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Gerrymandering Needs to Go

In addition to the need for a non-partisan federal agency to run and control our elections, here’s another change that needs to be made: Elected officials should not be in charge of drawing new congressional districts every ten years. Both parties use that power, when they’re in charge, to draw bizarre districts that make little sense in order to create safe seats. Here’s a perfect example. This is the 4th Congressional district in Illinois:

John Nelson, whose company has a software program that helps identify gerrymandered districts, shows a whole bunch of these, drawn by both parties in order to create safe districts for themselves. Political partisans should not have this power. If you give elected officials the ability to protect themselves and their parties, they’re going to do it. So you shouldn’t give them that ability. Congressional districts should be drawn by the Census Bureau based on objective criteria. Yes, there will inevitably be some judgment calls to be made — but those calls should not be made by those with a stake in the outcome.

Comments

  1. says

    Both sides do this. And I hate it.

    I am currently in a safe Republican district, and I feel that I have no vote.

    A while ago, I was in a safe Democratic district, and I felt that I had no vote.

    The reps from these safe districts don’t have to pay much attention to the interests of the electorate.

  2. Michael Heath says

    Neil Rickert writes:

    Both sides do this. And I hate it.

    True but it’s the Republican party that enjoys an enormous advantage over the Democrats. So “both sides do it”, full stop, misinforms readers. In fact Republicans enjoy a vastly disproportione vote over non-Republicans when it comes to how we elect Representatives to the House and Senators though the latter is due to a different factor.

    I violated my own principals on favoring process over singular policy when I voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger for Gov. which he won by a separate vote on recalling Gray Davis. Gov. Davis in no way deserved to be up for a recall. While I didn’t vote to recall Davis, I did vote for Schwarzenegger.

    My motivation was because Mr. Schwarzenegger was running, and committed, to changing some fundamental processes on how the state governed itself, including his hope of eradicating gerrymandering. By the time I moved from the state in Nov.-03, he was unsuccessful in spite of working hard on this issue. Perhaps he succeeded after that date.

  3. cptdoom says

    Or they could get rid of districts altogether. As I understand it, the Constitution sets up the population-based proportional representation in the House, but how those representatives are chosen is up to the state. States could simply have the entire population vote for the entire slate of Reps, as they do Senators. Like with other local elections, voters would have X number of choices (X being the number of representative slots) and the top X vote-getters are the Congressional Delegation.

  4. Chiroptera says

    cptdoom, #3: States could simply have the entire population vote for the entire slate of Reps, as they do Senators.

    Until the Originalist Scalia once again reads the minds of people dead for over 200 years and decides that multi-person districts violates our traditional ceremonial deism.

  5. Jordan Genso says

    I was the county party chair last year during the reapportionment process, so I was one of five members of the committee that would redraw the district for the county commission. We were provided objective guidelines*, so I created two maps that best met those guidelines, thinking that the other four members would follow the rules. I don’t know how I could be so naive. The Republican chair submitted a map that was clearly designed to minimize the Democrats’ chances of being elected, and while there was not one objective measure for which their map was superior to mine, all four of the Republicans (the chair, the county clerk, the county treasurer, and the county prosecutor) voted for the Republican map.

    Not that people care to see it, but we did record the meeting when the Republicans pushed through their map, and so I’ll link to it later.

    *There was some subjectivity to those guidelines, based on how you define some of the terms, such as a “break” in a township, or how to compare the population variances. That’s why I submitted two maps, since one was without question the optimal map based on one definition of “break”, while the other was the optimal map based on the other definition of “break” (and also the optimal map no matter what population divergence goal you set).

  6. says

    I don’t think an elections committee or agency would be able to work free of political pressure, unless the incentives to do gerrymandering are removed. A switch to a proportional representation system (or possibly a hybrid system as cptdoom suggested in #3) would be one way of doing it. Of course, like Chiroptera in #4 says, that is never going to happen in a country where divining “What The Founders Would Have Wanted” is considered more important than deciding what could actually work.

  7. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I don’t think an elections committee or agency would be able to work free of political pressure – Deen

    They somehow manage that in other countries – even those without PR.

  8. bobaho says

    @Didaktylos #5
    Election of two Senators from same state occurs when one is elevated to another office. When Pete Wilson (R-CA) won governor’s office, Seymour was appointed to serve until next election. With Alan Cranston’s retirement, two senators were up for election, one for a short term of 2 years (until next election) and one for a regular term (6 yrs). Boxer and Feinstein
    won the seats respectively.

  9. says

    Washington State amended its constitution in 1983 to become the third state to redistrict by special commission…. after the federal courts got involved because things here were that bad, it should be noted.

