The saying about lawmaking and sausage making rings true, but surely we all would benefit from understanding the true processes of government. The average citizen and voter may not much care about the inside ball of politics, but to ignore it means to be at a disadvantage when attempting to engage civically.
One such piece of this puzzle is being pushed by politicians and the media in the last few cycles. I has been a hot topic for a number of years, but it is all coming to a head with the 2020 census fast approaching, the one-per-decade redistricting that takes place across our country. It is a constitutional requirement to reconsider the allocation of voters into districts based on the updated census data. This will happen after the next election. Because it is looming, many of our most-recently-elected representation made it a campaign issue this time around, citing unfairness and perhaps even corruption in the current process.
It is a necessary exercise. When the populations fluctuate, so must the way that the voters are represented within our Republic. The problem, of course, is that partisan control over the redistricting process can confer a decade-long advantage to that party. The stakes are already high, but given the touchy nature of the issue to begin with, this is one of those areas where accusing the other side of malfeasance would seem to be a good weapon in your path to victory.
The term was coined in 1813 in an article/cartoon published in the Boston Gazette criticizing the redrawing of Massachusetts State Senate districts in 1812. The oddly shaped district he likened to a Salamander, portrayed in its mythical form as a fire-breathing, dragon-like monster. It was named for the Democratic-Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. His redistricting was intended to suppress his political opponents, the Federalists, and the name and its imagery was likely their work.
Gerrymandering represents one of the great bugbears in modern politics. The Democrats, in particular, have made this one of their very top issues in recent elections and, having largely won this time around, they now must follow through with definitive action. In this endevor, they likely have support across a broad political spectrum.
Surely it is heresy to suggest that gerrymandering might actually be good?
Well, lets look at some of the most obvious and egregious examples, such as the 4th Congressional District in Illinois.
The complexity of the issue is this; the purpose of creating such a district was to create an Hispanic minority-majority district. Any purely-geographical constructions of this district would consign the Hispanic population to a minority, presumably denying them a proper political voice. By creating these outrageous borders, they now represent a majority within the district. In fact, failing to create a district with these characteristics may result in a lawsuit for denying representation based upon race.
Legally, this takes us into a kind of Supreme Court bizarro world. Obviously, a racially-gerrymandered district for the purposes of suppressing minority votes would be declared unconstitutional. It’s far less clear when if we’re talking about racially-gerrymandered districts created for the purposes of enhancing minority voters rights. It would seem that the reverse should still apply – that is, reverse discrimination is still discrimination. What the Court has ruled, however, is that strict scrutiny shall apply. That is, the redistricting authority must show that they are serving a compelling governmental need.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where your standing on this one), there is a far easier way. Counterintuitively, gerrymandering purely for political reasons is perfectly acceptable as far as the court is concerned. So justification of racially-gerrymandered, minority-majority districts can be made based on the political affiliations of the voters in question, should it happen to correlate with their race. This is no longer subject to strict scrutiny and the courts have ruled that legislatures, fulfilling their Constitutional duty, can pretty much do as they will.
So what about political gerrymandering? In this case, the claim is that it is done for the higher purpose of racial equality. Assuming that is not disingenuous, does this do justice to the voters? And if it does, wouldn’t it also be justified in other cases that are simply political? Or, at the very least, cases which are a mix of political, social, economic, and otherwise.
Let’s imagine, for this purpose, a hypothetical group of state districts where voters, in any given election, vote for 1 Senator and five Representative to the bicameral state legislature. For the sake of this argument, we’ll imagine the voters are very evenly distributed along the political spectrum and that distribution is also scattered geographically. We would, thus, expect that the Senator tends to sway with the political winds and, in particular, the whim of the “moderate” or “independent” voters. And how would the Representatives fall out? Well, just like that senator, the entire delegation would likely flip with the political wind (to mix some metaphors), unless some incumbent could entrench himself.
This is hardly a recipe for fair political representation. It absolutely guarantees that 50% of the voters will be disenfranchised in each political cycle. Further, if one assumes that the remaining voters who lean towards one party or another are not necessarily represented by whomever that party puts forth, one would imagine that of the remaining 50%, some reliable percentage of those would also feel disenfranchised by the choice of the voting system.
