Can independent electoral commissions save American democracy from its gridlocked legislature? Based on its international implementation, no! Independent electoral commissions in this post will be defined as groups removed from the partisan process (typically state legislatures), that define the districts for a sub-national or national area. Electoral stagnation has been attributed to partisan gerrymandering; this has led to an increased desire in the United States to establish statewide independent electoral commissions. This has been exemplified by an incumbent win rate of 91% in 2018. I will examine how different methods have biased results in the United States alongside international examples of India and the United Kingdom.
Nancy Bermeo cites strategic election manipulation as one of the new potent forms of democratic backsliding. The partisan process of redrawing congressional districts every ten years has been commonplace throughout American history. The redistricting following the 2010 Census was marked by Republicans creating precision maps designed to ensure continued dominance of the House of Representatives. Bermeo specifically calls out this practice as benefitting incumbent candidates and particular parties. Due to this, the past decade has been defined by lawsuits and initiatives to remove the partisan process from districting. The question this raises is: do differing methods of redistricting produce better representation?
In the United States the answer appears to be a resounding no. Looking at three states with different methods of districting reveals little variation among “wasted votes” and the average size of victory across all districts. Wasted votes in this post will be used for individuals who voted for a losing candidate in a district. Three states with different election methods were selected for examination. Pennsylvania districts were redrawn by the state supreme court prior to the 2018 Midterm Election. Washington uses an independent commission and Ohio relies on the most common partisan gerrymandering.
The emerging debate in the United States has been what makes independent commissions better than the traditional system. Debates have revolved around the current level of gerrymandering that arose from the 2010 Redistricting. Currently, seven states have independent redistricting commissions, the rest to some degree have a level of partisan participation in redistricting. This partisan redistricting has fed into non-competitive elections and incumbent reinforcement. Both are indicators of democratic erosion. By adopting independent commissions the goal is to combat the extreme partisanship present in current legislative elections.
At the international level there are diverse methods in winner-take-all districts to determine districting. Outside of the United States, independent commissions are commonplace. India uses a nationwide districting committee known as the Delimitation Commission. The United Kingdom has four independent commissions representing each of the main geographic bodies of the country: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Both regions present differing methods from each other and the United States. They are more centralized and show the effects of districting from the capital and regional governments. The United Kingdom is closer to the United States in method of districting but is uniform across all four regions compared to the fifty possible methods that could theoretically exist in the United States.
The following table reveals the results of wasted votes and margin of victory for the American and international samples:
|Area||Type of Districting||Wasted Votes||Average Margin of Victory|
|Washington||Independent Commission||1,500,000 (37%)||26.7%|
|Pennsylvania||State Supreme Court||2,500,000 (36%)||27.7%|
|Ohio||State Legislature||2,100,000 (42%)||25.8%|
|United Kingdom||Regional Commissions|
|Northern Ireland||—-||550,000 (69.4%)||7.8%|
*averages are not scaled based on proportion of vote
The table reveals that regardless of districting style there is an average high number of wasted votes and margin of victory. This implies that the issue is not the style through which districts are drawn but rather a reliance on districts. If we focus solely on the number of wasted votes in relation to the percentage of votes wasted, it brings up the question how representative should a democracy be? One argument would be that having majority or plurality support in a district is enough to determine representation. This argument should be rejected based on the basis that if democracy is meant to truly serve the people having over one-third to seventy percent of voters ignored does not represent a government by the people. Most alarming for this trend should be whether these systems are reinforcing themselves, if wasted votes are the same across time in a similar space. If so, this further highlights an overall failing of districting.
Equally alarming is the margin of victory. There are some hopeful trends in there witnessed by Wales and Northern Ireland, this is more due to operationalization of the variable. It only accounts for the difference between the party in first and second place. Due to this it has the largest number of wasted votes versus total votes. This difference highlights how third parties are largely closed out of the system even in a multi-party system. Countries like India and the United Kingdom are multi-party states, but these results indicate that districting could be closing better representation out. Districting could also highlight the failure of third parties to break through in the United States. Margin of victory appears more promising than wasted votes, but ultimately reveals that there is a failure of true representation being perpetuated by all forms of districting.
We see from this system that there is a breakdown in the basic governing principle of democracy. Whether examining either Schmitter and Karl or Dahl, districting fails to uphold their most basic belief in democracy. Schmitter and Karl define democracy as rulers being held accountable for their actions through elected representatives. The failure to reign in Trump or Modi has highlighted how these partisan districts fail to produce accountability from voters to the elected representatives. For Dahl, with his stronger definition of democracy the failures are more apparent. In his third level of analysis of criteria for democracy, two institutional guarantees are openly violated: the right of political leaders to compete for votes and the right to free and fair elections. In addition, two more can be considered partially violated the freedom of expression and right to vote. These staples of democracy are disregarded in drawing districts where votes are wasted and incumbents have no serious competition. Across all three cases we see this not to be a rare occurrence that emerges unavoidably due to demographics, but as the standard for districting.
paper takes a cursory examination of how different forms of districting have
failed to deliver equitable representation results. Not all variables were
considered for purpose of this paper. Parliamentary versus presidential system
was not taken into consideration, nor was the United Kingdom as a unitary state
versus the other two being federalist. The number of parties was also not
considered as a large part of the research. The United States suffers from a
binary choice for federal legislative elections, this stands in contrast to the
multi-party system in the other states. This research provides many
opportunities for future research into the effects wasted votes and districting
have on democratic erosion.
commissions are often cited as a quick fix in the United States for centuries
of partisan gerrymandering. Using India and the United Kingdom, it has been
shown that independent commissions do not produce more fair elections. They are
unable to stop the strategic electoral manipulation as Bermeo cites in her
paper. This provides a question for further research: is the problem not how
districts are drawn but rather districting in general. The small amount of
research presented in this paper suggests that districting is a problem
regardless of method. A further warning stems from the increased polarization
of these three states, as this continues the problems presented by all forms of
districting will be exacerbated
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5–19. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012 For.
 Ibid, 13.
 Schmitter, Philippe C, and Terry Lynn Karl. “What Democracy Is. . . and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2, no. 3 (1991): 75-88. doi:10.1353/jod.1991.0033.
 Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy Participation and Opposition. New Haven, Conn: Yale Univ. Pr, 1973.
 Ibid, 3.
I thoroughly enjoyed your examination of districting as a whole in the United States and how it affects democracy. While I had previously not put much thought into the abolition of districting as a solution to gerrymandering, your cursory look into how it affects elections in the United States, the United Kingdom and India most certainly has pushed it forward in my mind. There can be no doubt that gerrymandering and partisan districting has been a blight on American democracy, as the process has turned once competitive states and elections into sure things for many of the incumbents, as exemplified by the statistic you bring up showing 91 percent of incumbents being reelected in 2018. Gerrymandering also brings forward a racial component, where communities historically underrepresented or suppressed are now even more underrepresented with almost no hope of achieving proper representation. The question is though, how does one govern in the United States if districting is completely removed from the table? I am well aware of the defeatism present in the statement “its entrenched in the system” but in my mind, there are no easy of clean options when it comes to ripping the whole thing up and attempting to replace it with something new. It also goes without saying that the GOP would do everything in their power to prevent any and all attempts at creating a fair and free system, after all, they benefit from gerrymandering immensely, and in many cases it is the only reason they can run successful elections. So, while I do agree with your assessment that districting is becoming increasingly problematic, it remains to be seen what exactly we can do about it.