The Districts Sleep Alone Tonight

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A Colorado judge has struck down a recent round of GOP-friendly redistricting, and a similar challenge is being mounted in Texas. My question is, when articles like this can nonchalantly discuss the large numbers of legislative seats certain to be shifted by the tweaking of district boundaries, how can elected officials then go on to talk about their "democratic mandates" with a straight face? These stories always remind me of a certain Brecht poem…

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  1. This story is an excellent media bias red flag….consider the gerrymandering Dem-controlled legislatures have done over the last 35 years and it didn’t so much as occur to the mainstreamers that they should cover it. Republicans try to play the game, and they find it has different rules…Granted, most GOP majorities could fuck up a cup of coffee. For some reason, Dems seem to have their shit together when they’re in the majority…George Mitchell was a smooth operator, for example.

  2. This is why I support electing legislators (at least at the state level, and probably only from one house of the legislature rather than both) from larger multi-member districts with some sort of proportional system. Whether it’s the party-list systems of Europe or the Hare system of the Australian Senate or whatever, proportional systems reduce the effects of gerrymandering.

    Might as well answer the inevitable barrage of objections now:

    First, I’m not suggesting we go to a parliamentary system with its inevitable instabilities. The executive would still be separately elected so that we don’t need a new election every time a legislative coalition falls apart. We wouldn’t even need a new legislative election if the coalition falls apart, we could just leave them in office and force them to hash it out. If it meant they passed fewer laws, I don’t imagine too many people here complaining.

    Second, I’m not suggesting we do this for the US House, at least not for now. Even if we do it for the US House, it should still be done state-by-state (e.g. CA draws several districts for its 53 reps, while small to midsize states are a single district). And I’m certainly not suggesting we do this for the US Senate.

    Third, I’m not suggesting huge districts that allow every single extremist faction to have a representative. Districts of 10 or fewer members should be large enough to represent a variety of views while keeping out the American Nazi Party with its 0.1% support or whatever.

    Fourth, I’m not necessarily suggesting we go to Europe’s party-list systems (although I tossed that out as an example). There are plenty of systems that enable proportionality while keeping the focus on individual candidates (see http://www.fairvote.org for examples). There are also party list systems that keep at least some focus on candidates (e.g. you vote for a list, but you also vote for candidates within that list, so that the voters determine who wins from each party rather than party bosses in smoke-filled rooms). Point is, there are plenty of plausible approaches.

    Fifth, I’m not suggesting that we go to completely proportional systems. In a bicameral legislature it makes sense to elect one house from single-member districts (to keep a close link between constituents and legislators) and the other by a proportional system (to avoid the effects of gerrymandering).

    Sixth, for those who are convinced that our current system is of divine perfection, are you really all that happy with your politicians? Wouldn’t you like to enjoy representation by a legislator who legitimately favors smaller government? It sure beats living in a single-member district that’s either so gerrymandered that the outcome is already assured, or else in the handful of competitive races the choice is always between the same old 2 parties.

    Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

  3. I await the advances in technology that let us move past representative government and vote directly.

  4. Direct democracy would be a disaster.

    Maybe they should start rotating districts?

    Throw out all current districts and replace them with simpler models and have reps run for shifting districts every so many years.

  5. I wonder why no one has considered going by some mechanical system to apportion districts. Like, start in the upper lefthand corner of the state, and move downward until you have a square district with enough people, and then move over and start again.

  6. Even if the districts are drawn by a mechanical algorithm rather than gerrymandered, the fact remains that the composition of the legislature would be dictated solely by the drawing of the districts, not by the political composition of the state’s electorate. Single-member districts still have their place, because they can be small and can make legislators (potentially) more accessible to constituents. But it seems to me that in a bicameral system one of the chambers should be elected from multi-member districts via some sort of proportional system, so that the overall composition of the electorate is accounted for.

    As for direct democracy, I still see a point for representative bodies. But I actually don’t mind referenda and ballot measures too much. I trust We The People more than I trust Them The Politicians.

  7. One model that seems to be working in a few places is to have independent commissions do the redistricting. You could easily add to this or any other model a few common-sense requirements that would make gerrymandering difficult to impossible, such as (a) all districts shall be as compact as possible (easily accomplished with modern mapping software, perhaps combined with (b) to the extent possible, district boundaries shall coincide with municipal/county boundaries.

    These two rules alone would trash most gerrymandered districts, including the odious racially gerrymandered districts.

  8. “I wonder why no one has considered going by some mechanical system to apportion districts.”

