Guest Post: Gerrymandering

This was sent to me in the form of am emailed extended-comment, and I thought it’d be interesting to all; the author is a longtime Commentariat(tm) member. Formatting and light touch editing are by me.

To End Gerrymandering

It’s simple. Abolish districts.

Using the eighty-member California assembly as an example: replace the 80 districts with the following:

  • On the ballot there are perhaps 500 names. Vote for one.

After the election:

  • Step one is discussed later.
  • Step two divide the number of votes by 80. Call that number ‘E’. Anyone with at least ‘E’ votes is seated. Not only seated but they get to keep their remaining votes.
  • Step three those remaining votes may be given to anyone eligible to serve in the state assembly. This step will likely end up deciding almost every state assembly member.
  • Step four resolves conflicts that step three did not resolve. In this step, the ‘E’ number is reduced. Every seated candidate now has an extra vote in his remaining votes tally. (‘E’ could be reduced by one and step four repeated until all eighty members are seated. Faster fair methods exist.)

Step one is discussed here: To prevent ‘stuffing the ballot’ any candidate who does not get some small percent (perhaps 2% or 3%) of ‘E’ is removed from the candidate list and their votes are discarded before step two.

This is not a political party killer. Each political party will likely direct its candidates to stand in line by the number of votes received. Push all the votes forward and spread them back as far as they go. Party members in specific areas may wish to pool their votes to assure that at least one of their specific area’s candidates will be seated.

The threat of step four is the main reason why step three will be almost entirely successful. However, the promise of step four may allow one with 30% of ‘E’ to be seated if the other remaining candidates are seen as unacceptable by those already seated.

In addition, I ask, “What is more important: geography or ideology?” And let’s face it. If a district is D/R 60/40 then the 40 have zero voice in selecting a candidate. With the gerrymandering problem removed that 40 still has a voice. Only steps one and four discard any votes.

If ‘every vote counts’ then why don’t we stop discarding so many votes in the holy grail of district elections?

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My comment on the suggestion is that it’s going to have the usual problem: the establishment wants a system that it can gerrymander. Neither party has any shame about manipulating the elections in their favor, whenever they can.

I do believe that districting schemes may have made sense in a time when it took all day on horseback to get to another town; clustering votes makes certain sense. But I doubt it was ever much more than a sop to local bigwigs who wanted to secure their grip on local power. A non-gerrymanderable/non-districted system threatens the corrupt status quo. Any system that does not preference inequality (in the US that means: racism) will meet resistance.

A political party killer would be nice. The Floundering Fathers were concerned (when it was convenient for them to be) about the danger of partisan politics. Well, they sure as hell screwed the pooch, if that was what they were trying to avoid.


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    This is essentially a somewhat clunky home-made version of a party list proportional representation system, many good versions already exist. Why not just use one one the existing ones?

    As for political parties, factions in politics are an inevitability, it’s better to avvept the inevitable and formalise them, building the necessary things into the system from the start.

  2. Ketil Tveiten says

    Boy do I suck at typing on a phone «keyboard». That should of course be «one of» and «accept».

  3. Allison says

    The problem with existing “at large” elections is that if you have a large enough bloc, they can ensure that their candidates (their “party”, if you will) gets all of the seats. And if the interests of the group in the bloc conflict the interests of the minority, the minority gets screwed over. There’s a school district near me that has that problem, and a court has recently mandated a ward system, so that the minority can get at least one or two of their preferred candidates onto the school board.

    I don’t see how your system avoids that problem. Although, it’s complicated enough that I can’t really see what it does.

    That’s another problem with your system: election systems have to be simple enough that ordinary voters can understand them. If they can’t, they will perceive the election system as a sneaky way to make sure their votes don’t matter.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Step three those remaining votes may be given to anyone eligible to serve in the state assembly. This step will likely end up deciding almost every state assembly member.

    Huh? Who decides who gets to receive those votes? It appears not to be discussed.

