In an about-face last week, with a newly elected Republican majority, the North Carolina Supreme Court cleared the way for the Republican-controlled state legislature to further gerrymander its state and congressional districts, reversing a recent ruling. New maps will likely transfer four more House seats to Republicans (for a total of 11 of 14), despite the state’s nearly even partisan leaning.
That such court decisions today can effectively decide party control of our national and state legislatures is a feature of American politics. It is also, comparatively, rare elsewhere in the world.
Among other democracies, legal challenges to redistricting are more limited and many use independent bodies to draw district lines. But neither fully explain why the U.S. remains saddled with an endemic gerrymandering problem. That’s because the problem is more fundamental. In most democracies, gerrymandering is simply too difficult.
If the U.S. wished to rid itself of the practice—and obviate the need for courts to regularly act as referees—it would do well to take a page from our democratic peers.
As we examine in a recent report, gerrymandering is made possible by the use of single-member districts, used for the U.S. House and most state races in which voters elect a single official to represent them. Most democracies instead use proportional multi-member districts, in which multiple officials are elected in each legislative district proportionate to votes cast. Single-member districts are uniquely susceptible to gerrymandering; proportional multi-member districts make the practice prohibitively hard.
That other countries have managed to side-step these high-stakes battles is a function less of how district lines are drawn and more so of how many representatives those districts elect.
A 2016 survey of 54 democracies found that “[n]ot all electoral systems are equally prone to gerrymandering.” Instead, “[t]he problem is inherent in the system of one-seat districts, while it is less serious in [proportional] multimember districts.” The more seats per district, the more difficult it is to draw clever lines that make some safe. Political scientists find that districts with at least five seats are functionally immune from gerrymandering.
Evidence from the U.S. is also supportive. Illinois, which used a semi-proportional system for its state House elections for over a century—in which voters elected three representatives per district in rough proportion to votes—virtually eliminated gerrymandering. When its House reverted to single-seat districts in the 1980s, gerrymandering returned and competitive districts largely dried-up.
Some current solutions to the gerrymandering problem do help. The four states that use independent commissions, for instance, have mostly brought partisan gerrymandering to heel. But the solutions are imperfect. For example, elections in those states are generally not more competitive: safe districts remain pervasive. California, for instance, which has mostly eliminated partisan gerrymandering, features only a handful of competitive districts (out of 52), and still delivers substantially more seats to Democrats than their statewide popular vote gives them due. As more partisans sort themselves geographically, with red voters in more rural areas and blue ones in more urban ones, single-member districts inevitably generate more safe districts. The underlying problem—unfairly advantaging one party over another—persists. “Unintentional gerrymandering,” as some political scientists call it.
As long as the U.S. retains single-member districting, gerrymandering, intentional or not, is here to stay.
Structurally eliminating gerrymandering by replacing single-member House districts with proportional multi-member ones requires no constitutional amendment—only regular lawmaking. In 1967, Congress passed the Uniform Congressional District Act (UCDA), federally mandating the use of single-member districts for House elections—and for good reason, given that certain states at the time were contemplating the use of bloc voting, an even less representative system. But as most of the world’s democracies transitioned to more proportional systems, the U.S. locked itself in the single-seat model.
Amending the UCDA such that districts each send multiple members to the House, elected in proportion to their support, would bring seats in line with votes. Consider that today, the Connecticut congressional delegation is entirely Democratic, despite Republicans constituting over a third of its electorate. Likewise, the Arkansas delegation is entirely Republican, despite Democrats constituting over a third of its electorate. Under proportional rules, Republicans in Connecticut would likely secure one or two of its five seats, and Democrats likely one of Arkansas’ four. Each state’s delegation would more closely reflect the preferences of the electorate.
On the cusp of the 2024 election season, just 9 percent of House seats are considered competitive. Partisan outcomes in places like North Carolina will mostly be a foregone conclusion, with who wins decided in low-turnout primaries. (In 2022, fewer than one in five voters participated in North Carolina’s.) As gerrymandering persists—both in its blatant and “unintentional” forms—more seats become safe, fewer voters determine electoral outcomes, and more citizens justifiably sour on democracy itself. We may have the courts to thank, in part. But blaming judges alone misses the heart of the matter.
The Framers envisioned a House that reflected the electorate—“an exact portrait of the people”—with some even articulating a principle of proportionality. But at the time, in practice, proportional systems did not yet exist. Anticipating that methods of representation would evolve, the Framers constitutionally left the matter to the states and future congresses, encouraging experimentation. With no end in sight, the gerrymandering battles should implore us to take-up their invitation.