Friday, July 27, 2007

Redistricting update

In Wednesday's post about a new redistricting algorithm, I focused on the technical specifics of the proposed method, and the pros and cons that made it different from previous proposals.

I deliberately avoided delving into all the standing arguments about how best to draw districts, largely because I've discussed them in tedious detail before. But judging by the comments and e-mails I've received, a quick overview would be useful.

The complicating factor is that there are situations where gerrymandering produces a better result than a purely nonpartisan approach. That's because redistricting involves several legitimate but competing principles:

1. District boundaries should make geographic sense.

2. District boundaries should be nonpartisan.

3. The makeup of Congress should reflect the makeup of the citizenry.
If a given group makes up 15 percent of the citizens, it should probably have about 15 percent of the Congressional seats.

4. Districts should be socially coherent, so that their representative can truly represent them. A suburban neighborhood on the edge of the city, for instance, is better grouped with a suburban district with similar demographics than an urban district with which it has nothing in common.

The problem is that #4 is highly subjective, and it's hard to get #3 if you want both #2 and #1. For instance, assuming minorities are somewhat evenly spread through the population, a totally nonpartisan approach would create zero districts where blacks, say, are a majority -- greatly reducing the political power of black voters.

So one consequence of a completely objective method for drawing districts would probably be a steep drop in the number of minority members of Congress.

That doesn't feel right. That's why increasing minority representation is one of the few legal exceptions to the "no excessive gerrymandering" rules.

Besides leading to travesties like District 12 on the above map of North Carolina, such efforts created a whole new set of problems. Republicans, for instance, found that if you draw those minority districts right you not only get more minorities but you also get more safe Republican seats. 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.

This, in turn, has contributed to careerism and the alarming polarization of national politics, because someone with a safe seat is free to demagogue as much as they like, and it's harder to find common ground with other legislators. Why would a representative from poor inner-city Detroit care about the issues most dear to people in suburban Orange County, Calif.? Or vice versa? Their constituents have almost nothing in common.

If more districts were politically and racially mixed, you might find more legislators with direct experience and interest in a range of issues, making sane policy and pragmatic compromises more likely.

The problems don't end there.

Once you allow gerrymandering for one purpose, it opens the door for a whole host of questions, like: How much gerrymandering is too much? If it's okay to gerrymander for race, how about gender or religion or other demographic features? You end up having to engage in a lot more arbitrary, complicated and difficult-to-defend line-drawing than if you simply ban the practice altogether.

And while we must recognize race as a political force, why should we encourage it? Being willfully color-blind often disguises residual racism, but that doesn't mean we should build racial assumptions into the very structure of our political system. Perhaps if we stop reinforcing the idea that race should be a factor in politics, it will stop being as much of a factor.

In the end, while #3 and #4 are commendable ideals, in my book they come in second to #1 and #2. As an extension of adjusting the algorithm to account for existing political boundaries I'm willing to accept very minor adjustments to a district's boundaries in order to nudge it over into "minority" status. That will result in fewer minority districts, but more than if no adjusting were done at all.

To minorities who say that such a move destroys their political power, I'd say "join the club." Speaking as an agnostic political moderate, I can confidently say my views aren't proportionately represented in Congress, either.

The solution to that is to organize politically to create a voice out of proportion to your numbers. It worked for the religious right; it works for unions; it can work for racial groups, too. And it has the added advantage of making a given minority's concerns part of the political calculus of a far larger number of Congressmembers. Sufficiently organized, that could result in far greater political influence than could every be achieved by packing minorities into their own districts.

Even better would be to stop viewing representation through the prism of race and start organizing around specific issues instead. Symbolically important as minorities in Congress can be, would black voters, for instance, really prefer a black representative with whom they totally disagree, or a white representative whose positions they support?

Here in Minnesota, one of the main political divides is rural vs. urban. I find it difficult to believe that a rural black has more in common politically with an urban black than with a fellow rural dweller of any color.

In sum, then, the collective good of removing politics from the redistricting process generally outweighs the collective good of proportional representation. The first should be the priority, while the second should be a bonus to be added where possible -- but only if it doesn't derail the whole shebang.

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Blogger Pete Abel said...

Brilliant post, Sean. Well researched. Thoughtful. Thorough. Again, just plain brilliant.

7/27/2007 4:21 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Wow. Thanks. (blush)

7/27/2007 4:26 PM  

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