  5. Ketil Tveiten says

    Just to give a perspective on how easy-to-understand proper party-list systems are to use and understand (in contrast to the home-made system described in the post), let me describe the process we use in Norway:

    You enter the voting location, do whatever IDing is necessary, you are given an envelope, and you enter a voting booth, where all eligible party lists are prepared. You select the list you want to vote for, put it in the envelope, seal it, then go back to the staff who witness you putting the envelope into the ballot box.

    Since the system is proportional, there’s nothing much else to understand; the party with the most votes gets the most seats, etc. No need to reinvent the wheel here, just use something tried and tested. These systems aren’t even that foreign to the US; you already use a highest-average system equivalent to a party-list proportional for assigning congressional seats between states (–Hill_method).

  6. says

    @Reginald Selkirk #4
    Presumably the candidate who received the votes to begin with. That way, they’ll likely select someone of similar political views, so the general attitude of the voters is still represented.

    Of course, it’s pointless to discuss how to make a better system unless people actually want a better system.
    The problem is the people. Sucky people -> sucky system -> sucky world. And that tends to generate more sucky people. Honestly I’m not sure if there’s really a way out of this that doesn’t include complete societal collapse, and that’s just as likely to result in something even worse.

    Anybody else feel like maybe humanity has shot it’s wad and it’s all downhill from here?

  7. says

    Anybody else feel like maybe humanity has shot it’s wad and it’s all downhill from here?

    (Waves hand) me!

    Although: through the history of our species people seem to always be saying “the end is nigh.” And because it hasn’t ended, the Stephen Pinkers of the world get to cheerfully pump for the status quo. People won’t believe the collapse until it’s too late. Hell, something like 20% say they don’t believe in a fucking pandemic. They’d stand out in a hurricane and claim that they’re dry except under their armpits.

  8. witm says

    Ketil, you missed all the fun things about party lists… striking names, writing in names from other parties etc. I forget if all of the entertaining bits are still legal, but they used to be a good way to get rid of egregious/unpopular party members at the top of a list in local elections or promote popular candidates from other parties :P — Iirc. The numbers you needed for national elections was large enough that it was difficult, but even in Bergen you only needed a very small number to be able to have an impact on the County and Town elections – somewhere in the region of a couple of dozen to 500 depending on what you were trying to do.

    Regarding OP: Throwing out votes = not good. Ranked voting solves this and promotes minority candidates. Also, 500 candidates runs into a whole host of heuristic and decision-making issues for our poor brains.

  9. Peter B says

    I am the guest whose idea Marcus posted. I agree with him when he mentions the low chance of something like this becoming reality.

    For Ketil Tveiten @1 and @5:
    My proposal only mentions political parties as examples. In my proposal vote for the person you want to represent your wishes. Even if your desired person is not seated, your vote still counts when your person helps another get a seat. @5 you are voting for a party. My proposal allows voters to select persons who are likely to join or are already in a political party. If you really want to vote for the party, then vote for your party leader who will then select the others to be seated.

    In Step Three, “those remaining votes” refers to both the excess votes for those who were already seated and votes that are still held by those not seated because they didn’t have enough votes to be seated.

    For Allison @3:
    The mandated a ward system you mentioned helps. My proposal helps more by assuring that all voters opposed to the majority – wherever they live – can help seat better candidates.

    witm @8:
    “Throwing out votes = not good.” In district systems votes for losing candidates are effectively thrown out. I assume you are thinking of step 1. That step keeps political parties from stuffing the ballot. And it is required in step 4 to resolve otherwise intractable conflicts.

    I was focused on the mechanics of avoiding 60/40 elections giving zero weight to the 40. Is it complex? Step 3 looks like chaos. It will make interesting theater. But it’s here that your one vote really counts. Even if your desired candidate never gets seated, your vote helps someone your candidate approves become seated.

