Monday, March 6, 2017


In my recent tendency toward getting very interested in procedural civic and electoral issues that always used to bore me, I have been thinking a lot about electoral districts in states, which of course means that I've been thinking a lot about gerrymandering.  I maybe started thinking about this last year when I read this article from the Washington Post.  It is about a computer-generated algorithm that automatically generates districts roughly equal in population, that are optimally compact, unlike the typical oddly-shaped gerrymandered districts.  I fell in love with this idea at first sight, and am still fond of it, though further research has given me a bit more nuance in my opinion.  First of all, with such a nonhuman process you might lose the possibility of empowering certain marginalized racial or other minority groups.  Creating districts with a solid majority of one group (blacks, Republicans, the poor, etc.) can give that group a much-needed and much-merited power base within a state and within national politics, but then that group's input is totally removed from other districts.  On the other hand, splitting such a demographic group across districts can ensure that their concerns are somewhat taken into account by multiple candidates that need their support in a coalition voter base, but the interests of any single group are never going to be solidly represented in such a diverse district.  This is of course a tricky topic, but I think most people would agree that, in a state with different types of populations concentrated in certain delimited areas, there must be a balance struck between encouraging diverse voices within districts, and ensuring that some groups have districts that are solidly their own.  In either case, a computer algorithm alone will likely not achieve this.

I then tried to learn a bit about redistricting commissions, which operate in many states for the state Legislature, and in fewer states for the US House of Representatives.  Of course mid- to large-sized commissions could go too partisan one way or the other, or get caught up in the same horse-trading that typifies states where the Legislature itself is outright responsible for electoral districting, but they seem to be an inherently superior alternative to leaving redistricting entirely up to partisan elected officials.  I ran across this article about Iowa's system, which seems really cool, and possibly a model to follow.  In Iowa, three people (not elected and nonpartisan) work on redistricting every ten years after the census.  Extreme measures are taken to isolate them from partisan politics, such that in their district boundaries they are only considering population, and attempting not to split cities or counties across districts if possible.

I think Iowa's system is great, but it might be difficult to do in a more populous and ethnically diverse state, where there arguably should not be a totally race-blind approach nor too much power in the hands of too few redistricters.  In Illinois, for instance, I don't think it would be fair to subject the districting of some twelve million people to the best efforts of a three-person committee.  Nevertheless, maybe by combining the totally-objective computer algorithm, with the nonpartisan but common-sense approach of Iowa (attempting to respect city and county boundaries when possible, for example) and a larger redistricting committee like in California, you could get a decent result.

The backdrop for all of this thinking of mine about fair Congressional redistricting is the common and well-supported allegation that Republicans have systematically tilted the electoral map in favor of their party throughout the US, such that in many states the partisan split of Congressional seats does not at all correspond to the partisan split of the population.  I think some degree of this is normal and even desireable; the same logic that dictates that each state should have two US Senators and at least three presidential electoral votes, no matter how small the population, would also advocate for some over-representation at the within-state level of rural voters if the urban voters are concentrated into smaller geographic spaces.  This seems fair to me.  But this over-representation has reached an extreme that is totally absurd right now.  Consider the fact that Democrats in the US seem to be far numerically superior to Republicans, yet Republicans right now are far superior in the number of comfortably-held House seats.  Or consider that a now solidly-Democrat state like Virginia has something like two thirds of its US Representative seats in Republican hands.  I can't get on board with some recent Democrat efforts that aim to do in 2021 what the Republicans did in 2011, consolidating local and state power in order to disproportionately affect redistricting processes across many states.  My style, as made clear above, would be to aim for a fairer, nonpartisan way of divvying up districts.  But to take a larger, Zen-like perspective, I have to admit that, if Democrat efforts to gerrymander some states serve as a counterbalance to the prevailing Republican abuse of the system, then I accept the existence of both trends as a valid part of the push and pull inherent to any system, despite personally subscribing to neither side's approach entirely.

This all takes yet another angle in light of presidential politics and the electoral college.  After the Trump election, many groups on the left are calling for abolishing the electoral college, or having states allot their votes according to the nationwide popular vote (which amounts to about the same thing).  But if you did that, you would lose the aim of the electoral college system, which is to give smaller, less populous states a voice.  If everything were decided by nationwide popular vote, then presidents would focus only on the concerns of the big population centers like New York, Chicago, LA, and Dallas-Houston.  National executive policy would totally forget about Wyoming and even Iowa, and we'd start looking like some underdeveloped country with opulent cities served by national politicians, contrasted with a depressed hinterland entirely neglected by them (even moreso than we already do).  Again, the other extreme, which we have now, of totally exagerrating the voice of a resentful white non-urban minority is not good either.  My proposal here would be to divide each state's electoral votes by the popular tally in that state.  If you did this, then everyone's vote would truly count--Republican presidential votes in Illinois wouldn't be lost as they currently are, nor Democratic votes in Mississippi or Kansas.  Furthermore, candidates would have to campaign in 50 states, not just 5 or ten swing states in a given election, and they would have to compete for the vote of those moderate Democrats and Republicans in every state, instead of just ginning and churning up the most extreme part of their base.  My proposal of dividing each state's electoral votes according to its popular tally might force national candidates to become more moderate.

A proposal that sounds similar to mine is to apportion state electoral college votes by Congressional district (note too in this article the prominent place of Priebus and Spicer, long before they were every probably dreaming of becoming big wazoos in the Trump regime).  Again, with this system Illinois wouldn't give 20 votes to Hillary Clinton, but rather 16 votes to her and some four votes to Trump.  And Mississippi might have given three votes to Trump and one to Clinton.  I would support this measure if Congressional districts were fairly drawn, but I've just spent this entire post talking about how they're not, so that's a no-go until you get rid of gerrymandering.  As it is right now, the only people really pushing for dividing each state's electoral votes by the results per Congressional district are Republicans in gerrymandered states that consistently lean Democratic in the presidential elections but that have mainly Republican House seats, so the proposal looks more like a cynical way to wrest presidential votes from Democrats than an honest attempt to make the system fairer.

I guess the bottom line is that I want fairness in our elections and our representation.  This doesn't necessarily mean a pure representative breakdown of partisan politics--I think it's fair for Republicans and conservatives in general to have almost-equal representation in our national dialogue, even if they represent an overall numerical minority.  But it's by no measure fair for Republicans to outright dominate the national discussion despite being a minority in the country.

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