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Elbridge Thomas Gerry (1744 - 1814)
May 12, 2014 10:50 PM   Subscribe

What would US House electoral districts look like without any gerrymandering?
posted by Chrysostom (41 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's interesting, the way they've got South Carolina and Pennsylvania laid out, but I'm kinda curious to see the next electoral step. I mean, assuming the data exists to be tallied, take the precinct-by-precinct vote counts for Pennsylvania and assign them to the new, un-gerrymandered districts. See what the Congressional party distribution is like then.

Then do that for the other 49 states.
posted by kafziel at 10:57 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


I think the way to handle this is to stick to the 1 representative/30,000 people formula originally laid out in the constitution. That gives us 10,000 members of the house, more or less. There's no reason for them to ever travel to D.C., really. The whole thing can be handled remotely.

I'm serious as cancer about this.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:10 PM on May 12 [5 favorites]


That gives us 10,000 members of the house

But the more there are, the less they will be able to achieve..... oh, wait...
posted by DreamerFi at 12:46 AM on May 13


I like how a lot of the split lines go through cities. That means lots of districts would be contested between city folk and country folk.

The way it is now, there are lots of solid blue urban districts and solid red rural districts. Republicans don't bother to field electable candidates in the city, and Democrats don't compete in the country. That leaves most of us with no choice - there is only one electable candidate on the ballot. The balance of power is determined by a minority of swing districts that the parties can focus their attention and funding on.

If there were fewer safe districts and more competition between rural and urban areas, both parties would have more to lose and would have to work harder to please more voters. Also, candidates would have to be more moderate, which would lead to less partisanship and more collaboration. Too bad it'll never happen.
posted by foobaz at 1:12 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


I like how a lot of the split lines go through cities. That means lots of districts would be contested between city folk and country folk.

Hopefully not too far off topic, but that was the situation in both Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, until last year. The cities were both divided into 4 equal parts and then the ridings (districts) extended essentially 100 km out from where they met.

In Saskatchewan, the independent commission largely stuck by its goal of having “solely urban” ridings in Regina and Saskatoon, doing away with hybrid rural-urban models. The Conservative Party, which holds all but one seat in Saskatchewan, had preferred the hybrid ridings, and benefited from them in some cases.

Conservative MP Kelly Block, for instance, won the riding of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar by 538 votes in 2011 despite finishing roughly 2,500 votes behind the lead in the riding’s Saskatoon portion – it was the surrounding areas that gave Ms. Block the win. The urban part of that riding will now largely make up Saskatoon-West.

posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:27 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I would raise three counter-arguments to the classic "No Gerrymandering Ever" argument. Not that I disagree with it for the most part, but I do see three pitfalls that don't get debated nearly enough.

1. Typically, when you have that kind of tooth-and-nail competition across the political spectrum in a given election, you end up with a candidate that makes no one happy and proposes no brave new legislation out of fear of losing that 1-3% margin that puts them in a fight for their jobs, especially in the House - or is an unreliable member of the party at large (Joe Manchin or Jon Tester, for example). It takes a strong and relatively unwavering political base to take a stand on legislation that breaks new ground - or defies what the more vociferous (and therefore partisan) voters and interest groups in your district want. Sure, solid districts give us hardcore cranks, but it also gives us legislators like Al Franken or Elizabeth Warren (or John McCain when he's in one of his good moods), and creates the basis for across-the-aisle events like the BCRA and the recent attempts at immigration reform. If every House member is in a fight for their lives every two years, the kind of coalition building and "the party has your back" vote whipping that Congress used to be able to depend on to get the business of governing done evaporates.

