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Peeling Away Partisanship in Elections

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The Supreme Court has agreed to examine the 2003 redistricting in Texas, which moved the Texas Congressional delegation from a 17-15 Democratic majority to a 21-11 Republican majority.

The arguments will be about legality and minority voting rights, but the underlying case is a more basic one: what are the limits of gerrymandering political districts?

The basic facts are straightforward. The districts are supposed to be redrawn after each Census. They were, but the Texas legislators couldn’t agree, so the issue got bounced to the courts, where a panel of judges simply reaffirmed the existing boundaries. Three years later, Delay and Texas Republicans reopened the issue and redrew the boundaries to suit themselves.[ADBLOCKHERE]

Politically, you’ll be outraged if you’re a Democrat and you think the 2003 redrawing violated the tradition of only redrawing districts after each census. Or you’ll feel justice was served if you’re a Republican who thinks that legislatures, not courts, are supposed to draw the districts, and so the court-drawn districts were illegitimate.

Me, I hope (probably forlornly) that the case will lead to some reasonable rules about drawing political districts. Gerrymandering is wrong, period. Districts should be drawn in ways that make sense, not solely to favor one political party or the other.

Those charged with drawing districts should be required to follow one or more basic rules for the boundaries, such as major geographical or political boundaries (mountains, rivers, city limits) or geometrical guidelines such as average distance from a central point. The boundaries should be susceptible to mathematical or logical analysis using those criteria; districts that fail the analysis are thrown out.

Here’s one idea for how a fair redistricting plan would work.

6. Each district shall be as contiguous as compact as practicable. With respect to compactness, to the extent practicable a contiguous area of population shall not be bypassed to incorporate an area of population more distant.

a. Respect for contiguous and compact districts shall be secondary to the goals of representativness and competitiveness.

7. District boundaries shall conform to the existing geographic boundaries of a county, city, or city and county, and shall preserve identifiable communities of interest to the greatest extent possible. A redistricting plan shall provide for the most whole counties and the fewest county fragments possible, and the most whole cities and fewest city fragments possible. For the purposes of this section, communities of interest are defined by similarities in social, cultural, ethnic, and economic interest, school districts, and other formal relationships between municipalities.

They also suggest forming large, multirepresentative districts and then electing any candidates that get more than 1/3 of the vote. That way you get minority representation without having to gerrymander individual districts.

Couple this with instant-runoff voting and you’d go a long way toward making elections fair, competitive and representative.

Hey, a guy can dream, right?

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About Sean Aqui

  • http://jpsgoddamnblog.blogspot.com JP

    Thanks for bringing this up, this is currently an issue in Georgia in the Athens area. I like the idea of an independent commission with oversight, as this is an issue that’s too easy to manipulate for partisan gain.

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    The problem, of course, is that you need legislative support to change the system, and incumbents have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. That’s why I think it’ll take citizen referenda or court rulings to change things.

  • Hilberto

    The dirty truth of the Texas case is that it was more ridiculously gerrymandered before the 2003 changes than it was after. Compare the maps sometime. The new districts are much more coherent.

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    That may well be; both parties gerrymander. I just wish we’d come up with a system to make them knock it off.

    Anyone have a link showing both maps?

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    Answered my own question.Current map:

    Old map:

    In both cases you’ll need to download a pdf to look at them closely. But speaking strictly geographically, the old map makes more sense. I only see two districts — 4 and 15 — that are seriously messed up, and another one — 28 — that is a bit funky.

    The new map, by contrast, is filled with oddly-shaped districts: 2, 13, 15, 17, 19, 22, 25, 31.

    Can someone explain why the old map is worse than the new one?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Old district map:


    New district map
    :

    IMO it’s a tossup as far as gerrymandering. Both maps have some good districts and some bad ones. For what it’s worth democrat gerrymandered maps of one form or another were in force for like 130 years before Republicans finally got a chance to do it.

    Dave

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    BTW, there are some good articles on this subject on National Review Online, including this most recent one.

    Dave

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    Like I said above, whomever is in power will gerrymander as much as they can get away with. That’s why I’m not bothering to take issue with the specifics of the Texas case and instead am focusing on what can be done to minimize gerrymandering in general.

  • Dave Nalle

    Seems like a worthwhile cause, Sean.

    As for the Texas situation, all I know is that a lot of Republicans who previously were basically disenfranchised by being gerrymandered as minorities in democrat dominated districts now have representation.

    Dave

  • Bliffle

    The ideal districting system might result in proportional representation like an “at large” system, but with reps still associated with identifiable political/religious/ethnic/race/etc. neighborhoods. If such neighborhoods are still identifiable. Still, there are some strictly neighborhood issues that identify a geography, like sewer systems, development, etc.

    Maybe there are just too many factors to take into account.

  • gonzo marx

    i’ve said this months ago in another Thread about the subject…

    gerrymandering is wrong, and hurting us as a Nation

    you want to get rid of it?

    simplicity itself

    take current Census data, the boundaries of cities, counties and states….nter into a database and have the program draw the lines of the Districs , supervised by the Federal Election Commission

    update after every Census

    now, no political or partisan influence can effect the districts, hard numbers and geographic boundaries are the baseline criteria

    the program could be written by any competent grad school student…hell, have a scholarship cometition at M.I.T. and you will get plenty of workable solutions in a month

    problem solved once and for all

    nuff said?

    Excelsior!

  • Baronius

    If you want to end gerrymandering, it’s simple. Triple the size of Congress.

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    And then let the number of representatives grow as the population grows. But even then you’d have to redraw district lines as population centers grow, shrink and shift.

    I can’t even imagine what keeping tabs on a 1,200-person House would be like. The old Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies had 2,200 members or so, but since nobody actually cared what they thought, I expect it wasn’t a big problem….

  • Baronius

    Sean, I agree that there would continue to be the potential for gerrymandering in a 1200-person House. But it would be so unrewarding. Corruption requires a good return on investment; otherwise it’s not worth the effort.

    A congressman from a 200,000-constituent district would have greater need for my vote, and would have to pay attention. He would represent me and my neighbors, not me and 1/14th of my state. He’d be less able to use redistricting to balance constituent blocks.

    Also, I suspect that a larger Congress would be less able to consolidate power around a few individuals. People don’t like to be jerked around by their equals, and a giant Congress would be more able to prevent it from happening. I could be wrong about this aspect, however. Some things play out differently in real life than on paper. Still I think it’d be worth the risk.