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Gerrymandering: The Game
June 9, 2007 2:14 PM   Subscribe

"Why would you need to rig the voting machines if you'd already rigged the election by making seats safe?" A new shareware game shows how drawing district lines can influence elections. Computer-aided gerrymandering has resulted in wildly shaped districts and made incumbents safer than ever, causing calls for reform. The original gerrymander is commemorated in Boston.
posted by commander_cool (29 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is insane that more states don't have independent boards that produce electoral districts with sane shapes that change at regular intervals to reflect demographic shifts only.

The alternative system makes incumbency too safe. It also further encourages the polarization of politics, by making it more likely that only the most die-hard of voters will bother going to the polls.
posted by sindark at 2:37 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


This article may also be of interest to MeFites:

Faith, race and Barack Obama
Jul 6th 2006
From The Economist print edition
There could be far more like him, if gerrymandering vanished
posted by sindark at 2:39 PM on June 9, 2007


"Why would you need to rig the voting machines if you'd already rigged the election by making seats safe?"

Belt and suspenders, you know, just to be on the safe side.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 2:45 PM on June 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


It is insane that more states don't have independent boards

I wouldn't trust anybody who pretended to be independent. That's like being an atheist. People who think for themselves can't possibly be guaranteed to be on the side I think is right.

[That is sarcasm by the way. I am not American]
posted by srboisvert at 3:18 PM on June 9, 2007


My plan didn't pass the compactness laws, but it won't tell me what the compactness laws are! Lame. Well, off to wikipedia I guess.
posted by Citizen Premier at 3:57 PM on June 9, 2007


Eponylegislative there.

Compactness requires some semblance of reasonable contiguity. Great game. For wonks. Then again, I do own this game.
posted by imperium at 4:10 PM on June 9, 2007


Also: GO AWAY YOU FUCKING TALKING HEADS
posted by Citizen Premier at 4:11 PM on June 9, 2007


Who needs boards? A computer program could do it - and I'm not usually one to advocate this sort of neckbeard thing, but make it open source.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:45 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Who needs boards? A computer program could do it

We've had computer programs "doing it" since at least the 1970s. In fact, we've already had lawsuits between different computer-drawn district maps, at least at the state legislature level.
posted by dhartung at 4:50 PM on June 9, 2007


Computer-aided gerrymandering has resulted in wildly shaped districts and made incumbents safer than ever

This is unlikely to be true. Senate re-election rates have increased over the past several decades too, and gerrymandering can't affect Senate elections. It's more likely that something else is going on that affects both Senate and House elections.

If anything, I'd point to increasingly strategic behavior on the part of potential candidates and donors, along with incumbents to a lesser extent.

It is insane that more states don't have independent boards

Independence is overstated. The independent people on the board still have preferences, and if they're actually independent you should expect them to not be shy about working to put their preferences on the district map. If they're worried about what happens if they put forward a set of districts that suits their own interests, then they're not really independent.

that produce electoral districts with sane shapes

I find it baffling that people focus on funny shapes. The goal of drawing district lines isn't to draw a pretty map, it's to choose one of many possible ways to represent competing interests.

that change at regular intervals to reflect demographic shifts only

This is already true of everywhere except Texas.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:01 PM on June 9, 2007


"...already true of everywhere except Texas."

Tell me about it. Gerrymandering is just one of many reasons why I'm not voting anymore, and further reinforces my belief that we don't live in a democracy.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2007


That was a pretty entertaining game, although I found the later missions a bit too difficult. Thanks for posting this.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:40 PM on June 9, 2007


Given the amount of voting fraud, ZachsMind, I'm fairly certain you can rid yourself of the "belief" part of that, and just accept it as fact.

Makes one ill, it does.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:03 PM on June 9, 2007


excellent game, way to include the importance of the voting rights act, along with the lesson that bi-partisanship is not non-partisanship.