    Since the 1990 census, the two largest parties in both the state House and Senate each appoint a single non office-holder to the Redistricting Commission during the xxx0 session. These four then select a fifth non office-holder to serve as the non-voting chair of the commission. The commission first meets when the Census Bureau releases their numbers for Washington. Each commissioner has until the end of xxx1 to create maps for legislative and congressional districts that meet these requirements:

    * The most populous and least populous district may not differ in population by more than 1%

    * Each district must be contiguous and must be as compact as possible (no “this block here and those blocks over there” districts, and no “outskirts only” districts)

    * The boundaries must be streets or immoveable geographic features such as streams, lake fronts or coastline (no splitting blocks)

    This year, the commission invited the public to make and submit their own maps; whether this was an education/PR move or the suggestions were actually used, I don’t know. In any case, the commission selects one of the four legislative maps and one of the congressional maps, and submits them to the Legislature by the start of the xxx2 session. The Legislature rubberstamps the proposals and the new districts go into effect for the xxx2 election. If the commission does not fulfil its mandate in time, or if the Legislature fails to approve the plan, the whole matter gets tossed to the state Supreme Court who will issue the redistricting plan by judicial fiat. At no point does the Legislature itself get to make any boundary decisions.

    Minimal politicking, and neither of the major parties has an advantage. The commission is constitution ONLY in census years and exists for only 2 years, so no redistricting except as a result of the decennial census. The rules make gerrymandering very difficult.

    I think this could be a model for other states.

  10. Jordan Genso says

    So here is a video of what happens during the redistricting process. This is only at the county level, but it demonstrates what’s wrong with the state level as well- you don’t have to justify your vote based on the guidelines, and so you can vote for a map designed for partisan purposes (even though the guidelines state that you can’t pick a map based on partisan purposes, the guidelines are ignored).

    http://youtu.be/Bi9v2Bs3v4g
    (I’m the bearded one in the middle)

    And just to put this out there, even though I was chair of the Democratic Party, the maps I drew were not designed to benefit our candidates. Granted, by definition, an objective map will be better for the Democrats than one drawn to maximize the Republicans’ benefit, but I could have created maps that were much more geared toward helping my party. But I wanted to show that not everyone involved in the process needs to be partisan, and as I said, I was naive enough to think that the other members of the committee would go along with that.

  11. eamick says

    @#3 – are there any states where both senators come up for re-election simultaneously?

    Senate rules forbid both senators of a state from being in the same class. As has already been pointed out, both seats can be up for election simultaneously in the event of death or retirement, but that’s not re-election.

  12. eamick says

    I thought there were SCOTUS precedents requiring compact and contiguous districts. How does that qualify as either?

  13. dingojack says

    Jordan Genso (#11) – Kudos on your self control.
    I think after about 3:30 or so I would have started swingng my arms wildly and yelling ‘I’m gonna move my arms like this, it’s not my fault if you’re in the way…’.
    :) Dingo

  14. kimmer says

    tbrandt – If Prop 40 had lost we would have gone back to the “old ways”, but the opposition gave up trying and it passed. I’ve been in the same house for 23 years, and our district has been quite creative. For some reason, our pocket of Anaheim was in the same “district” as Newport Beach, and our “elected representative” Chris Cox pandered to the wealthy in Newport rather than the middle and working class here.

  15. says

    California’s districts were created by a bipartisan (tripartisan? — members were Democrats, Republicans, and independents) citizens commission and not by the state legislature. Much of the complexity of the 23rd district derives from its alignment with the coast. The people of the 23rd have a great deal in common, all living on or in close proximity to California’s south-central Pacific coast. Although it crosses several county boundaries, the 23rd is based on a solid rationale for a community of mutual interest. It doesn’t make a particularly good example of gerrymandering.

  16. iknklast says

    Iowa ended partisan districting a long time ago. So if we were to end it, no one could claim it was a liberal coastal conspiracy. We could point to an honest, hard working, wholesome midwestern state as our model. (sarcasm)

  17. caseloweraz says

    That map makes me think that the 4th Congressional District is somehow leaking around the “ledge” and pooling downstate.

  18. says

    Nick Gotts (formerly KG) “They somehow manage that in other countries – even those without PR.”
    You’re forgetting American Exceptionalism™.

    Jordan Genso “So here is a video of what happens during the redistricting process.”
    I don’t know if this makes you feels any better, but Youtube says this is a related video.

  19. cottonnero says

    That’s the Earmuff District!

    The two major parts of the district are heavily Hispanic areas of Chicago, and the ‘headband’ connecting the two includes a stretch of highway. (No one lives on the highway, I hope.)

    Insofar as there is a justification, it’s either to get a Hispanic member of Congress, or to pack as many Democrats in one place so as to leave Republicans available to marginally win all the other districts in the state.

