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Many diaries here at DKos have bewailed the injustice of current congressional districts, and sometimes proposed fantasy maps that a Democratic legislature might enact were they in power. These usually remedy one injustice by proposing the opposite injustice, which might be satisfying but doesn’t do much to capture the moral high ground.

I have been thinking for a while about how to create a system that would achieve demonstrably fairer districts, one that would be difficult to oppose for any reason other than naked political scheming.  

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My suggestion would be for a commission to start with a topographical map and designate certain natural features that could not be crossed, like mountain ranges and large bodies of water. This would recognize terrain that was likely to have massively different interests on either side and create hardships for any individuals who want to meet with their representative. This would have to be quantified so every puddle and molehill obviously doesn’t count – for instance, any body of water more than five miles long and an average of half a mile wide should be presumed to be a boundary unless the district is so thinly populated that no set of lines can be drawn that doesn’t cause more problems. The caveat has to be there so that mountain ranges in the middle of deserts or lakes in the Minnesota forests don’t become default boundaries. The map with natural features that must not be crossed would be loaded on a website for public comment.

The next step is to load that map  into a computer, then the population densities throughout each state. The computer should then be instructed to chart the most compact possible districts. The program should have compactness criteria that specify that a radius around the center of a district must contain at least 60% of the voters in that district unless doing so would cross a designated natural boundary or cause greater irregularity in another district. All districts must be contiguous, with no islands inside other districts. The code of the program used must be open-source so that the calculation method is transparent and can be replicated and checked for deliberate features that could advantage one party or another.

The computer would create a map that would chart the most compact districts possible, with no regard to urban and rural boundaries, current political representation, or ethnicity of voters. Hand that map to a human commission chosen much like the California commission. The commission could change the lines drawn by the computer, but would have to submit a written reason for every change - and only reasons that involve enfranchisement of voters would be accepted. For instance, if a remote community has dominant road or ferry links to a population center that is outside the boundary drawn by the computer, it would make sense to link the two.

The revised map and the reasons for all changes must be posted on a website for sixty days for public comments, and the commission that drew the boundaries must address questions about boundary changes and have public meetings in which the changes are explained and discussed. At the end of the process the map will be set and the next election will take place using those districts. After two elections have taken place using the new districts the public will vote in a referendum on whether to continue with the system or to revert to what was done before.

There are objections that may be raised to this proposal, the most important that it might affect districts specifically drawn to increase minority representation. This is true about districts drawn by the computer, but that is why a human commission would review it; if the commission is instructed that increasing minority representation is a specific goal, maps could be adjusted and the reasons for changes documented. The same is true of large rural districts that have been drawn to exclude cities; if preserving a rural district so that farmers do not feel disenfranchised is a goal, then this can be done. I think that it is likely that minority representation would be increased in the long run even without that requirement, since so many current districts have been drawn to dilute their voting strength. What matters is to have the process be open, the rulings be challengeable on a rational basis.  

There inevitably would be some uncomfortable changes, starting with the dethronement of veteran legislators on both sides. There would be winners and losers, but I am convinced that any negative consequences would be minor compared to the greater confidence in the integrity of the system.

I am interested in what people think of this idea, and welcome comments about how to refine or improve it. If someone out there has programming skills and wants to create this system and see how it works, I’d love to see the results.

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