Last week’s release of preliminary local Census results will draw everyone’s attention to gerrymandering again.
I don’t know that I’ve written about gerrymandering here; nothing much is showing up on a search. It’s just as well, really—my views on gerrymandering have changed quite a bit over the last twenty years. Well, that’s not quite accurate—my views have changed slightly, and gerrymandering has changed quite a bit.
First, my unpopular opinion: gerrymandering of congressional districts to protect incumbents isn’t usually much of a problem, and hasn’t been much of a problem through the history of the country. Even gerrymandering of state legislative districts to protect incumbents isn’t really that much of a problem, although its history is less negligible. Furthermore, redistricting to have ‘compact’ or ‘nice-looking’ districts would be a mistake, in my opinion. I suppose a compact redistricting map would minimize the number of people who are in a different district than their nearest neighbors, and it’s nice to be able to ask my neighbors what they think of the local candidates, but honestly I hardly ever do that, there’s loads and loads of information available that’s much better than my neighbor’s impressions, and I have much closer acquaintances in other parts of my town and state than on my block. Which, I think, is fairly typical these days, and may always have been.
If you have ever played one of those on-line redistricting games (the only one I really liked, which used random distribution of thousands of dots over state maps, used flash and is no longer available) you can get a sense of how quickly you need to start jettisoning one of your priorities, so it’s a good idea to have a sense of what they are. My priorities in redistricting would be (first) equal population, as much as possible; (B) keeping geographical interests together, that is, avoiding having ‘rural’ residents split up so that their votes are always outnumbered by ‘urban’ residents and vice versa, with attention also paid to significant geographic features so that a legislator can ‘represent’ the mountains or the desert or the delta or whatever; (3) minority (BIPoC) representation, generally ensuring that BIPoC residents aren’t split up to dilute their voting power, and specifically to redress historical injustices; (iv but very close to 3) having the percentage of state residents registered with each Party be roughly in the area of the percentage of districts with a majority from each Party, that is, if everyone voted for the Party they registered for the delegation’s party breakdown would roughly match the breakdown for the state; and finally contiguousness (contiguity?), which I don’t actually care about much but is on the whole better than having districts that are unconnected islands. In addition to ‘compactness’, I didn’t list ‘competitiveness’ there—many of the proposals for redistricting prioritize ‘competitiveness’, which as far as I can tell mostly maximizes the number of residents who dislike their representatives. I’m not against having competitive districts, if that’s what comes out, but I don’t prioritize it at all. It is a good way to bring national fund-raising money into the state, though.
Here’s the big thing, though: up until quite recently, political swing was largely national—that is, in a general and rough way, if My Party did X% better (or worse) than the previous election nationally, it generally did pretty darned close to X% better (or worse) in any given region or state, or really county. What that means is that a Party that gives up its safe seats in order to ‘dilute’ opposition voters risks losing a bunch of seats in a wave election. Maybe that’s not clear: In the old system of incumbent protection, in a 10-district state that had slightly more registered Rs than Ds, you would probably have eight safe seats and two competitive ones, and most years the Rs would win six seats but even in a terrible year they would never win fewer than four. If they pack all the Ds into two safe seats, they win eight seats by small margins most of the time, but in a D wave they could easily lose five or even six of them. So they didn’t do that so much. Not to mention that ten years is a long time, and people move around, and competitive districts tend to be, well, not safe. And incumbents, on the whole, were happy to have safe districts for themselves even if that meant that their colleagues across the aisle also had safe districts.
But in our more polarized world where national swing isn’t obviously a thing, it’s completely plausible that a Red State would pack and crack (which is the term of art for giving your opposite Party safe seats and your own Party more competitive ones) to the point of massive misrepresentation. And they do! Better modeling helps with that process, as well, and also the voluntary geographic sorting that has accelerated over the last generation means that you don’t really have to worry about city folk moving to the outer suburbs in great numbers without changing their Party identity. And it also seems to be the case that lots of elected officials would rather see their Party dominate than have safe seats.
Digression: The Great Sorting is a huge problem for redistricting if you want competitive, compact districts. The Great Sorting is kind of a big problem for a democratic society at large, but that’s a spot where I lean toward people living where they want to live, at least in terms of doing anything about it. Go ahead and put that up above (first) as a priority: not compelling people to move their homes to make the districts work. But as long as people want to live with people of the same political/tribal outlook—and as long as the Other Party rejects urbanism—there is no way to have competitive, compact geographic districts. End Digression.
Another Digression: Changing legislative representation away from single-representative districts would solve a lot of the gerrymander problems, but create new ones. I suspect that they wouldn’t be worse problems, but the transition would be ugly. At any rate, it isn’t going to happen in the next ten years, so as far as what people should be doing about the current, pressing issue of anti-democratic gerrymandering, it really is a digression.
My point, and I do have one a thousand words in, is that if you want to exert political pressure on the issue of redistricting—and it’s important that people do!—I advise you not to focus on making maps look nice. I know the goofy-looking maps are why gerrymandering is called gerrymandering, but of all the things that need to be fixed, oddly-shaped districts as such are just about the lowest possible priority.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,