Gerrymandering, a process of drawing district lines to the advantage of a political party, is a problem that causes unequal political representation. In a democracy that is supposedly governed by the people, how can we fix gerrymandering in a way to promote equal representation?
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The concept of the representative democracy, as implemented in the United States, believes in the fundamental ability for the people to elect those who have the power to govern them. Thus, in principle, it is the citizen’s right to have a fair vote in electing the people in charge. And to make sure that the people have these rights, Presidents and Congressmen are elected on a regular cycle, keeping them up to date with the beliefs of their constituents.
But in practice, votes are not necessarily equal.
In his final State of the Union Address, Obama stated that one of the biggest regrets of his presidency was not reducing the political gridlock in Washington. He mentioned gerrymandering as “…the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around.”
Multiple Ways to Cut a Pie
Before we begin looking at the data for votes and elections in the US, let’s consider a completely hypothetical situation.
In the city of Uniformstate, there are 250,000 residents. And because of the contrived urban planning of this state, the state is a perfect rectangle measuring 5 miles by 5 miles, with 10,000 residents living in each square mile. The state also happens to be very distinctly divided by political party, made up of 60% Republican and 40% Democratic in such a way where the 3 miles on the east side of the state is Republican and the 2 miles on the west side is Democratic.
In other words, Uniformstate looks something like this:
So far so good, but if we look at how we can divide up Uniformstate into representative districts. Ideally, the aggregate vote of the districts should closely reflect the political preference of the whole state. That is to say since Uniformstate is 40% Democratic, 40% of the elected representatives should be Democratic. So in our scenario, if districts are made up of 50,000 people, there are many different ways that we can draw district boundaries to influence the voting results of the whole state.
As you can see, the difference in voting results between the two systems of district lines is very drastic. Even in our example of Uniformstate, it is possible to divide districts to a significant advantage of either party. In the real world, the problem of gerrymandering is further exacerbated by differences in population density and seemingly arbitrary district lines.
drag the bar to adjust Cook PVI
To better understand the effects of gerrymandering on the United States, we can use a dataset known as the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which describes the voting breakdown of a district. The Cook PVI is made up of a letter and a number that describes how far a district leans toward a particular party. For example, if a particular district is rated D+13, it means that they are roughly 63% Democratic and 37% Republican.
Based on the 2012 Cook PVI data for all Congressional Districts (113th Congress) in the United States (click here for the raw JSON), we can map out the political leanings of all districts in the nation.
There are a few key things to be inferred from this map. First of all, we realize that although the map looks to be majority Republican, the United States is actually pretty evenly split by total population. Each district is made up of roughly the same number of people, which tells us that Republican districts tend to occupy more land than Democratic districts, as can be seen in the generally smaller blue districts vs the bigger red ones.
But this still doesn’t answer the key issue presented by gerrymandering. The real question is, how can we know when district lines are intentionally drawn in a way that benefits one party or another? Just by looking at the map above, its difficult to tell.
But if we take a look at Uniformstate again, we can notice some details that might help us. Let’s lay out the ways that we drew the lines in Uniformstate and look at the Cook PVI numbers.
Visually, you can see in this representation that when districts are gerrymandered to the advantage of a specific party, the disadvantaged party seems to be clumped into districts where they have an overwhelmingly strong majority, splitting up the rest into many districts that only slightly lean in favor of the party receiving the advantage.
The real question is, how can we know when district lines are intentionally drawn in a way that benefits one party or another?
Diving deeper, let’s think about what an appropriately represented state would look like. When a state is properly represented by its constituents, the outcome of voting districts should represent the overall views of a state as a whole. For example, if a state is 30% democratic and has 10 districts, then on a typical election year, three out of ten representatives should be democratic and seven should be republican.
One way to visualize this is to compare the Cook PVI data from the whole state and compare it to how the districts break down. Can you find the states that have an overall majority of one party but elects a majority of the opposite party?
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Historically, the term “gerrymander” was coined when governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a bill in 1812 to redistrict the state to give his political party an advantage. Forming a district that appeared like a long salamander, “gerrymander” is a portmanteau of the governor’s name and “salamander”.
Since then, district lines for Congressional districts have been drawn in many dubious ways for political advantage including along racial and minority lines. However, with the Voting Right Act of 1965, drawing district lines to reduce minority representation was prohibited.
Thus, while creating majority-minority district in the spirit of affirmative gerrymandering seems to conceptually give voices to minorities, the catch is that lumping all minorities into a single district reduces their power in the state as a whole.
This brings up another question: Should every Congressional district be competitive between the two parties?
According to the Cook PVI data, only about 90 seats are between D+5 to R+5, making a very small number of seats in the house competitive between parties. The lack of competitive house seats has only gone down in recent times as districts seem to become increasingly polarized.
