Congressional Redistricting

October 13, 2010

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As some of you may be aware, there was a census in 2010.  A major result of the census will be a reapportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives.  States lose seats when they grow at a slower pace than the rest of the nation (and thus represent a smaller percentage of citizens) and gain seats when they grow at a faster rate than the rest of the nation.

For this reason, races for the state legislatures are critically important in many states.  In 36 states, the legislature is responsible for drawing the new districts.  The party that controls the state legislature controls the redistricting process.

On the surface, this would appear to be a rather straightforward exercise – but there is an ugly underbelly to the process.  Whichever party is in control of the legislature would prefer to consolidate the supporters on the other part into as few districts as possible.

Let’s look at a very simple example.  We have a state with six congressional districts.  There are thirty citizens – eighteen are affiliated with the Alpha party and twelve with the Beta party.  Let’s look at two different district maps.

The first map cuts the state of Confusion into two identical halves north/south and three equal sections east/west.  The resulting districts each have three Alphas and two Betas.  If everyone toes the party line, the states representatives in the US House will all be Alphas.

The second map cuts the state into three sections north/south and two sections east/west.  This time, the districts break down this way:

  • District 1: 5 Alpha, 0 Beta
  • District 2: 5 Alpha, 0 Beta
  • District 3: 3 Beta, 2 Alpha
  • District 4: 3 Beta, 2 Alpha
  • District 5: 3 Beta, 2 Alpha
  • District 6: 3 Beta, 2 Alpha

Now, the Alphas – comprising sixty percent of the voters, statewide – hold just two of the congressional districts, while the minority Betas will send four representatives to Washington.

These maps were drawn without any attempt to manipulate – just simply by splitting a rectangular state into six equal parts via the two most logical methods.  Yet, we end up with a situation where neither map will send a congressional delegation that accurate reflects the political distribution of the constituents.

Now, imagine that politicians were to get involved?  The party in control of the state legislature could do several things to minimize the political power of the opposing party.  They could consolidate the supporters of the other part into as few districts as possible (as I’ve done with the second scenario above) or draw the maps in such a way that two (or more) incumbents from the other party are now in the same district.

The courts help to reign in the worst of the gerrymandering (creating non-contiguous districts in an effort to strengthen the power of one party), but I wonder why we even need to travel down this road any more.

One solution would be to simply make the US House seats represent all constituents of the state.  If you have six representatives, they represent every citizen of the state.

This wouldn’t be a popular idea – or even a good one – in many states.  San Diego has issues that San Francisco doesn’t, and vice versa.  A generic “California” representative might not have enough knowledge to competently represent the entire state.

Earlier, I mentioned that state legislatures draw the districts in 36 states.  What do the others do?  Well, seven state have just one representative, making the issue academic.

Five states – Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, Washington – have an independent bipartisan committee draw the districts without interference from the legislature.  In Iowa and Maine, an independent body proposes redistricting plans, which must then be approved by the legislature.

I’d like to see a move toward more states using a bipartisan group to redistrict.  It’s impossible for each district to reflect the political leanings of the entire state – and in many cases, you’ll see completely fair maps that happen to lean toward one party by mere coincidence – simply because some geographical area within the state are more liberal or conservative that the state as a whole.

However, intentional gerrymandering of districts undermines the will of the voters – and continued partisan involvement in the process can only serve to make the problem worse.


April 7, 2009

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There will be gubernatorial elections in 38 states in 2009 and 2010. This is causing great happiness or sorrow among hard core party members, depending on the situation.

Why the big fuss?

In 2010, states will redraw district lines as a result of the census. Some states will lose members of the US House of Representatives, other will gain members, and some will simply redraw lines to balance the number of residents in each district.

Sounds incredibly straightforward and boring, huh?

Unfortunately, there is a lot of politics inside the art of redrawing the lines. If the governor is from the same party as the party that controls the state legislature, they can basically redraw the lines in any manner they see fit, and there’s not much the minority party can do.

The key is to consolidate the constituents of your opponent into as few districts as possibly. Let’s take an example state that has 100 voters and 10 congressional districts. 60 are party A, 40 are party B. If the voters are equally dispersed among the districts, party A would win 6-4 in every district and thus all of the states representatives in the US House would be from party A.

Let’s mix those voters up bit.

District 1: 10 A, 0 B
District 2: 10 A, 0 B
District 3: 10 A, 0 B
District 4: 6 A, 4 B
District 5: 4 A, 6 B
District 6: 4 A, 6 B
District 7: 4 A, 6 B
District 8: 4 A, 6 B
District 9: 4 A, 6 B
District 10: 4 A, 6 B

By pushing half of the party A voters into districts 1-3, party B created a situation where they hold an advantage in 6 of the 10 districts!

Obviously, in the real word, it isn’t quite that blatant. But politicians do draw some funny looking districts in an attempt to minimize the impact of the opponents.  The name Gerrymander is in “honor” of Elbridge Gerry who served as governor of Massachusetts from 1810-1812.  Some of the districts drawn during his tenure resembled a salamander.  Gerry + salamander = gerrymander.

I loathe this practice nearly as much as I hate filibusters. I don’t know if there is a perfect solution, but I would propose creating a bipartisan commission to draw the boundaries – half of the members would be from each party. They would be forced to agree on a compromise (which, in theory, should be a map that is fair to both parties).

And if they refuse to agree? They would not be allowed to hold the next scheduled house race until the situation was resolved. A situation could be created where a state did not have representation for a period of time. Can you imagine the impact if a state like Texas or California was unable to seat representatives? My hope would be that the fear of backlash from voters would be enough to force a compromise.