“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.