Has anyone completed lesson four with compactness? that was the only cavil i couldn't appease.
posted by eustatic at 6:43 PM on June 9, 2007


The "Reformed" version of the game doesn't make any sense. You can't pass a plan if the Representatives don't let you... which just means the Representatives are doing their own gerrymandering instead of the Governor.
posted by Citizen Premier at 6:44 PM on June 9, 2007


Gerrymandering seems like an interesting system way to assign seats to parties. In Italy we went even further
Both for the lower and higher house of the Parliament, Italy is divided in a certain number of constituencies, in which seats will be distributed according to the share of votes received by a party. Available seats are assigned to these constituencies proportionally to their population. In all cases, the lists of party candidates is given beforehand, and citizens cannot state a preference for any given candidate: if a list wins 10 seats, its first ten candidates will be elected.
By using this legal "trick" the parties managed to have at least 20 criminals elected in the Parliament ; I don't use the definition lightly, as they all were found guilty of crimes, ranging from resistance to officier to mishandling of public funds and partecipation to mafia activities, and were found so in all the degrees of judgement.

Some of these names are very well known to italians and very probably would never have survived any election. Exactly like in the US the biloparism is mostly pro-forma or at best affects only the minor political figures, less connected to the status quo.
posted by elpapacito at 6:51 PM on June 9, 2007


Interesting that, elpapacito. What's biloparism, btw?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:23 PM on June 9, 2007


eustatic, I've completed all the levels on the Beta. I don't understand Citizen Premier's comment.

The last level, with compactness, is one of the easiest: one just draws four rectanglish districts with disregard for the feelings of the representatives; the legislature will object, but the courts will sign off on it.

Level 4 is definitely the toughest. The trick is to save enough minority voters to keep the incumbents happy, to give the minority district all of the majority-minority squares that are "only" 60-40, and to give the opposition party two landslide districts, but as long as there are no gaps in the shapes, the game's courts will tolerate all sorts of tendrils in the compactness requirement.
posted by commander_cool at 9:20 PM on June 9, 2007


Cool. Under the Tanner Bill (game 5), I was able to get the redistricting commission to vote along party lines 3-2 to accept. While I lost in the House, the courts accepted my plan overriding the House (possible under Tanner), and I still got the Democrat pickup I was planning for!
posted by orthogonality at 10:33 PM on June 9, 2007


(Even though partisan percent isn't shown under the Tanner, more densely populated areas reliably vote Democrat.)
posted by orthogonality at 10:34 PM on June 9, 2007


A computerized solution would work if it followed simple rules. Gerrymandering has taught us that electoral districts don't have to be inherently meaningful, so why not just require the following: divide the state into adjacent, parallel north-south bands that each contain the required number of people for an electoral district (what is that, 50,000?). With just a touch more specificity, this plan can be defined in terms that are perfectly unambiguous, i.e., that given a particular State are guaranteed to produce a single plan of districts. I don't think there are any hidden political biases.

Of course, this is the kind of reform that's hard to enact, because it would seem to require a party to create a fair system when it has the chance to create a favorably skewed system instead. But it's very easy from a design point of view.
posted by grobstein at 11:04 PM on June 9, 2007


why not just require the following: divide the state into adjacent, parallel north-south bands that each contain the required number of people for an electoral district

Why would representing zones of latitude be better than representing aggregations of people with broadly similar interests?

For that matter, you could just randomize districts. You would still end up with district boundaries that give some people an electoral advantage, and impose electoral disadvantages on others, relative to some other set of districts. This is an inevitable consequence of drawing district lines.

The real way that gerrymandering is controlled or at least limited is by the long-term interactions of the parties. Democrats know that if they really fuck the Republicans now, they can expect to get really fucked whenever the Republicans take over the legislature, and t'other way 'round. You end up with well-known if informal rules that moderate gerrymandering. If there are new seats, the state-legislative party in power gets the lion's share. If we lose a seat, it comes at the local out-party's expense. But mostly, we leave each other alone.

The recent business in Texas, and the nasty, nasty payback that's likely when Democrats take over the legislature eventually, will probably serve as a good cautionary example.

(what is that, 50,000?)

500000--800000. Most states have 650000--700000 per seat; the extremes are in small states.

If districts had 50000 people, there would be about 6000 Representatives in the House.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:26 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


America is hilarious.