  20. says

    As I said in the Frum thread, I personally think that we should remove humans entirely from districting. Write a computer program, enter a population map of the state. The program lays rigid grid pattern, then starts adjsuting the size of the squares based on population density until each square has the same number of people in it. Bam, done.

  21. Jordan Genso says

    As I said in the Frum thread, I personally think that we should remove humans entirely from districting. Write a computer program, enter a population map of the state. The program lays rigid grid pattern, then starts adjsuting the size of the squares based on population density until each square has the same number of people in it. Bam, done.

    You’re half right in my opinion. When I was drawing my maps, I saw that it could very easily be handled by a computer.

    There is a point though when human decision-making does come into play though, and that is because redistricting has two main goals:

    1) Keep as many local units “whole” as possible (meaning the entire unit, be it a township/city/county, is completely in one district).

    2) Have a similar number of people in each district.

    Now there will always be the ability to split more units to get the populations more equal, and so it becomes a trade-off as to how many units to split. There is a role for a committee to make that decision.

    But what the computer could do is create the optimal map based on each given number of splits, and then let the committee decide from each of those.

    You could argue in favor of eliminating that first goal I mentioned, and that would eliminate the need for humans, but I would argue against eliminating that goal, as I do see a significant value in making sure that everyone in the same township has the same representative.

  22. jnorris says

    This is one area where I support outsourcing to another country. There are experts overseas with no stake in the outcome of any USA election who can draw these districts.

  23. laurentweppe says

    Both parties use that power, when they’re in charge, to draw bizarre districts that make little sense in order to create safe seats

    With a big caveat: the Democrats do it less often, and the recent results shows that they suck at cheating.

    Let’s look at the state where democrats were in charge of redistricting:
    In Rhode Island: the two house democrats beat the republicans by 10 and 20 points in the popular vote: with such an advantage, it’s logical that the state’s only two seats ended up democratic.
    In Massachusetts, every single county voted majoritarily for Obama, and the house democrats beat the republicans by nearly 35 points. No matter how they drew the districts border, winning every seats in the state was pretty much a given
    In Maryland, the Republicans were beaten by the democrats by 24 ponts. Uninominal elections tend to give the winning coalition a bigger majority in seats, regardless of whatever weird shapes are given to the districts.
    In Illinois, while their are some egregious cases of gerrymandering, it was concentrated around Chicago, where the democrats beat the republicans by over 40 points. Which means that the worst gerrymandering in pro-democratic Illinois happens precisely where democrats do not need to gerrymander given their absolute domination of the popular vote.
    Finally, in Arkansas, the Democrats failed to win a single seat, and in West Virginia, they won one uphill battle in a district where every county voted for Romney.

    So, in the few states where they controlled redistricting, they were either:
    • So far ahead in term of the popular vote that they were poised to win virtually every seat no matter how the district were drawn
    • Busy gerrymandering part of the state where they were so far ahead in term of the popular vote that they were poised to win virtually every seat no matter how the district were drawn
    • Not bothering the gerrymander at all in states where they were behind.

    On the other hand, in Pennsylvania, the house republican received less votes than the democrats but still won 13 seats out of 18. In Virginia and Ohio, two states which went to Obama, the republicans managed to win three fourth of the house seats.

    So do not play the “a pox of both you houses” card when one side is
    1. Far worse
    2. Enjoying a mjority in a legislative chamber gained by cheating

  24. Chelydra says

    Republicrats in my Michigan township redid the voting precincts this year. Several precincts are now composed of two or three non-contiguous sections (not even kitty-corner). A different, technically contiguous precinct spans the entire width of the township but has its polling location in a different precinct near the edge. Some voters in this precinct have to drive more than the length of the township to reach it! Local officials insist they’ve followed state law correctly, and I was told by the county that it was clearly wrong but there was nothing they could do about it.

    I’m actually not quite sure what the motivation would be for gerrymandering voting precincts. Perhaps to discourage certain voters from actually getting to the polls?

  25. says

    You could argue in favor of eliminating that first goal I mentioned, and that would eliminate the need for humans, but I would argue against eliminating that goal, as I do see a significant value in making sure that everyone in the same township has the same representative.

    Possibly I wasn’t thinking in those terms due to my location; where I grew up, not only did the whole town have one representative, so did everyone else within 200 miles. Where I live now the city is divided between 3 districts, so I didn’t realize that that was a concern at all in the current districting schemes. That said, I’m not sure why city/township boundaries couldn’t be a parameter in such a program as well; it would require the cities to define boundaries, but that’s a good idea anyway, so I don’t count it as a downside.

  26. martinc says

    Whenever I have seen gerrymandering mentioned in the US, its purpose has always been described as “in order to create safe seats”. I have to admit I can’t see the purpose in that. Gerrymandering doesn’t change the number of voters for or against your candidate, so if you create a safe seat by drawing the boundary so it includes most of your voters and few of the opponents, aren’t you just creating one district that you win and another district outside it that your opponent will win?

