Gerrymandering gone wild: What’s the fix?
Imagine if the prize for winning the Super Bowl was not a trophy or championship ring, but the ability to rewrite the NFL’s rulebook for the following season. How would this year’s winner, the Los Angeles Rams, craft the new rules to give itself an advantage? Maybe it would start by automatically awarding 6 points to the home team at SoFi Stadium. Or maybe it would ban sacking any quarterback named Stafford.
While winning sports teams can’t rewrite the rules of the game, winning political parties can tilt the system to work in their favor. Every 10 years, after the U.S. Census, the party with a majority of seats in most state legislatures gets to draw up maps for congressional districts. With some decent computers and the right software, lawmakers can creatively sculpt these districts so that their political party ends up with a powerful, enduring advantage. The process can turn congressional districts into “safe” seats for politicians who may support legislation that’s unpopular with most of their constituents. It creates a system in which garnering the approval of a majority of voters matters less for reelection.
For Econ Extra Credit this month, we are watching the film “Slay the Dragon,” which is about gerrymandering gone wild and efforts to bring fairness back to a process that has been linked to political extremism and bitter polarization.
In the film, voters advocated for a Michigan ballot initiative that would create an independent commission as an alternative to partisan gerrymandering. Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Utah have also chosen to remove politicians from the redistricting process.
But there are other antidotes. One of those remedies has a name only a policy nerd would love: “ranked choice.” Unlike the traditional plurality system — one round, the candidate with the most votes wins — this alternative voting system seeks to lower the chances that unpopular candidates get elected by asking voters to pick their candidates in order of preference … first choice, second choice, third choice. On election night, if no candidate wins 50% or more, the system triggers instant runoffs by eliminating the trailing candidate. Voters whose first-choice candidate was culled from the pack have their vote assigned to their second choice. When one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the process stops and the winner is declared. Maine and Alaska are now trying this statewide. A total of 43 jurisdictions in the U.S. used a version of this in their most recent elections.
Brendan Sullivan, a professor at Emmanuel College in Boston, wrote a nice blog on the math behind ranked choice voting. Among his examples, a group of nine hungry students try to decide what food to order: pizza, Thai or Indian. Under the normal voting system, the food with the most votes wins. If the vote comes in pizza: 2, Indian: 3, Thai 4, it’s Thai food for everyone. That is true even though only 4 out of 9 people, or just 44.4% of the group, wanted Thai. But if ordering were based on ranked choice, then the lowest-ranking choice, pizza, would be eliminated and the pizza folks’ second choices would be added to the Thai and Indian votes. This helps ensure that most people end up eating something that is their first or second choice.
Some critics say ranked choice adds cost — though it could also save money by eliminating the need for runoff elections. Other critics argue that it is too complicated for voters, a view regarded by supporters of the system as insulting to voters’ intelligence. The Wall Street Journal has published several op-ed pieces critical of ranked choice, suggesting, among other things, that it only helps liberals. On the other hand, The Economist magazine has argued in favor, calling ranked choice “ A simple reform [that] might fix America’s dysfunctional politics.”
All I know is if someone asks what kind of ice cream they should bring back and I give them three ranked options (I like Deer Traxx most, but I’d live with Muddy Boots or butter pecan), this radically lowers the chances they’ll show up with something vile, like a cotton candy-flavored dessert, which would be a tragedy for both me and our democracy.
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