You know what? Gerrymandering is real and has real consequences, but I suspect that despite that most news outlets would be better off just ignoring it. People love to blame everything on gerrymandering, and (although again it is real and has real consequences) it's just not that big a deal.
Which gets to the NYT Sunday Review piece by Sam Wang, which examines the strange results of the 2012 House elections -- Republicans retained a very solid majority of seats despite Democrats winning more votes -- and more or less attributes it all to gerrymandering.
I suspect my real complaint here is with the New York Times even more than Wang, but this just won't do. Since the election, we've had a steady stream of pieces by political scientists showing that neither the 2012 gerrymander nor gerrymanders in general are responsible for the bulk of the 2012 results. Instead, it's mostly about the "natural" effects of districting. Basically, over time Democrats have come to live in more and more compact areas. It's not true what you sometimes might read that districting can't overturn the effects of where people live, but it is true that to do so districting would have to violate other things that people care about, things such as other political boundaries and communities of interest. As John Sides sums it up, "Across a very wide range of counterfactual scenarios, the geographic concentration of Democrats will produce votes-seats discrepancies without deliberate partisan gerrymandering."
What really annoyed me about Wang's case against gerrymandering is that he makes a point of bashing "ugly" districts -- you know, the ones that have odd shapes, such as the one that gave gerrymanders their name in the first place. The piece is illustrated with some of them. What's wrong with that? If districts are going to be "fair" to Democrats (that is, get the same ratio of seats as votes), then because of where Democrats and Republicans live it's precisely the value of having "pretty" (compact, regular-shaped) districts that's going to be violated. Under current conditions, compact, regular districts strongly tend to favor Republicans. One can argue for them anyway, but anyone who cares more about partisan "fairness" shouldn't also be playing up the importance of "pretty" districts. Well, to my tastes no one should care about compactness; there's simply no reason, in my view, to care about the shape of districts, all else equal. But at the very least, anyone complaining about ugly districts should know the very predictable effects of compactness.
Which gets to a larger point about Wang's piece. He says that "[g]errymandering is not hard." On a technical level, it's true that drawing lines to achieve a specific goal is a lot easier than it was thirty or even ten years ago (although it's worth pointing out this mainly applies to immediate effects; population shifts and political changes over ten years can be large and unpredictable, so we don't really know how the lines drawn for 2012 will affect the 2018 and 2020 elections).
But it's still true that gerrymandering is difficult because there are so many competing, and contradictory, goals in redistricting. The best explanation of this I've seen is in Bruce Cain's The Reapportionment Puzzle. In particular, in addition to what I mentioned above, are the natural enemies of redistricting: parties who want the most efficient use of their votes in order to maximize seats, and politicians from those parties who want the largest possible majorities, even if it "wastes" votes for the party. But beyond that, there are simply a lot of competing goals, and it's rare for state legislators to be able to ignore them and focus only on a simple partisan goal.
But back to the 2012 redistricting: there's plenty of information out there about this, and the Times should do better.