Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nonpartisan redistricting

Last week, Simon over at Stubborn Facts linked to a group that has developed a mathematical algorithm for drawing Congressional districts -- one that would make gerrymandering a thing of the past.

The so-called splitline algorithm follows a few simple rules to divide up a state using the fewest number of straight lines as possible.

For example, here's how Tennessee looks now:


And here's how it would look if the algorithm were used:


Obviously, the computer-generated map seems far more in keeping with the spirit of geographical representation.

But just as obviously, the upside of total nonpartisanship is gained at the expense of ignoring all existing natural and political boundaries. The district lines would arbitrarily split cities, neighborhoods, even streets. It would be technically simple to determine what district you were in using a GPS device, but it would be hard to do so simply looking at a map.

That said, gerrymandering often produces the same result, and for far less defensible reasons.

Such a problem seems solvable, however. The algorithm could be linked to a database of geographical and political boundaries, and modified to draw the simplest districts while giving maximum deference to those boundaries. The key point -- automated, nonpartisan district drawing -- would be retained. All that would change is that the district borders would get a little more complicated in order to be easier to understand.

Like Simon says, it's a start, not a finish. But it's a promising one.

BTW, here's how Minnesota might look.



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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck. Dems would NEVER go for it.....because it wouldn't pick up the minorities as they like to do.

JP5

7/26/2007 10:13 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Are you actually going to claim that Republicans, by contrast, *would* go for it?

I think, having seen the tussle in Texas among others, parties at the state level may realize that the risk of coming out on the losing end in a partisan gerrymander are unacceptably high. I predict a slow but general trend of shifting to procedures like this one, or having the lines drawn by a nonpartisan commission rather than the legislatures.

7/26/2007 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Republicans would come more going for it than Dems, IMHO. The Dems in Texas had gerrymandered our district maps to their advantage for decades and decades.
JP5

7/26/2007 2:54 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

While it is unsurprising that you would hold that opinion, I see no basis in fact or history to support it.

I don't see one party or the other being notably more or less receptive to this. It may come down to whether they think including it as part of a "clean government" crusade will help them politically.

7/26/2007 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, while a novel idea.....I doubt it could take the politics out of it....EVEN IF a group other than the elected officials do it. Bottom line is the district maps should reflect the political leanings of a state. In other words, if 65% of the state voted Republican in the last couple of elections, then the maps should NOT be drawn such that more DEMOCRATs are assured of getting elected. That's what had happened in Texas during the late 90's. And the Dems sought to keep control with their gerrymandered maps. Republicans did NOT let that happen. And rightly so.

JP5

7/27/2007 9:45 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Bottom line is the district maps should reflect the political leanings of a state.

The political leanings of the state -- how precisely do you determine that with any accuracy, anyway? -- should play zero role. The lines should be drawn without reference to politics, and let the votes fall where they may.

In other words, if 65% of the state voted Republican in the last couple of elections, then the maps should NOT be drawn such that more DEMOCRATs are assured of getting elected.

Agreed. But neither should a state that is 65% Republican be gerrymandered so that 90% of the Congressional delegation is Republican.

7/27/2007 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to the issue of minorities, the problem is not that Democrats "wouldn't pick up the minorities as they like to do", it's that automation of this sort would not create districts in which minority voters could exercise some measure of control.

For example, in the Houston area you can create both Latino and African-American districts but you have to go out of your way to specifically divide each population into its district. No computer algorithm would ever do it unless it was specifically trying to create those minority districts.

Of course, once you deliberately create minority districts, you have just ensured the creation of solid Democratic districts (according to current political leanings of minority voters).

And consider this -- that only as long as minorities continue to be so overwhelmingly one-sided POLITICALLY, will minority districts continue to be an issue.

7/27/2007 11:04 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Back to the issue of minorities, the problem is not that Democrats "wouldn't pick up the minorities as they like to do", it's that automation of this sort would not create districts in which minority voters could exercise some measure of control.

Yep. Later today I hope to post an update delving into those issues; I deliberately didn't get into the complexities of such "proportional representation" concerns in this post.

To sum up my overall reaction, though: too bad. While race plays a role in politics, it's usually a regrettable one. I see no reason to reinforce the concept in the structure of our political maps. Given the tension between districts that are natural and nonpartisan and a Congress that is jiggered to look like America, I'll toss the latter overboard.

Especially because racial gerrymandering has been manipulated to other ends, creating myriad safe Republican and Democratic districts in the name of racial balance. It's the camel's nose under the tent.

7/27/2007 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The lines should be drawn without reference to politics, and let the votes fall where they may."

So, you have no problem with Democrats drawing snaking lines to capture as many Democrats in order to assure a win in that district?

It's usually the racial aspect that gets gerrymandered in the first place. That's because---as stated above--- blacks vote typically about 90% Democrat. Republicans typically draw the lines as they make more sense. It's Democrats....KNOWING that capturing more blacks....is more likely to result in a win for them, who gerrymander the lines.

JP5

7/27/2007 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that a "let the votes fall where they may" approach is in theory the ideal to shoot for, just that it will never happen as long as minorities are so one-sided politically (see my 11:04am post).

JP5 is right in one respect that the most strangely shaped districts, on the whole, have been minority districts, but I wouldn't give Republicans too much credit. They seem just as willing to grab whatever they feel they can get away with.

ATex

7/27/2007 1:21 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

So, you have no problem with Democrats drawing snaking lines to capture as many Democrats in order to assure a win in that district?

How on earth did you draw that conclusion from what I wrote?

Absolutely, entirely, categorically NO.

7/27/2007 1:47 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

JP5 is right in one respect that the most strangely shaped districts, on the whole, have been minority districts, but I wouldn't give Republicans too much credit. They seem just as willing to grab whatever they feel they can get away with.

In fact, I recall that there was a fairly explicit deal: Republicans agreed to help create minority districts, creating a number of Republican districts along the way. Republicans gained 10 House seats in the 1992 elections -- 12 of them in states where minority districts had been created. Gains in those states, in other words, offset losses elsewhere.

7/27/2007 2:05 PM  

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