2. Let's assume that political engagement doesn't magically increase when we un-gerrymander the country (a fairly safe assumption, I think). If candidates now have to pander to a vast array of individual and corporate interests on both sides of the spectrum, while the individual voter remains no more engaged than they were before, how schizophrenic and impossible will national platforms have to be in order to avoid stepping on a local special interest landmine - if national platforms survive at all? If voter engagement stays relatively low, but you now vastly decrease the average margin of victory, even relatively small interest groups could completely dominate a Congressional election. In essence, you'd be turning every House election into something akin to Alaska or West Virginia state politics: local issues and interest could vastly overpower whatever unifying platform a national party has in the interest of getting elected at all, completely short-circuiting any effort to effect national change unless 50% of all Congressional districts solidly agree (remember, they can't ever do anything unpopular, since everyone's on a knife-edge).

3. Or, if you truly have districts that are split more-or-less evenly across ideological lines, what happens to the level of debate? Some of these newly equal districts will have a reasonable degree of common ground, but I'd wager that most of them would not - your urban/rural divide. These are two groups with completely different viewpoints on the world in no small part, let alone political issues. So, if the election comes down to Candidate A, which supports Side A, and Candidate B, which supports Side B, and both are completely different in nearly every ideological way and very nearly evenly matched, then you get one of three outcomes. One, the 0.5-2% difference between the sides decides every single election, and then you have nearly half of your district that completely disagrees with every decision the elected official makes and hates your guts - and their opposition - not exactly a plan for political harmony (sure, it's pretty similar to what we have now, but that's not good, either). Two, the small percentage in between become the sole focus of both candidates chasing the few percent they need to put them over the top, and the rest of the issues get backburnered, which is pretty much the complaint that you hear about Presidential elections. And three, the election turns on petty personal grievances and name-calling in a race to the bottom to see who can make the most slimy, nasty, hard-to-prove-yet-impossible-to-refute smears.

Now, I don't think that any of these three are showstoppers and proof that we should be happy with the status quo. I think that we certainly have way too much gerrymandering in our districts as is (and that population balance has rendered Senators even more horribly undemocratic than House members or the Electoral College but that's another post), but on the other hand, I think that some degree of "safe" districts is desirable, mainly because of point #1. #2 and 3 are more speculative and nit-picking, but I still think they're worth discussing.
posted by Punkey at 2:38 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]


And, to preempt the "It's all right if we need 50% of all districts to like something, since that means at least 50% of all people like it" argument, just because something is the right thing to do, or necessary for the country or economy to run properly, doesn't mean it's going to be very popular.
posted by Punkey at 2:45 AM on May 13


State borders are not gerrymandering.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:17 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


Redistricting is a favorite political tool. It is a reward for being the party in power and a means for remaining that way. It is yet another opportunity for political reward and punishment. No competent politician would willingly surrender that sort of power, although they might give the idea some lip-service should it prove popular enough. But I'm not holding my breath...
posted by jim in austin at 4:52 AM on May 13


When I first saw shortest split-line, I thought it was pretty neat and asked around the office (I work at a legislative service agency) what people thought about it. Turns out that to make shortest split-line happen, you'd have to either

1. Get rid of other laws that guide the redistricting process (e.g. those that prohibit district boundaries that deprive protected groups of representation) OR
2. Have a backup method that could be used in case shortest split-line's output ran afoul of those laws.

Now, how do you know that you need to use a backup method? You could have an objective (which implies automate-able) means of detecting violations of laws mentioned in #1, or a subjective means. If you have an automated means, then you should be able to modify shortest split-line to search over the space of possible district boundaries to find something that satisfies the relevant laws.
posted by Jpfed at 5:35 AM on May 13


One significant problem with the approach is it disregards terrain.

Pennsylvania's southern counties are oblong and shaped to follow the mountain ridges. This wasn't gerrymandering, this was the consequence of it easier to travel twenty miles up a river valley than five miles across a mountain pass.

The line divisions that Vox proposes would amount to a gerrymandering by randomness, where people would be isolated in their communities as members of districts that are primarily on the other sides of county lines.

