Optimally Compact (Non-Gerrymandered) Congressional Districts

“Republicans have been accused of abandoning the poor. It’s the other way around. They never vote for us.” – Dan Quayle

A good friend BLW passed along an article on a computer program that draws optimally compact congressional districts. The main point is this: it is not all that difficult to gin up a computer algorithm that draws optimally compact (and non-gerrymandered) districts. Perhaps we should demand that all congressional districts be drawn this way … but that seems like a big leap.

The dreaded gerrymander has become a rather ubiquitous tool used to sway Congressional control. Every 10 years there’s a new census. The outcome of that census determines the distribution of congressional seats. If a state gains or loses seats it must redraw its districts (to account for the change in total seats). That redistricting process is largely at the discretion of the state legislature, and gerrymandering is an amazingly effective tool at rigging seat distributions. Thus, whoever wins the biggest in local elections on years ending in zero can expect a boost.

So it was in 2010, when the national backlash against president Obama was in full force and Republicans cleaned up in local and state elections. After the census results were in, a number of states (now with Republican dominated legislatures) had to redistrict. Boy did they. This Mother Jones article and this NYT Article from 2012 rail against the injustices of Republican-dominated gerrymandering, noting that Democrats actually won the popular congressional vote, but still had a 33 seat deficit in the new House. (To be fair, the articles also noted that Democrat-run states do exactly the same thing … state’s like Maryland, my home state.)

The problem with mandating optimally compact districts is the same as self-enforced term limits or “popular vote winner take all” stipulations for the electoral college: nobody can do it unless everybody does, and not everybody will.

For those who don’t recall, there was a big kerfuffle after the 2000 election, where Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the electoral college. At the time, a number of left-leaning states sought to amend their constitutions to mandate that their state’s votes always went to the popular vote winner. The problem is that this only makes sense if everybody does it. But what happens if a Republican wins the popular vote but a Democrat wins the electoral college? Any idea how quickly the legislatures would overturn the amendment to prevent the Republican from winning?

Same for self-enforced term limits. If one side puts term limits on themselves and the other doesn’t, it puts them at a meaningful disadvantage. (Fundraising, power of incumbency, understanding the inner workings of the congress.)

Unless there is a constitutional amendment mandating that all states adopt an optimally compact framework (or that all congressmen and senators have term limits) you can forget about it ever coming to pass.

There’s also another mild problem, as the article notes: the Voting Rights Act. The act actually mandates majority-minority districts in some cases. This helps to make sure that minorities get elected to congress, but it also helps to make sure that “the other party” has a general seat advantage. Gerrymandering a district of 95% African Americans (who vote 93% Democrat) is a great way for Republicans to maintain a majority. This pits two Democrat priorities against one another.

Now, I haven’t done any research, but my guess is that the vast majority of Americans would prefer non-gerrymandered districts, just as the vast majority would likely prefer term limits for Congress. It is curious how something that almost everybody supports just doesn’t come to pass. Perhaps we lack the willingness to vote the bums out (even “our” bums) when they don’t do what we want.


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3 Responses to Optimally Compact (Non-Gerrymandered) Congressional Districts

  1. “The problem with mandating optimally compact districts is the same as self-enforced term limits or “popular vote winner take all” stipulations for the electoral college: nobody can do it unless everybody does, and not everybody will.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this; that is, I don’t think changing redistricting (or, in my opinion, moving away from districts altogether) is as impossible as this suggests. The electoral college comparison is actually a good example: not every state does it the same way *now*. So it isn’t clear why all 50 states would have to jump together to a new, humans-out-of-the-loop redistricting procedure. Admittedly, perhaps all Maine and Nebraska have done is eliminate themselves from having any real influence on election outcomes :)… but their “hybrid” approach certainly makes more sense than the disproportionately influential outcomes of single states like Ohio, Florida, etc.

    (I assume by changing to “popular vote winner take all” you mean the *national* popular vote, since the other 48 states already allocate their votes to the *state* popular vote winner. I think this would actually be a *less* desirable– or at least, less sensible– approach than simply allocating electoral college votes based on *district* outcomes like Maine and Nebraska do… but at that point, the need for the college in the first place starts to become questionable.)

    • nomasir says:

      First, some notes on the options. I theoretically prefer “winner take all” by popular vote (i.e., eliminate the electoral college). The downside of that approach is that not all states/districts/municipalities enforce the same level of rigor on vote purity. Telling any ne’er-do-well district that they can sway the election by cheating is bad news (as the system of ensuring vote purity currently stands). On the flip side, the Nebraska/Maine approach presents a different problem – it exacerbates the impact of gerrymandering. Not in Nebraska or Maine, of course, where there are few districts. But, as one of the articles noted, if all states had followed that model in 2012 Mitt Romney would have WON by 5 votes in the EC due to heavy Republican gerrymandering. (I recognize that this isn’t exactly a fair comparison as a Nebraska model would have resulted in different tactics by both campaigns.)

      Perhaps I should have stated that the fundamental problems are two-fold. First (which I did note) is that the “party” that moves first towards fairness puts itself at a disadvantage. Second (which I did not note) is that the people who stand to GAIN from unfairness in the system are the same people who make the decisions. This second note doesn’t always have to be true. E.g., there are states where ballot measures are easy enough to introduce and can carry the day (I believe California has done this with districting). Interestingly, the common-man, even the heavily partisan one, I think would prefer the non-gerrymandered world. Thus, a ballot measure on a per-state basis to make “optimally compact” districts might have legs … and thus is not as impossible as Congressional term limits, which appear to still be a pipe dream.

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