    In Australia, gerrymandering has traditionally been about creating a number of districts that have a slight majority for your candidate, and then one district that has a huge majority for your opponent. That way you can win the most districts for the value of your voters. Example: you have five districts, and anticipate 100,000 votes, split 50/50 for your side and for your opponent. You draw the boundaries so there are four districts with 12,000 of your voters and 8,000 of your opponents, and then the fifth district has 2,000 of your voters and 18,000 of his. Still 50,000 voters for each side, still 20,000 voters in each district, but unless you get a 20% swing against you, you’ll win 4 of the 5.

    So in actual practice, to make effective use of a partisan gerrymander, you should make a safe seat for your opponent, not you. The safer the seat, the more of his votes you’ve wasted.

    Is this what happens in the US as well, or have I misunderstood some subtlety of the voting process there, that would make a gerrymander work by stacking your own people in a district? Hmm, I see cottonnero @ 23 seems to be saying what I am saying. Republicans make safe seats for Democrats, not themselves.

  27. laurentweppe says

    In Australia, gerrymandering has traditionally been about creating a number of districts that have a slight majority for your candidate, and then one district that has a huge majority for your opponent. That way you can win the most districts for the value of your voters.

    That’s exactly what’s done in the US: they “give” their opponents districts where they will earn third world dictator scrores, such “exhausting” their reserves of vote into an handful of district while giving their side districts which are also safe but by less egregious margins.
    Take Pennsylvania, where the republicans lost the popular vote in the house race, but through smart redistricting made sure that more than 2/5 of democratic voters were concentrated in only 5 districts were only 1/8 of the republican voters lived
    the result:
    5 seats won by democrats with an average of 76,1% of the vote.
    13 seats won by republicans with an average of 58,8% of the vote. not as ridiculous, but still safe
    The added advantage is that around 150.000 Obama voters who live in republican districts did not even bother to vote for their house candidate because it was pointless, making the republican safe districts even safer.

  28. Michael Heath says

    martinc writes:

    Whenever I have seen gerrymandering mentioned in the US, its purpose has always been described as “in order to create safe seats”.

    That’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to maximize the number of seats which will go with one party.

    Say State X has sixteen jurisdictions each represented by a U.S. Representative where in the previous census they had 18. The party in power, say Republicans, will seek to condense Democrats into a minimum number of safe seats for Democrats. They do so in order to maximize the number of seats allocated to Republicans.

    So Democrats may have safer seats than Republicans, but also fewer districts go Democrat since the Democrats are all condensed in as few districts as possible. The minority party goes along with it because it often occurs when a state’s population is dwindling, at least relative to the rest of the country’s growth, and the seats promised to the minority party are going to long-time Democratic Representatives who plan to seek reelection.

  29. eric says

    I think the Il. district is the one used for the cover of “Bushmanders and Bullwinkles” because it looks like a moose head.

    @3

    States could simply have the entire population vote for the entire slate of Reps, as they do Senators

    Representatives are supposed to represent actual communities. Your proposal would basically make them into duplicate senators with a shorter election cycle. It would also be unwieldy for the bigger states. The worst, CA, you’d be looking at 100+ choices on the ballot. And have you thought about the problem of people voting straight ticket? You would very likely end up with 53 democratic house members, with some conservative essentially getting no representation at all (and vice versa in Texas). I personally like that the system has two voting bodies that represent different types of constituencies (local vs. state). I think it provides a more balanced system.

    I don’t even think that “compactness” is a major criterion, since (as Zeno pointed out in @19), some wierd-looking districts DO comprise a reasonable community of like-minded interests, because of some geographical or economic feature. People living on a river or coast or highway may have similar needs/interests, even as it meanders around.

    Having said all that, I completely agree with the gist of Ed’s post and most of the responses here; having the ruling party in charge of redistricting is insane. It needs to be bipartisan or nonpartisan, with fairly strong guidelines in place as to what sort of maps are acceptable.

  30. says

    If I had to guess as to why its been drawn that way I’d say that the Hispanolizardian wing of the IL dems wanted one of their own in the Congress and they were given that opportunity by having that gerrymandering done.

    When it comes to elective perfidy, the democrats of today compared to the republicans of today are a bic lighter compared to the Chicago Fire.

    “You could argue in favor of eliminating that first goal I mentioned, and that would eliminate the need for humans, but I would argue against eliminating that goal, as I do see a significant value in making sure that everyone in the same township has the same representative.”

    Is there an algorithm for limiting the number of BatshitKKKrazzeepants mo’fo’s to so many per district? Yes, Missy Bachman, I’m lookin’ at YOU!!

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