The system only doesn’t look so bad once we realize that that perfect distribution of voters is really impossible. In reality, liberals will tend to bunch up in the urban areas and rural areas will swing conservative, so there will be some stability in at least some of those seats, driven by the geography. Furthermore, the electorate as a whole will likely average to one side or the other, making the system look reasonably “fair” to the majority or, particularly, to a party that feels they’re on their way to a permanent majority. But just because reality makes the hypothetical case less obvious, does it really make that problem go away?
Going back to our original, imagined, system. Wouldn’t a “fair” representation for this region be, generally, two Representatives being elected from each party with the fifth, along with the Senator, switching back and forth depending on the issues and the feeling of the electorate?
To achieve that, imagine if we redrew the borders so that two of the districts were solidly Republican, two solidly Democrat, and one finely balanced. The lines of that district might look a little squiggly but couldn’t one argue that the ends justifies the means? Imagine, by contrast, a second districting where the lines look very straight and smooth but were the voting balance is very far from this “ideal” that we’ve chosen. Imagine, in fact, that result produces one overwhelmingly Democrat district plus four solidly Republican ones, all five unlikely to ever switch parties. Is that solution better because the lines were smooth? Is it better because it was unintentional – that is, because we didn’t intend to produce a text-book gerrymandering scenario, even though that’s what we ended up with?
To make matters worse, the cure may be far worse than the disease. One solution I’ve seen floated is to leave redistricting entirely in the “hands” of computer software, so as to remove the political bias. To that I say, “Fine, can I write the software?” Yes, optimization algorithms are readily available that work well at solving this problem. The question is, though, for what do you optimize? Do you optimize squareness and smoothness of the district borders? Do you try to get perfect equality in the number-of-votes-per-representative department? Are their factors, such as the majority-minority nature of that Illinois 4 district, that need to be programmed in? When there is more than one “optimum,” how do you choose between them? Running math algorithms without considering the consequences could produce some ludicrous results. During the last cycle, one Democratic solution was to weight the votes from various municipal jurisdictions differently so that each town received representation perfectly proportioned to their population. So my vote might need to be multiplied by .84 while the next town over gets their votes multiplied by .95. It may be mathematically fair, but how do you explain to a voter that her vote counts distinctly less than her neighbor’s down the street, who happens to live on the other side of an invisible line? Democrats were savaged with references to the 2/3rds person language from slavery-era census taking. In any event, they didn’t have the votes to implement their weird scheme.
Another common solution is to remove it from the hands of legislators (who are dirty, venal politicians) and put it into the hands of an appointed board (who would be honest, incorruptible models of civic virtue). The board could be appointed through formula and balance the interests of both partisans and independent* voters. They could then undertake a process that would balance racial and other “social justice” issues (within the limits of the Supreme’s strict scrutiny, naturally) but would be forbidden from considering political advantage. This would seem to have a number of benefits. Incumbents couldn’t use the redistricting process as a means of securing their own reelection. It would further prevent the conversion of a one-time, temporary majority into a unassailable 10-year majority. But wouldn’t the new system also be open to political gaming, perhaps to an even greater extent? For the plans that I’ve seen, I can imagine any number of ways to try to twist it to one’s own advantage. Isn’t the devil we know (those Representatives we will elect in the next cycle who will be charged with redistricting) better than the devil we don’t?
Nobody likes a politician. It is obvious to anyone that these are people that manipulate our emotions and distort the facts in order to win our vote. Then, having done so, they help to perpetuate a government that seems to rarely work for us and often works against us. Surely anything we can do to break “their” grip on the system is a step forward? Yet, isn’t an indictment of our elected Representatives also an indictment of the people who have elected them? After all, a politician can only win office if the people actually vote for him.
What do you think about this? Gerrymandering is often bad, sometimes good, and in other cases, neither here nor there but nevertheless necessary. When it comes time for the 2020 election cycle, part of your job is to elect those people to State government whom you believe are willing to balance these complex issues and produce an outcome that aligns with your values. It’s not perfect but isn’t maintaining some measure of control, as a voter, is preferable to turning your civil rights over to somebody else’s AI? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. In a Democracy, that means we have a responsibility and even, sometimes, a burden, of making sure the system keeps cranking out that tasty sausage.
Now I’m hungry.
*One study I read a few years ago determined that independents are just as partisan as those who declare a party affiliation, it’s just that you have to determine that party affiliation indirectly.