The first time I saw a US electoral district's boundaries close up, I think I was in shock for a year or so about it. Now it's just funny that anyone calls it a democracy.
posted by blacklite at 11:32 PM on June 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Demockcracy.
posted by Citizen Premier at 11:47 PM on June 9, 2007


The best part about it is there is no way to change it. If we want gerrymandering reform we have to encourage our representatives (the only people who benefit from it) to end it. It's not going to happen. So how do we change it? We need some kind of populist movement that would take certain decisions out of the hands of politicians due to conflict of interest - that includes the ability increase their own pay! I just can't understand how people put up with that shit. Oh wait, American Idol...
posted by any major dude at 7:39 AM on June 10, 2007


The real way that gerrymandering is controlled or at least limited is by the long-term interactions of the parties.

This alone seems like some bare protection. There's inevitably going to arise some kind of temptation for one one party really try to stick it to the other. Maybe it's sheer vindictivness, maybe there's such a significant short-term gain to be made that one party could decide they have a window of opportunity to permanently marginalize the other. Combine that with tit-for-tat feedback ("nasy, nasty payback") and it's easy to forsee long runs of craziness.

For that matter, you could just randomize districts. You would still end up with district boundaries that give some people an electoral advantage, and impose electoral disadvantages on others, relative to some other set of districts. This is an inevitable consequence of drawing district lines.

True. The question is if it's inevitable that the process has to favor the party in power, and if so, how permanently and how dramatically. It's unlikely that a regularly redrawn randomized district map would confer any long-term advantage, and the odds any single drawing would favor any particular party are more or less proportional to the actual support the party has in the region.

The appeal of the latitude approach (or something else like requiring the districts to be convex) is similar, though weaker. It means you can't arbitrarily pick lines that favor your party. People still could and would pick lines that their party (there's the inevitability) but they'd have an additional constraint that would limit their ability to maximize that advantage. In my view, that's worthwhile.
posted by weston at 11:01 AM on June 10, 2007


This alone seems like some bare protection.

It has the advantage of not relying on anything other than sheer greedy self-interest.

There's inevitably going to arise some kind of temptation for one one party really try to stick it to the other.

But in real life, the closest we've seen to that in a looong time has been the recent stuff in Texas, and even that was far from the extremes of what's possible with gerrymandering.

The question is if it's inevitable that the process has to favor the party in power, and if so, how permanently and how dramatically.

There are actual empirical answers to that. They are "ten years" -- the time until the next redistricting -- and "mildly."

Look, nobody ever likes legislatures. They're everyone's eternal whipping boy, in no small part because legislating involves compromise, which is another word for "selling out." They're unpopular because hardly anybody gives a shit what they do, and then people are astonished that they're responsive to the people who do pay attention.

And there's always some current fad for what the real problem is -- something big and sinister that if only we could get rid of it, it would all be better.

Back in the 70s and 80s, it was money; challengers couldn't get enough money to run a credible race. So we put into place some varieties of campaign finance changes, and nothing happened. Nothing happened in part because courts ruled significant parts unconstitutional. But in part, nothing happened because that wasn't the problem. After lots of work and ink spilled, we figured out that challengers don't do poorly because they're poorly funded, they're poorly funded because nobody wants to fund a terrible candidate, and most challengers are terrible candidates by any measure.

Then in the 90s, it was careerism and term limits. This one was especially fun because term limits were going to work by decreasing the social distance between legislators and constituents, and term limits were going to work by doing the exact opposite, at the same time. So a bunch of states enacted them, and precious little changed except a moderate handover of power to full-time staffs and to governors.

And now the talking heads have noticed gerrymandering, and are going on about how if only we didn't have gerrymandering, everything would be better. You'll forgive me if I'm not so sanguine given the track record of this sort of call to action.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:30 AM on June 10, 2007


I think it is somewhat ironic that the USA thinks it's going to export democracy to other countries, when it can't even get it right at home.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:51 PM on June 10, 2007


Given the amount of voting fraud, ZachsMind, I'm fairly certain you can rid yourself of the "belief" part of that, and just accept it as fact.

You say this like it's materially different where you are.

I think it is somewhat ironic that the USA thinks it's going to export democracy to other countries, when it can't even get it right at home.

You say this like it's materially different where you are.
posted by oaf at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2007


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