Speaking as a resident of a neighborhood in North Carolina District 1, which is a mile wide and bounded by District 4 on three sides, I can tell you what kind of bullshit gerrymandering is (For the 2012 election, I had to go two miles up the main road to vote, even though a District 4 polling station was 150 yards away from my house). So I feel like this proposal might balance the two-party powers in a large-scale way, but it's going to break down in a lot of isolated cases, and somebody somewhere is going to find a way to exploit that disenfranchisement too.
posted by ardgedee at 5:52 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Remarkably (in the not invented in the USA way), quite a few other countries out in the world somehow manage to create electoral districts that are fair and non-partisan, without looking like maps of Africa carved up in Europe. The Australian Electoral Commission, for example, manages to create and redistribute electorates for the whole country that are approximately equal in population, respect geography and natural communities, and do not have the faintest whiff of partisan bias.
posted by wilful at 6:34 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


You know, there's no constitutional requirement that members of the House represent a geographical district. We could just as well have state-wide races for n representatives in which each voter chose n candidates and the n candidates with the most votes all take a seat.

In an era of urbanization, fast transportation, instant communication, and telepresence, there really isn't the same need for geographic representation as there once was. The practical upshot of state-wide representation is that third parties would be much more electable, particularly in large states. In a state with 10 representatives only 10% of the voters would have to be willing to "spend" one of their votes on, say, a Green candidate or a pro-marijuana-legalization candidate in order to get one elected.

Of course, just like with reforming the districting process the current incumbents could at best do no worse under such a system and would likely do much worse. And thus it will never happen.
posted by jedicus at 6:48 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


Well, as in most things, the best solution would be somewhere in between the incredibly convoluted gerrymandering we have now and going totally shortest splitline.

Interestingly enough, though, looking at the two areas of the state I've lived in the longest, the splitline method really does reflect their demographics and local culture very well.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:49 AM on May 13


Not all irregularly-shaped districts and non-straight borders constitute gerrymandering. Terrain and organic community boundaries matter. For instance, I live just a few miles from the Susquehanna River. It's about a mile wide. The closest bridge is the Turnpike, maybe fifteen minutes away. But the next one south is more like forty. So yes, I'm much closer as the crow flies to communities just across the river from me than I am to Lancaster, I actually have to travel quite a bit further to reach them than I do to get to Lancaster. A straight line map would ignore the river, producing districts with two sections that barely speak to each other and have no local issues in common.

Such a district would be practically ungovernable. Not only would you need to cater to all the usual constituent groups, but probably twice that number, as each section would probably have its own groups for each issue. And you couldn't practically address both at once, because getting from Elizabethtown to Manchester is a huge pain in the ass. Nobody in one town ever voluntarily goes to the other if it can be avoided.

There is no such thing as an "objective" political map. Pretending that there is does not change things.

All of that aside though, this isn't something we want to do. A map like the one linked would basically guarantee that the proportion of candidates supported by a majority of minority voters in their district would plummet. The majority of almost every district would reflect regional demographic averages, not local communities. This would probably reduce minority influence on politics quite a bit. No sense in courting the minority vote if they can't carry a district.
posted by valkyryn at 6:51 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


In the wake of the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, can redistricting happen, and if it did, would it matter?
posted by Stoatfarm at 6:53 AM on May 13


As an outsider, gerrymandering just looks corrupt— it's mostly impossible to make sense of the shape of the district.

We have all the information we need— we can take into account geographic features, travel times, density, census based targets, residential vs. commercial/industry. What I'd like to see is a simple model that shows 'These are our goals, this is the data we fed into it and these are the zones it produced'.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:29 AM on May 13


The idea of using land to apportion representatives is so outdated that anyone from the opposing party representing you in your district is likely to misrepresent you first. Fortunately, states are free to dump this method anytime they wish according to the constitution. The truth is that few in America is familiar with any alternatives so we are stuck.

I propose that people be presented with a simple option at the ballot, statewide. For the house, they can vote for one party and one representative, or two representatives or two parties. That way a party wins and a list of people are selected at the same time, and independents have good odds in a limited but expanded vote. The point is to glean information from hard but fair decisions without remorse, then determine what to do with it in the most honest way so that people obtain their preferred representation.
posted by Brian B. at 7:38 AM on May 13


wilful: "Remarkably (in the not invented in the USA way), quite a few other countries out in the world somehow manage to create electoral districts that are fair and non-partisan, without looking like maps of Africa carved up in Europe. The Australian Electoral Commission, for example, manages to create and redistribute electorates for the whole country that are approximately equal in population, respect geography and natural communities, and do not have the faintest whiff of partisan bias."