    This proposal could impact political parties by allowing, for example, The Green Party, to gain a seat or two. Or at least use some of their votes to help seat a green-friendly candidate.

  10. says

    My understanding is that proportional representation is implemented in many other countries, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. From the perspective of people in those countries, the US is quite odd in its insistence that our votes must be for an individual rather than the platform that they represent. This proposal clings to the idea of voting for individuals, despite how much complexity and opacity it introduces to the procedure.

    On the other hand, I have also heard of issues with proportional representation, which are unfamiliar to most USians. For instance, 3rd parties getting disproportionate power because they’re the swing vote. Electoral thresholds have effects that are confusing to me as well. It would be interesting to learn about these sorts of issues, but I’ve never bothered to look into it because it’s pretty clear it will never become relevant in the anti-democratic US.

  11. says

    I’m presuming this is written from a US perspective, since it seems to reflect US attitudes. If I am mistaken, I apologize.

  12. springa73 says

    One reason that I think a lot of people in the US wouldn’t like proportional representation is that it disconnects representation from specific localities. I think that a lot of people in at least parts of the US have a strong sense of local identity and like the idea of having representatives in national and state governments who “belong” to their particular area and will represent local interests. Voting for lists of party candidates in a proportional representation system does away with that.

  13. komarov says

    Yes, lists are in use all over the place. One downside is that the party picks the list. The result often seems to be that the list is lead by Arse, Idiot and Incompetent simply because they are the most visible and established party members in the voting district.
    If you’re really enthusiastic about Party’s policy claims* and Party’s Junior Candidate (placed 123rd on the list), all you can do is hope that Party does really well and seats your candidate – along with Arse, Idiot and Incompetent and a really large, often mixed bag of other people. In that regard it’s a bit like the US system in that it still requires some firm nose-pinching, effectivley voting for people you don’t like in the hopes of getting a better / less worse alternative.

    Were I a cynic – oh, right – I might suspect there is again little incentive to improve the system because it’s working very well – for Arse, Idiot and Incompetent. Arse, of course, is in charge (they always are) and whenever there is some inevitable motion towards reform, Incompetent is there to help make it happen to the best of their abilities, meaning nothing actually changes.

    *I.e. stuff the party pretends it’d do if elected

  14. Ketil Tveiten says

    Komarov: as witm alludes to, there is often some means for manipulating the order of candidates on the list (e.g. you can give extra weight to someone you like and/or strike off someone you don’t like). Mostly though, the issue of «leader of Party X is a jerk» is solved by «I’ll vote for Similar Party Y instead», which is usually an option in multi-party systems.

  15. Ketil Tveiten says

    Also, don’t forget that in practice, the party chooses the candidate in the US system too, it’s just a more involved process with dark money, ratfucking and propaganda; the whole primary thing is really just a hacky workaround for the lack of granularity in political parties. In a multi-party system you wouldn’t have a Sanders v Clinton or a Romney v Trump (or whatever) primary showdown; those people would just be in different parties from the start.

  16. billyum says

    FWIW, here is an alternative scheme inspired by game theory, for representative bodies with relatively short terms.

    Step 1. Some method of getting on the ballot, such as a minimum number of nominating signatures and the nominee agreeing to serve if elected.
    Step 2. A relatively short campaign period.
    Step 3. Each voter gets the same number of votes as the number of seats open, which may be distributed as the voter sees fit. All of the votes could go to one candidate, for instance.
    Step 4. (This step should probably be televised.) Using a true random number generator, fill the first seat by random selection, with the chance of each candidate of being selected in proportion to the number of votes they have received. Then subtract that candidate’s votes from the total and fill the second seat in like manner, etc., etc., until all the seats are filled.

  17. jrkrideau says

    There are any number of voting systems. The New Zealand
    one is interesting, the Australian one seems as opaque as cricket bus seems to work, and so on. The FPTP system seems a bit archaic. I still hold this against Trudeau!

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