    Because that would treat each person as equal. Nothing scares the shit out of people quite like equality.

  9. Nice try, Mephisto. Why are Republicans finding “a different set of rules?” Because they’re playing by a different set of rules. Redistricting under Democrats got write ups nationwide every time it happened – that is, in the year or two following the Census. This story, and its Texas cousin – get press because they’re dog bites man; an unprecedented redistricting fight in the “offseason.”

  10. I wonder why no one has considered going by some mechanical system to apportion districts. Like, start in the upper lefthand corner of the state, and move downward until you have a square district with enough people, and then move over and start again.

    Unfortunately, such a commonsense approach would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act, with its protection of minorities…without revision of the VRA, any substantial efforts to kill gerrymandering are out of the question.

  11. That’s not true, anon 3:37. The decisions citing the VRA that uphold or create gerrymandered majority-minority districts allow these outcomes only because they are being done within a context of existing gerrymandered districts. The choice wasn’t “Gerrymander districts to create black seats or have objectively fair districts.” It was “Gerrymander to create 9 white seats or gerrymander to create 7 white and 3 black seats.” A complete scrapping and redrawing using an algorithm would undoubtedly pass muster.

  12. Ted Costa of People’s Advocate – who organized the California recall drive – is planning an initiative to take redistricting in California out of the hands of the legislature.

    The Costa proposal would establish a judicial commission to draw districts, and would establish rules for drawing districts.

    In 1990, the California Supreme Court drew the districts, and they actually made sense. Districts were compact, each State Senate district included 2 Assembly districts, etc. It made the elections in the 1990s more competitive, and more interesting.

  13. Is it true that in California districts were gerry-madered to the point where both parties essentially held safe districts?

    I think they need to have shifting districts that change for politicians every two terms and are drawn in a simpler fashion.

    A politician would then have more difficulty forming simple majority coalitions to win.

  14. …..And restore the election of U.S. Senators by State Legislatures, not by simple popular vote.

  15. Shane-

    Gerrymandering in CA has indeed removed competition from the political process. Legislative races are almost always decided in closed primaries, where the goal is to win over the party’s base. Hence the CA legislature has some incredibly liberal Democrats and incredibly conservative Republicans, but relatively few moderates or mavericks, e.g. libertarian Republicans (although Sen. McClintock is arguably a welcome exception).

    As to electing Senators by state legislatures, I don’t know what that has to do with gerrymandering of US House districts. But I trust We The People more than I trust Them The Politicians.

    Also, since statewide races can’t be gerrymandered it’s often the case that Senate races are the only competitive legislative races a person can vote in (if US House and state legislative districts are gerrymandered). Take away US Senate races, and the only competitive elections most people will get to participate in (aside from local races) will be for executive office.

  16. > The Districts Sleep Alone Tonight

    Off topic: Is this a “Postal Service” reference, or did they take the phrase from somewhere else?? Just wondering…. Anyway, a great song….

  17. Funny, I’ve heard Brecht called a Stalinist.

  18. He also deposited the proceeds from his Lenin prize in a Swiss bank account.

  19. I agree with Joe. It is indeed inevitable that there will be partisanship in the drawing of districts. No two ways about it. But at least the districts should be drawn by somebody other than the incumbent legislators who have the most at stake. One might even incorporate into a state constitution a provision that anybody involved in drawing a legislative district can’t run for legislative office for some duration after the drawing, or whatever. (I don’t know if this could be done for US House districts as well, but it would definitely be an improvement for the state legislative districts.)

  20. Well, one version of an at large election would be your best option to avoid such problems; each party would have a slate of candidates, and you would vote on each slate (I could envision an election where you can pick and choose between each slate of candidates). This would of course dramatically increase the power of parties in American elections of course, and many the US political system more parliamentarian in character. You would also likely give third parties a greater chance of election this way as well.

  21. “The Costa proposal would establish a judicial commission to draw districts, and would establish rules for drawing districts.”

    Gee, won’t be any politics involved when judges are involved, we know that for sure.

    This just removes the direct blame from the legislators for bad redistricting. With the Costa plan they’ll just have to practice good old back-room strong arm tactics to get what they want.

  22. Can’t argue with that, Doug. But at least having judges draw up the map removes the inherent conflict of having legislators draw the districts they want to represent (and their opponents don’t want to represents).

  23. Yeah, it was a Postal Service reference. I’ve no idea whether they borrowed it from somewhere else, though.

  24. Why is the ugly spectacle any better if you hide it behind a veil?

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