Thursday, November 11, 2010


On Gerrymandering

Zombie has a great primer up on gerrymandering -- also known as the Congressional practice of making your district contain only (or nearly only) the voters who support you, even if your district winds up looking like a pretzel.

(Or like a salamander... which is what Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts did, nearly two hundred years ago; hence the name.  See here for more background, and the cartoon that gave the practice its name.  It turns out that Mr. Gerry didn't originate the practice named after him; it was done in 1788, under the direction of none other than Patrick Henry, to keep James Madison out of Congress. )

This is a subject of some sensitivity to me, and not just because I live in the state that made gerrymandering famous.  Some of the most ridiculously gerrymandered Congressional districts in America are here in Massachusetts, and my own -- MA-04, the home of the unfortunately re-elected Barney Frank -- is one of the worst of all.

As Zombie points out, gerrymandering is by no means limited to one party, but it has been the specialty of Democrats for a long time.  This may now change; redistricting of Congress happens every ten years, after the decennial census required by the Constitution, and new districts for each state are drawn up by that state's legislature, where Republicans have made impressive gains.  So in 2011, Republicans will be in a position to get some of their own back.  (There's a spirited discussion going on in Zombie's comments, arguing whether or not Republicans should now gerrymander in their own favor.)

Could Congressional districts be drawn up in a more fair (i.e. nonpartisan) manner?  It seems that mathematicians have been arguing about that for some time, but aren't agreed on the best way to do it.

(I must say, I like some of the proposals offered in Zombie's comments.  This one looks promising -- restrict the census to what the Constitution requires, namely the number of people per household, without ethnic info or voting registration or anything else.  I think it's naive to assume that this would do away with gerrymandering... although it does mean that, if a politician wants to make a "safe" district for himself, he'll need to gather the demographic information on his own, instead of the Federal government doing it for him at taxpayer expense.  I'd like that.)

Personally, I detest the idea of "safe" seats.  There's a reason these people need to stand for re-election every few years, and it should not be a mere formality!  With very few exceptions, I refuse to vote in uncontested elections, and I wish we had a lot fewer of them.  So I'd be against a redistricting solution that preserved "safe" seats, even if the representation is fair (e.g. 45% of the state voting Democrat and 45% of the districts "safe" for Democrats).

Instead, I'd much rather we divvy up the districts themselves.  Every census comes two years after a statewide election, in which we can determine what percentage, statewide, voted for each major party.  Fine; let the redistricting, after the census, try to preserve that ratio, district by district, with a major priority being to keep each district as compact and geographically contiguous as possible.  If it's not feasible -- say, if a state voted exactly 50% Democrat and 50% Republican, and the best we can do for one district is to make it 55% Republican -- then let that be balanced out in another district, which would therefore be 55% Democrat.

Neoneocon has more to say on this, here and here.  And Zombie has posted Part II of the previous essay, listing ten of the worst gerrymandered districts, ten more that don't even bother to be contiguous (have they no shame??)... and some ridiculous honorable mentions.  (I'm surprised to see that only one Massachusetts district made the cut, and for an honorable mention at that... although sure enough, it's mine, MA-04.)


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