Yep, and now that there are computer programs, it's a lot easier to manage! You can adjust the parameters and tell the program "all districts within 5% of each other in size, respect state boundaries absolutely, respect city boundaries strongly, respect county boundaries less but accommodate when available, ignore rivers as dividers, never break a district boundary mid-block" and it'll do that! You can mark up natural communities (such as in Pennysylvania with the long valleys) and tell it to respect those, and then you can play with it and optimize it by tweaking different options. This is not only not an unsolvable problem, but the technology is out there and in use to be able to experiment and play with it.

Static Vagabond: "What I'd like to see is a simple model that shows 'These are our goals, this is the data we fed into it and these are the zones it produced'."

Yep, exactly. You decide the priorities and are clear about those, and then provide somewhere between one and half-a-dozen best-fit maps, and the legislature adopts one.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:57 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I like how a lot of the split lines go through cities. That means lots of districts would be contested between city folk and country folk.

This is what Republicans did to Austin, so what you're saying turns out to be pretty close to saying you like Republican gerrymanders.

If there were fewer safe districts and more competition between rural and urban areas, both parties would have more to lose and would have to work harder to please more voters.

No, neither would have to please more than 50%+1.

Also, candidates would have to be more moderate, which would lead to less partisanship and more collaboration. Too bad it'll never happen.

There are lots of things we aren't sure about WRT rising partisan polarization. One of the few things we are certain about is that gerrymandering is not more than a trivial source of it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:25 AM on May 13


The Australian Electoral Commission, for example, manages to create and redistribute electorates for the whole country that are approximately equal in population, respect geography and natural communities, and do not have the faintest whiff of partisan bias.

All sets of districts have partisan bias; it's impossible for them not to encourage the election of some parties at the expense of others.

The best you can say about things like electoral commissions is that you get the districts that the commissioners like, which is neither fair nor unfair.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:30 AM on May 13


All sets of districts have partisan bias; it's impossible for them not to encourage the election of some parties at the expense of others.

Especially when compared to whatever the status quo is. Pretty much any redistricting is, on balance, going to favor one party over the other. So objecting to the current way redistricting is done is really hard to distinguish from saying "The current model is bad for my party, so we should change it." Or "The current model is good for my party, so we should do more of it," which is no different, really.

Of course, wait long enough and even a new redistricting model which favors one party today may well wind up favoring a different party tomorrow, communities being organic things which grow, change, and move.
posted by valkyryn at 8:35 AM on May 13


I like how a lot of the split lines go through cities. That means lots of districts would be contested between city folk and country folk.

This is what Republicans did to Austin, so what you're saying turns out to be pretty close to saying you like Republican gerrymanders.

That's not entirely what they did to Austin. Austin congressonal districts that I have lived in have also included portions of metro Houston (when I lived on the west side of Austin, no kidding) and metro San Antonio. /Austin resident.

I like the computerized parameters idea, but it'll never happen. There's too much money and power invested in gerrymandering. And as long as the Supremes are sold on this money=speech thing, gerrymandering will increase (with an eye to corporate interests, since they have the money).
posted by immlass at 8:36 AM on May 13


I propose that people be presented with a simple option at the ballot, statewide. For the house, they can vote for one party and one representative, or two representatives or two parties.

Right, but see then what happens is Representatives no longer represent any particular part of the state, so there'd be no real reason for them to campaign anywhere but the two or three largest population centers. Which is pretty much what happens with Senate campaigns today. The whole point of the House is to have elected representatives closer to voters than in the Senate.
posted by valkyryn at 8:39 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Uh... does Vox not know what town borders actually look like? At least on the East Coast? Those straight lines are bullshit. Having representitives cover an entire city or neighborhood seems pretty logical to me.
posted by maryr at 8:43 AM on May 13


Uh... does Vox not know what town borders actually look like?

