Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Redistricting Game

The Redistricting Game, put together by USC, is a tremendous amount of fun. You get the opportunity to be a partisan hack gerrymandering districts to your party's advantage. I played through the whole sequence. I remember being really disappointed when California voters rejected nonpartisan redistricting; the concept seems like it should be a no-brainer to me.

My one caveat is that I'm not really convinced that geographic compactness should be placed at such a high priority over more conceptual cohesiveness. What I mean is that it should be more important for district boundaries to follow well-established regional boundaries than for the districts to be shaped roughly like a square. Regions may follow coastlines, narrow valleys, railroads, highways, rivers, or other linear features, and if that is the case, then a congressional district following such a shape should not be tagged for violating geographic compactness.

There's a fine line, of course, between following a linear feature and gerrymandering to insure a safe seat for an incumbent party. A district following the narrow coastline of Santa Barbara, for example, would be perfectly reasonable, but the tortuous lengths to which the actual districts in California stretch themselves in order to capture areas of similar demographics is inexcusable.


At Sunday, June 24, 2007 at 3:23:00 PM PDT, Anonymous doafy said...

That was a good time!

At Tuesday, June 26, 2007 at 9:33:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Victor said...

The essential problem is not the lack of nonpartisan line-drawers (there are no such things), but (1) the US courts' insistence that the population of every district be equal "one man, one vote" apparently means "one man, equal strength of vote"; (2) the racialist "civil rights" angle and the threat of lawsuits; and (3) the constitutional requirement to redraw every 10 years.

As a result, US districts bear no resemblance whatever to anything resembling a community, except those defined by race. They're even given numbers -- who the heck gives two hoots about the 17th District as opposed to, say, "Long Beach."

Parliamentary districts in Britain have real names and a certain inequality of size is tolerated in order to follow historic boundaries in order to give as much historic continuity and district "meaning" as possible. But these goods aren't even in principle possible if you MUST have equal-sized districts. And at that point, the pretense has been given to support as gerrymandered a map as the party in power can manage.

There is a downside of rotten boroughs, mind you. But that is not the vice that faces the current US districting system, which has gotten so good at partisan gerrymandering that only about 75-100 US House seats are ever going to be in play. With the rest, it's politicians choosing their voters, not the other way round.

At Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 1:55:00 AM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

I don't remember precisely which year it was --- it may have been 2004 --- but in the November election that year, not a single one of California's 53 Congressional districts, 80 Assembly districts, or 20 State senate districts changed party hands.

Vic -- there are already a number of people (not ones from small states, naturally) who are already bothered by the fact that, say, Delaware and Wyoming each get the same number of Senators as, say, California and Texas. But I think the compromise of the bicameral legislature pretty much settled the big state/small state issue.

If we're going to have a split like that I don't see what the problem is with having equal strength of vote in each district. Otherwise I don't know how you'd come up with districts anybody would agree are fair; if a city like Las Vegas grows quickly while a place like Detroit goes into decline I don't know why we'd freeze their representation at one particular point in time. Eventually, yeah, you'd get rotten boroughs.

As Wikipedia says, "Prior to 1968, state senate districts were restricted such that one county could only hold at most one seat. This led to the situation of Los Angeles County, with 6 million residents as of 1968, receiving 600 times less representation than residents of Alpine County and Calaveras County, some of California's least populous counties." Actually, Alpine County's population is only about 1,000, which means the disparity was a factor of 6,000, not 600, and it would be a factor of about 10,000 today. States are coherent, pseudo-sovereign entities, while counties are basically just administrative divisions with municipal powers (at best, depending on state law). I'm fine with unequal strength of vote for the U.S. Senate (and not state legislatures) for that reason, but I think the courts are right in insisting that the House of Representatives be, well, representative.

I think at best, a fairly-drawn, compact congressional district should be essentially describable by a quick descriptor. For example, I should really be represented by somebody whose district is more or less defined as "Western San Gabriel Valley." Instead, my district can only be described as "most of northeastern San Gabriel Valley, parts of the southwest SGV, and parts of East L.A."


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