Political Redistricting Q&A with Tom Ross

Political Redistricting Q&A (4/24/16)

UNC system President Emeritus Thomas W. Ross joined the Sanford School on February 1, 2016 as the first Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow.  While in residence, Ross will work on a bipartisan project aimed at improving how political district lines are drawn in the United States.

We sat down with President Ross to ask him more about his plans.  Note: The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Describe the districting issue – what is the problem in a nutshell?
Well I think that what we’ve seen – in Washington and in many states – is gridlock in many legislatures because, with the advent of computers, we’ve gotten really good at redistricting. Both parties by the way. So they’ve tended to draw districts in a way that produced a lot of safe districts.  Now I think what happens is you end up getting people from the extremes of both parties winning elections and they come with strong ideological views and are unable to compromise. Democracy requires some level of compromise if it is to successfully address problems. So I think redistricting in a fairer, less partisan way would provide representation much more aligned with the views of people in America, would produce a better functioning democracy, and in time would reduce the gridlock and allow for more collaboration.

What has been done – if anything – to address this issue that you think is promising?
There are a number of states, California for example, that have looked at or already have enacted independent redistricting commissions. These independent commissions I think provide us some hope of providing a way of doing redistricting that does not result in quite the partisan outcome we see in many states. It tends to keep districts more compact so that they actually represent communities of interest, and they tend to produce more competitive districts, which again results in fewer extreme views being represented and, in my view, produces better outcomes.

What do you plan to do?
I think one of the big issues around independent redistricting commissions are how do you pick the commission and ensure that it has some independence because there are politics everywhere. I would like to examine different kinds of approaches that will give people some level of confidence in the independence of a commission itself.

And then the second big issue is what are the factors you going to consider – do you allow the consideration of partisan politics for example. Most states do allow, most legislatures do consider partisan politics when they’re doing redistricting, but you could imagine a system where that wasn’t permitted to be a factor. Instead the factors might be more focused on geography or “compactness” however you want to describe it.  I think the real key is to have districts that represent defined communities to the extent that you can. Because that’s where people’s common interests lie.

I want to look at those possibilities for independent commissions. But I think it goes beyond that approach to examining how one can move the discussion and the argument in favor of those kinds of solutions. So how do we take good examples of what we can find, how do we develop best practices, and then develop ideas about how you move them forward?

Who do you plan to involve?
Policymakers, broadly defined, but particularly those involved in legislatures around the country who are finding people who are supportive – in both parties – of moving in this direction. Getting their ideas about solutions but also involving them in discussions about this so they can help their colleagues understand why it’s so important.

What does success look like to you?
The outcome that people are looking for is more fairly drawn districts that are not based solely on partisan politics and that give the average voter a say in their government. That’s what I think is missing right now. I think people are frustrated in this state and in others where you have districts that bear no relationship to a community. Where people can sit across the street from one another and vote for different people running for Congress and different legislators and so forth. They don’t identify anymore with their politicians because of that.  The level of accountability by politicians is less I think and voter involvement is less, and I don’t think either of those is healthy.

A number of people I’ve talked to feel like they don’t have a voice any more, and that’s dangerous for our democracy to get to that point. And I don’t think it’s a partisan issue because both parties engage in partisan redistricting. I think if you could figure out a way to take some of that partisanship out of it you’d be successful.

Why now? Why is this a good time to be working on this? 
In the broadest sense I think you could say Democracy’s in trouble. It’s a time when we are increasingly seeing in these districts that are drawn so that they are really safe districts for one party, we’re beginning to see challenges within those districts, and those challenges are always from the extreme, and I don’t think that’s healthy. The average American, whether they’re a Democrat or Republican, have views that aren’t very far apart.  Seems to me what we’re doing is electing people on the outskirts of the highway here, and we need to get back in the middle of the road.  This will help in some ways do that.

But the other thing is that we’ve always had gerrymandering. It’s gone back for decades and centuries, but once we got computers we got a lot better at it.  And once we allowed county lines to be broken, once we allowed precinct lines to be broken – the scientific methodology will get you down to the household almost – it has become at a far different level than it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. We’ve really gotten too good at it, so for me the time is right to figure out a different way.

Why Duke?
I think Duke is in a terrific position to tackle this issue because first of all the Sanford School is very well known nationally as top school of public policy. And I think people look to it to have solutions, and places like this can take a step back and look at alternatives, see what could work, give thought to how to develop potential solutions, and also involve all sorts of people that can provide advice and input. Duke’s not an advocacy organization and can’t be out advocating for change necessarily but I think it could provide some alternative methods for how you pick a commission – best practices or templates for example.

Another role Duke can play is in convening people who are interested in this issue, whether its academics working on this issue, advocates who support or oppose this issue, legislators, and others who are interested in good government. You could imagine bringing together foundations and others that have resources that might be interested in supporting those who want to make change. I know it’s being worked on in a lot of places, but I don’t think there’s as much effort as is needed to try to bring people together to share ideas and I think that’s something Duke can do.

Final, serious question: How many ties have you bought in a new shade of blue?
I have a variety of ties. I have not bought any new ones. I’ve got some yellow ones, I’ve got some red ones, from my Davidson days. And yes, various shades of blue, including dark.

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