To put it mildly, the latest round of redistricting has not been the most edifying experience. Over the past year, politicians have assembled throughout the country to carve districts that are equal in population, but that otherwise serve their own interests rather than the public’s. Protracted litigation has determined, on a case-by-case basis, which districts will be represented by minority groups. And the courts have been intimately involved not just with minority representation but also with every other aspect of the process. Already, in the current cycle, more than 150 lawsuits have been filed. Americans have gotten used to this baroque struggle, but it’s worth remembering that most foreign observers consider it bizarre, even pathological. Compared to other countries with similar electoral systems, the American model of redistricting is an extreme outlier. And not only is the U.S. model different from its peers, it is also inferior. When it comes to elections, it’s clear that American exceptionalism is a vice, not a virtue.
District design raises three key questions, each of which America answers differently from almost every other Western democracy. The first is which institutions should have authority over the line-drawing process. Though there are exceptions, the typical position in the United States is that state politicians should hold this power, and that their decisions then should be reviewed carefully by the courts. Abroad, in contrast, districts are usually crafted by independent commissions staffed with geographers, political scientists, and the like. The political branches either have no role at all, or merely rubber-stamp the commissions’ output. And the courts rarely tackle redistricting issues—and never as aggressively as in America. (The only country that even approaches the U.S. model is France.)