
J. Craig Scherf of Duluth researches and writes regularly for the publications of historical societies and is secretary of the Friends of the Superior Public Library.