In the future, more challenges to the redistricting methods are likely to come from states without a referendum or initiative process, because there is no mechanism to easily force the issue onto the legislature. But that still leaves the question for the courts to decide, that is what is the proper set of criteria to be used in redistricting. The problem is that consensus on proper criteria may be difficult and it may come down to an engineer's triangle solution, and an answer that only the state legislature may decide because the courts cannot.
An engineer's triangle is concept explained to me by an engineer friend. Generally engineers are often presented with the main issues to satisfy, better, faster and cheaper. The rule is you can only choose two. In reality, of course, an engineer is looking for a midpoint to all the competing interests, but when push comes to shove, sometimes you can only have two. Thus, if you want it better and faster, you can't have it cheaper too.
In redistricting, the main concepts boil down to four "c's", that is:
- Continguous--the concept that all parts of the district must be connected together, and barring an actual physical island, you cannot have parts of districts isolated from each other.
- Compact--this is the idea that you want to have the requisite number of people in the smallest amount of geographic space possible.
- Community based--this is a tricky one, because community can be actual housing communities, towns and neighborhoods or what is often referred to as communities of interest, i.e. racial groups, or rural voters vs. Suburban vs. Urban voters.
- Competitive--Districts drawn so that no one political party has such a competitive edge that the only real election of consequence is the dominant party's primary.
There may be other criteria that a state might consider, such as political subdivisions like counties ought to be considered together, but those are simply one of these four C's with another label.
I believe that all districts must be contiguous, otherwise, you may end up with an electoral map that has nothing to do with reality in any sense of the word. So all districts drawn must be continuous. This criteria also has the benefit of being easily enforced by court directive. Any district with isolated pockets, again absent an actual island, would be invalid and sent back.
Taking contiguity out of the equation, you are left with an engineer's triangle of compact, community-based and competitive. You are going to choose any two.
Let's assume that we want to have competitive districts that are compact. Keeping in mind that we are seeking to have districts that are also contiguous. The result may very well be that you have a spoke-like effect around major cities, with districts that include both significant Republican enclaves of the suburbs and exurbs, even rural areas, combined with urban minority and racial minority groups. The result is a district with nothing in common between major blocks of voters. Such a district will compromise the ability of the electorate to come to a consensus on a candidate and compromise the elected officials ability to effectively represent the district. But you will undoubtedly have a competitive district.
But what if you choose to have competitive districts that keep communities of interest together. You will no doubt get districts with great blobs of population connected by narrow tendrils of voters. You will also bet districts that may span hundreds of miles in length in larger states.
Finally, if you want districts that are compact and keep communities of interest together you get districts that are not competitive. Because of the human inclination to seek out those who are like ourselves, people of similar interests and outlooks tend to congregate together. You get communities that are so lopsidedly partisan that to get a competitive district with these two criteria is almost impossible.
Notice that I have said nothing about party or race or any other demographic information unrelated to communities. Therein lies the rub. Redistricting is a partisan activity, controlled by the party in power. Traditionally, these are questions that courts often leave to the political branches, the political question doctrine. But with the vicious skew of most Congressional and state legislative districts, the redistricting process is beginning to affect the ability of people to elect a person of their choice.
That last phrase is important since courts have used that phrase when dealing with racial gerrymandering. While discrimination against voters because of their race is clearly unconstitutional (the whole purpose behind the 15th amendment), is it likewise unconstitutional to deprive voters of their power to elect a person of their choice based on partisan affiliation? What happens when a district is so overwhelmingly partisan that the only election of consequences is the majority party primary and the primary is open only to registered voters of that district? In effect you have eliminated the ability of members of the minority party to vote at all.
I don't know what prompted the Supreme Court to take up this case again. But these questions are important, perhaps more important than any faced by our government. If we are to make our government work and be responsive to our needs, we must find a way to make them accountable and it starts with the manner in which districting is done.