This isn't Vox's work; it was done by The Center for Range Voting. It also makes no attempt to deal with town borders. It is the output of a computerized method of creating district boundaries that is:

1. Unambiguous, in the hopes of removing (potentially corruptible) choice from the process. Given the same map of population densities, you'll get the same output every time.
2. Blind to parties or demographic information, in the hopes that this will on average yield results that reflect the state's population.
posted by Jpfed at 9:05 AM on May 13


I hate these useless fucking maps. If you want to make pretty things, that's great, just don't call it a map. Go make art. You cannot do geography devoid of the context of the actual fucking earth (i.e. terrain as mentioned above) or demography or culture.

Gerrymandering is a valid topic to discuss but this map gets us no closer to solving any problem (or even showing us what it is, in any meaningful way).
posted by desjardins at 9:20 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


You cannot do geography devoid of the context of the actual fucking earth (i.e. terrain as mentioned above) or demography or culture.

But. . . but. . . those are irrational! And arbitrary! And inequitable! We can't have that! It conflicts with our vision for a perfect world!
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on May 13


Oh. I just clicked on their website. Just look at it. That explains everything.
posted by desjardins at 9:40 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Especially when compared to whatever the status quo is. Pretty much any redistricting is, on balance, going to favor one party over the other. So objecting to the current way redistricting is done is really hard to distinguish from saying "The current model is bad for my party, so we should change it." Or "The current model is good for my party, so we should do more of it," which is no different, really.

You are badly mistaking the outcome of a change in districts - that the results of elections will change - with the method of redistricting. It is almost mathematical certainty that if the election system is crooked that the resulting dominant party will have reduced power in a less crooked system; this is -- along with the inherent wonkiness of it -- what makes districting such a difficult political issue.

It is entirely possible to describe desirable criteria (compactness - as you point out, the goal of the House is to produce representatives close to their voters; a criteria this person uses), methods (nonpartisan commissions of technocrats developing electoral boundaries, including public hearings, the process in Canada) and probable outcomes (if a party wins 52% of the vote, it should not get 75% of the seats, as happened in Ohio). These can and do produce fairer elections.

I was of the impression that the principle of American democracy was that constituents select a representative; in the current system, representatives select their constituents.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:12 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


One side effect of gerrymandering so many districts within an inch of their lives is that it makes wave elections much more likely. If all it takes for the minority party is to bump its numbers 4 or 5 percent in most districts, it's not out of the question that they could all flip in a single year just from things like coattails from a popular Presidential candidate. A slightly less aggressive scheme might have mitigated this risk with more 60/40 districts at the cost of a few more competitive races in Ohio/Pennsylvania/etc., but it seems like they went all in on gerrymandering after the 2010 census. The Republicans who instituted this scheme probably assume they'll be able to control the process indefinitely and will always be able to find a new place to hide Democratic voters, but there is a certain amount of weakness here.
posted by Copronymus at 10:33 AM on May 13


Two thoughts: first, anyone proposing easy solutions to gerrymandering should play the ReDistricting Game. It is fabulous at illuminating the huge issues inherent to the current US system (the levels are basically Rational Human Being, But Actually We Have Laws Governing This Process, and Haha My Party Will Be In Power Forever).

Two, California implemented gerrymander reform a few years ago (one of those direct initiatives the rest of the country is always sneering at). By forming a Citizens' Redistricting Commission, the goal was to exclude politicians entirely. I was dubious at the time (so much cheaper to bribe a small commission versus an entire legislature) but it seems to both have worked and been expanded to federal seats too.
posted by librarylis at 11:52 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


My Crazy Crackpot Scheme:

There are currently 3,144 counties and administrative equivalents (Louisiana parishes, Alaska boroughs, Independent cities, etc.) in the United States.

