St. George and the Gerrymander

The word gerrymander dates from 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Gerry signed a redistricting bill that benefitted his Democratic-Republican Party. One of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a mythological salamander.

Since 1812, gerrymandering has evolved into high art conducted, ironically, by both Republican and Democratic party representatives. Political polarization combined with computational capabilities and highly-parsed voting data have enabled those in power to create districts that bias future voting patterns and protect incumbents. The result is highly uncompetitive elections and dysfunctional politics. To the extent that they impact voting patterns, issues of race (especially in prior Jim Crow states) unfortunately rear their ugly heads.

Representative governance should be a bottoms-up proposition. Representatives are meant to participate in a governing body by standing in for voters’ collective concerns. Voting for a representative is effectively a vote to entrust power. It’s an affirmative declaration that voters believe they will use that power wisely and in ways that further the common good. The election of representatives should be thought of as the fundamental transaction of a representative form of government.

When elected officials divvy up the electorate in ways that serve them rather than serving voters, representative government has been turned on its head. It’s such an obvious conflict of interest. If businesses divvied up their markets in this manner, someone would go to jail!

Some states have put in place methods that attempt to diminish politics in the redistricting process. A popular method is to use Citizen Redistricting Commissions, though membership on such commissions is not always as non-partisan as it should be. California’s 14-member Commission, for example, includes five Democrats and five Republicans, effectively allowing the two parties in power a majority say in the outcome.

Some have suggested that redistricting should be done with algorithmic computer calculations that ensure that districts be geographically compact. It’s unclear whether voters would be comfortable putting the process in the hands of a computer instead of real people. Besides, who should we trust to be responsible for that algorithm – and could it be hacked?  

Perhaps we should brainstorm some different approaches. One possibility is to simply put some handcuffs on the process, i.e., some simple rules that make redistricting less prone to political skullduggery. If whomever is setting district boundaries has limited options, districts will necessarily become fairer in the eyes of the public. And if there is less to be gained by gaming the system, there will certainly be less of a temptation to do so.

For a starting point, let’s begin with the idea that districts, as much as possible, should honor county boundaries, both internal and external. In Texas, counties are the creation of state government, intended to serve its residents when travel to a far-away state capital was prohibitive. Counties provide long-established and geographically stable political subdivisions well-understood by its residents. Outside of cities, county governments are the basis of local governance.

Texas’ 254 counties are already amazingly compact. The average county is around 1000 square miles in area (established to be no more than one day’s travel by horseback to the county seat). There are only a handful of very large and very small counties.

Texas, being a state with both wide-open rural spaces as well as large cities, has county populations, on the other hand, that are amazingly diverse. It’s largest county, Harris, had a population of over 4 million people in 2010. The population of Texas’ smallest county, Loving, was 82. The average county has a population of just under 100,000, but the median county size is under 20,000.

Because of the immense diversity in county populations, honoring county boundaries will result in some counties encompassing multiple political districts, while others will require multiple counties to form a single district.

Add to this problem the fact that there are multiple political districts redistricted every census cycle. In Texas, districts are set for State Representatives (150), State Senators (31), US Representatives (36), and the State Board of Education (15).

No wonder voters are confused when they go to the polls. When large districts (e.g., for US Representative) meander across small district boundaries (e.g., for State Representative), commonality of community voting interests gets parsed and divided. Voters become more and more disconnected from expressing their common local concerns at the various levels of governance.

Table 1. Average population per representative position in Texas based on 2010 population of 25,145,561.

Position

Number

Population per
Position

State Representative

150

167,637

State Senator

31

811,147

State Board of Education

15

1,676,371

US Representative

36

698,488

Whoever is assigned by voters to develop representative districts, perhaps a small number of very simple rules could very much help constrain the process and move redistricting to a more sane and stable result. Here’s one possibility – obviously open to discussion, critique, clarification, and revision. Comments are certainly welcome.

Rule #1:   Allow only population data to be used in determining district boundaries.

Historical voting data should be kept far away from the redistricting process. It is irrelevant to the question of good representative governance.

Rule #2:   Require political districts to be contiguous and as compact as possible.

Continuity and compactness are a means of increasing the likelihood that voters in a district will have similar concerns.  

Rule #3:   Require that political districts honor county boundaries to a maximum extent, including maximizing the number of districts that lie totally within a county’s boundaries.

As the primary political subdivision in the state, voter interests within counties are continuously and actively discussed, considered, and debated.

Rule #4:   Require that district boundaries within counties honor voting precincts.

These subdivisions have been established by county governments, not by redistricting officials. State law limits the size of voting precincts to 5000 registered voters. In densely-populated counties, the maximum driving distance to a polling place is limited to 25 miles.

Rule #5:   Require that coarse-grained political districts totally contain fine-grained districts to a maximum extent.

This rule would minimize the meandering of small districts across large district boundaries, thus providing increased commonality of voting interests in local communities.

Rule #6:   Allow Rules #3-5 to be violated only if it is not possible to create districts whose population is within ± 10% of the state average (Table 1).

This rule would minimize the splitting of counties and voting precincts.

Harris County had a population of 4,092,459 in 2010. By these rules, Harris County would have 24 State Representatives, 5 State Senators, 5 US Representatives, and 2 on the State Board of Education by districts totally within the county boundaries. The remainder of the population would be in districts that crossed county lines.

The four largest counties in the State (Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, and Bexar) would all be entitled to one member or more of the State Board of Education as well as multiple other districts.

Counties as small as 167,637 people would be entitled to one State Representative. There are 23 such counties. Those over 811,147 (6) would be entitled to one State Senator. Those over 698,488 (8) would be entitled to one US Representative.

These rules would require that large counties such as Harris would have most of its population in districts that lied totally within the county boundaries. Any gerrymandering that occurred would stop at the county line!

Perhaps we can develop some simple redistricting rules that we can all agree on – to insist that our representatives represent us, and not the other way around.

According to legend, St. George slew a dragon to free a village of its terrors – terrors that included sacrificing the king’s daughter to the dragon’s appetite. St. George did not rid the countryside of all dragons, only the one terrorizing that one village.

If we can force redistricting to be primarily a local issue, perhaps we can defeat those gerrymanders one at a time.  

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