Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Redistricting Follies

John  Bedell

As I write the democrats from the Texas legislature are hiding in Oklahoma, trying to block a Republican plan to re-arrange Texas's Congressional districts in a way that would give them at least five more seats in Congress.  I am with the hideouts in spirit.  To me there is nothing worse about American democracy than the way politicians of both parties cut and slice voters into bizarrely shaped districts to maximize their own hold on power.  It stinks, and it undermines our democracy.  Unlike most of the problems I complain about on this site, this one has a perfectly obvious solution: take the power to redistrict out of the hands of politicians. Several states do this, letting "nonpartisan" commissions handle the job. But commissions are just as subject to political pressures as legislators, so I have an even better idea.  Let's have a computer do it. 

At minimum we should have computers check all redistricting plans against a rational standard of compactness. This can easily be done by comparing the length of the district boundary, measured at some pre-defined scale, to the area; the more compact the district, the lower the ratio. Set a low enough ratio, and all districts would have to be more or less square. To encourage the commissioners to follow existing county or municipal boundaries, we could specify that any district line following such a boundary would be counted as straight in the calculation.  Such rules would immediately put an end to the crafting of districts that snake hither and yon across the landscape, picking up pockets of reliable party voters.

Even better, we should let a computer do the whole thing.  Just let it pick the best fit between the number of districts, the population distribution, and existing local boundaries.  Then we would never again have to go through another of these embarrassments, and our legislatures would reflect much more faithfully the real will of the voters.

May 14, 2003



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