These would be sorted into contiguous groups of six. (Many Congressional districts contain roughly that many counties in some states now.) Some groups would cross state lines. There would, no doubt, be a few districts that ended up including a non-contiguous county.

To accommodate all of the six-county groups, the House membership would rise from 435 to 520.

Each county would elect a representative to the District Congressional Committee. The Committee would then, in turn, elect the District’s Congressperson from amongst the Committee’s membership. Any ties would be broken by a random vote generator.

Although the Congressperson would have most of the duties and privileges of modern Representatives, he or she would also have some degree of support from and accountability to the rest of the Committee.

Since the number of Congresspersons would increase, the salary and benefits paid to each individual Congressperson would have to be reduced.

Or, we could just let Pepsi and Pfizer openly sponsor the whole thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:17 PM on May 13


The Underpants Monster: "These would be sorted into contiguous groups of six. (Many Congressional districts contain roughly that many counties in some states now.) Some groups would cross state lines. There would, no doubt, be a few districts that ended up including a non-contiguous county."

This would overrepresent rural counties SO HARD. It'd be like the small-state problem but times a billion. In Illinois, Cook County has 5 million people and all have more than 500,000 people. Hardin County has 4,000 people and the largest county bordering on it has around 10,000. So you'd end up with these teeny downstate districts representing maybe 60,000 people tops and the representative from Chicago + 5 others representing 7 million.

Not only would you have Democrat-packed urban districts, but you'd restrict them to a single representative instead of the dozen or so that Chicago and its collar counties currently send to Congress. Illinois 19, which includes Hardin County, has part of all of 26 (I think) counties in it, and would now get to send four or more representatives!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:22 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Right, but see then what happens is Representatives no longer represent any particular part of the state, so there'd be no real reason for them to campaign anywhere but the two or three largest population centers. Which is pretty much what happens with Senate campaigns today. The whole point of the House is to have elected representatives closer to voters than in the Senate.

With ratios close to 650K per house member, some candidates would specialize in rural voters and issues and representation would take care of itself by a wider choice model.
posted by Brian B. at 4:04 PM on May 13


wilful: "Remarkably (in the not invented in the USA way), quite a few other countries out in the world somehow manage to create electoral districts that are fair and non-partisan, without looking like maps of Africa carved up in Europe. The Australian Electoral Commission, for example, manages to create and redistribute electorates for the whole country that are approximately equal in population, respect geography and natural communities, and do not have the faintest whiff of partisan bias."

Yeah - but those countries tend to have clear and consistent rules for determining voter elegibility; consistent methods of voting; consistent rules for determining the outcome of each race; polling places within an easy walk for the majority of the population; enough polling places, staff, and booths that waiting times are short; easy processes for voting outside your electorate; easily-accessible pre-poll voting for those who cannot attend a polling place; …
posted by Pinback at 8:53 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I'm sympathetic to the idea behind algorithmic, unambiguous redistricting. But this system in particular is rather silly, and not just because it ignores terrain and cultural boundaries. It's also highly path-dependent, since each split depends on previous splits. After each new census, when the algorithm is re-run, the new districts will probably look nothing at all like the old ones. How are you going to set up reasonable interest groups and district organizations, if every ten years your neighborhood is lumped together with a completely different set of others?

Here's a different algorithmic approach that does seem to have a certain amount of stability.
posted by vasi at 11:51 PM on May 13


Each county would elect a representative to the District Congressional Committee. The Committee would then, in turn, elect the District’s Congressperson from amongst the Committee’s membership. Any ties would be broken by a random vote generator.

Abso-fucking-lutely not. Milwaukee County, which contains about 1 million people, is blue. It is surrounded by a sea of red counties. We would never ever have a Democratic congressperson again.
posted by desjardins at 11:06 AM on May 14


We'd also never have a non-white representative again, due to the Milwaukee metropolitan area's severe segregation.
posted by desjardins at 11:09 AM on May 14


America's most gerrymandered districts.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:47 AM on May 19


I'm totally not surprised that the district I live in (TX-35) is on that list.
posted by immlass at 7:14 AM on May 19


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