The argument for competitive districts is clear: when one lives in a district that is not competitive, it is easy for a group of minority constituents to be overlooked and underrepresented, often making them less interested in being engaged civically. By making districts more competitive, representatives would be incentivized to be better engaged with their constituents.
The Redistricting Process
In the United States, district lines are determined by states every ten years following a national census, creating a variety of different processes for drawing district lines from state to state. Some state form a separate redistricting commission, with the intent being to decouple the responsibility of drawing district lines from people who have a political agenda.
Most states, however, still rely on the state legislatures to draw district lines. In light of knowing which states utilize on independent commissions versus states that use legislatures, go back to the previous interaction to see how it might affect district lines.
Can We Cut Our Pie and Eat it Too?
Beyond figuring out who should be responsible for district lines, how should district lines be drawn to promote fair voting as much as possible?
It’s difficult to determine what defines a fairly drawn state. On one hand, as seen in the interactions above, fair voting means that the results of voting within the districts sum up to reflect the preferences of the state as a whole. But on the other hand, the lack of competitiveness in districts can force minorities to feel silenced. How can we maximize both competitiveness in each district while maintaining the overall preferences of the state?
The shortest splitline algorithm for creating district lines has been proposed by some as an algorithm that draws the lines in a methodical, avoiding any human biases that may influence how districts are drawn.
Essentially, the shortest splitline algorithm works by drawing the shortest line through the boundaries that divides the population evenly in half. Then in continues to divide the boundaries in half with the shortest line until the population of each new district is the number of constituents required per representative.
Using the shortest splitline algorithm, Texas would be districted into the lines drawn on the left.
As great as the shortest splitline algorithm would be on methodically drawing district lines in a party-agnostic way, it doesn’t guarantee that the results of the district lines will not be skewed.
It would take a further analysis of more granular voting data to determine how the shortest splitline algorithm would change the voting outcomes of a state, but since democratic populations tend to be more concentrated in urban centers, the shortest splitline might tend to also create unfair districts that do not properly represent a state.
Making District Lines Irrelevant
As I thought about this process, I started to wonder why arbitrary district lines even mattered, and if it would be possible to create a system that could address all of the following problems:
- Give voters equally weighted votes in selecting their representatives.
- Make districts as competitive as possible to encourage citizens to be involved.
- Maintain the integrity of the political leanings of states as a whole.
- Satisfies all points above independent of how district lines are drawn
With those goals in mind, I started tinkering with the numbers to see if there was a way to insert a “capacitor” into the process that would normalize the drastic effects of a gerrymandered state. Here’s what I came up with.
Just because you happen to live in a specific district and have issues that need to be represented in your specific district doesn’t mean that the districts next door don’t have significant impact on you as well. Thus, if each individual was also required to vote for representatives in neighboring districts at a smaller weight than individuals within the district, that can help dampen the potential effects of gerrymandering.
So how much of a vote should a voter in neighboring district have in your district? This is where we introduce a coefficient between 0 and 1 that determines the weight of a vote from a neighboring district. Let’s call this the “Neighboring District Coefficient”. A Neighboring District Coefficient of 0 would mean that neighboring districts have no vote in the selection of representatives in your district, while a Neighboring District Coefficient of 1 would mean that all neighboring districts have an aggregate of the same number of votes in your district. This way, the coefficient can be controlled in a similar way that the federal reserve controls interest rates to stimulate the economy/curb inflation.
One thing to make clear: The number of neighbors that a district can have varies from district to district. Thus, in order to make sure that each vote ultimately carries the same weight, the neighboring district coefficient is not a measure of how much influence you have in each of your surrounding districts, but in all of your surrounding districts in aggregate.
Here’s how introducing a modifiable Neighboring District Coefficient might impact the US.
From this hypothetical system, we see that states become more converged toward the general political leaning of the state. While this may be good in some cases, the coefficient may need to be adjusted from state to state, which may not be the perfect solution.
I’m not proposing this as a solution necessarily, but merely a way to think about how we might approach a solution.
That said, it’s important to realize that as a member of a democratic nation, people should be able to stand up and voice their concerns to start any change in the system itself. Here are things that you can do right now to make your voice heard.
Noteable Organizations and Individuals
- Lawrence Lessig – Fix Democracy First
- Cook Political Report
- Justin Levitt – All About Redistricting
Contact your Congressmen
Whether you know your district and state Congressmen or not, they are an important way to make your voice heard. Below is a simple way to find and contact your representative over twitter via your zip code. Start a conversation with your representative today!
Congress data provided by the Sunlight Congress API
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- “Introducing the 2014 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index.” Introducing the 2014 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. http://cookpolitical.com/house/pvi.
- Griffith, Elmer C. The Rise and Development of the Gerrymander. New York: Arno, 1974. Print.