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On November 6, Virginia’s presidential vote went to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, by about 4 percentage points.  The Senate seat went to the Democratic candidate, Tim Kaine, by almost 6 percent.  At the same time, in the eleven congressional races, all of the incumbents won—eight Republicans and three Democrats.  

Does that mean that huge numbers of Virginians were splitting their votes?  Not really.  Nearly six percent more Virginians voted for Democrats in the races for the House of Representatives than voted for Republicans.

How can it be that with less than half of the votes the Republicans won more than two-thirds of the House seats?

A big part of the answer can be given in one word:  gerrymandering.  That’s the process by which politicians and political parties draw district boundaries in order to achieve the results that they want.

Those boundaries are redrawn every ten years, after each Census, by state legislatures.  The election of 2010 was a huge win for the Republicans in the states, as well as nationally. In most of the nation, redistricting was tilted to help elect Republicans.

And it worked.  What happened in the Virginia congressional races happened nationally as well.  The Republicans will retain a sizeable majority in the House of Representatives – 233 to 195 (with seven still in doubt)—even though nationwide, Democratic candidates received a half million more votes than their Republican opponents. (Republicans claim that they won some sort of “mandate” by winning a majority of seats in the House, but you can have no mandate if a majority of the people voted against you.)

And yet gerrymandering is not a partisan issue.  Politicians of America’s major parties have been doing this for two centuries, Democrats as well as Republicans. Ultimately, gerrymandering is not so much about one political party doing wrong to the other, but about the political class doing wrong to the American people.

Politicians gerrymander in order to gain more power.  Power is a zero-sum game, meaning that one player can gain only if another loses.  The power that the politicians and parties gain is power that the people lose.

People lose power because districts are made non-competitive. As has been said before, elected officials determine their voters rather than vice-versa. The result is less choice for the people, and often politicians who stay in office for decades.

It’s time to put an end to gerrymandering.  

In the 21st century, it would be easy to take the politics out of redistricting.  A computer using one algorithm for each of the states could crank out a set of boundaries that plays no favorites. (Begin in a specified corner for each state –e.g. the southwest—and proceed precinct by precinct by set rules until the necessary numbers of people are contained and then draw the boundary, and proceed to draw the next.)

The power taken from the political class would be returned to the people, for whom our whole system of government was established.

The House was the part of government that our founders wanted to be most responsive to the people.  That’s why everyone in the House of Representatives must go back to the people every two years.  And yet the House is the one part of our national system where power can be stolen from the people by gerrymandering. You can’t gerrymander a Senate seat, because the Senate is statewide and there’s no redistricting to do.  You can’t gerrymander the presidential race, because that’s nationwide, and governed by electoral votes cast state-by-state.

But the congressional districts get redrawn every ten years, and that creates a vulnerability in our democracy.

It’s time to close off that opening for corruption.  Let’s do it now when no one knows who will benefit and who will lose from having an honest system in 2021, when it’s time to redistrict again.

Although we can’t predict now whether this improvement in our democracy will benefit Democrats or Republicans, we do know that it will benefit the people of the United States.

Andy Schmookler, formerly a candidate for Congress, is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.  He lives in Shenandoah County, Virginia.

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Comment Preferences

  •  They stopped adding representatives when (6+ / 0-)

    they got to 435 in the House.  So each representative has a larger and larger constituency.  The House was designed to be a very intimate setting.  

    The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended that the total population of Congressional districts never exceed 50 to 60 thousand. Currently, the average population size of the districts is nearly 700,000 and, consequently, the principle of proportionally equitable representation has been abandoned.
    http://www.thirty-thousand.org/

    This is just another way that the two parties are able to control the numbers.  While we are at it, we need more Supreme Court Justices........

    Just saying.

    •  if i could snap my fingers... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      eve, importer

      to make the Federal Government work better, I'd double the number of Representatives.  And devise a blind/depoliticized method to redraw congressional districts EVERY TWO YEARS (the Constitution states the Census is to be every 10 years, but it does not say the same explicitly about the redistricting).  Every 2 years the new district lines would not be revealed until, say, 100 days before Election Day.

      I think the House is the center of dysfunction, much more so than the Presidency, Senate or the Supreme Court.

      Its odd that we have independents in the Senate and a troop of 3rd Party candidates running for President every 4 years...but The House, where such variety and changeability in the body politic is ought to be most easily expressed, is the most tidily aligned by party.

      fix the f*cker.

      •  It can be done by computer software, already. (0+ / 0-)

        The technology exists to set the congressional district boundaries in the most equitable way possible, if the software is controlled by non-partisan panels, and if certain basic rules are adhered to (the most fundamental being that neither party can be more dominant in any district, as compared with the other districts in the State: ALL DISTRICTS TO HAVE NEARLY IDENTICAL PROPORTIONS).  Of course, this would be needed in States that have only one congressperson.

        For example, if a given State has 7 million, at 700,000 per district, with 10 districts.   The computer software would include basic algorithms (rules) that would require district boundaries to be drawn in such a way that each district would have nearly equal proportions of red and blue voters.   Another decision rule or algorithm would require that the districts be drawn so that a single contiguous boundary would surround each district from other districts.   The softward could allow for a variety of solutions that make the districts come as close as possible to 50% red and 50% blue voters in the most recent congressional election, or Census, or other method of ascertainment.   Even in States with predominantly blue or red voters, the computer would distribute voters in such a way that all districts would be competitive.

        Designing the software would not be excessively difficult.  The most complex part would involve programming the computer to make a decision as to which specific simulation of many is optimal for the State (for example, a late-stage algorithm could state that these districts should be defined based on the solution that minimizes travel distance across the district from end to end.

        It could be done every five years, or every "X" years.  The idea of redrawing districts every two years might run the risk of introducing a bit too much instability/chaos into the system.

        There could be an algorithm added to generate solutions that are geographically most similar to previous district boundaries, again to minimize instability/reduce chaos.

        Any programmers out there - would you like to run some algorithm based design software for drawing district boundaries?  Might be a fun project.

        •  i don't think it is that complicated. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          importer

          you talk about trying about trying to achieve districts that are "competitive" or "equal"...All that finagling is necessary to compensate for the fact that 425 Reps is just not enough to serve the role asigned to the House by the Constitution..  Draw the districts blind... Draw, say, 1000  of them instead of 425..  you'd still have solid blue districts, solid red district...heavily hispanic or African American districts.  that is not wrong.   But you'd also have a bunch of competitive districts in the best sense.

          •  Having more representatives not essential (0+ / 0-)

            The number itself probably doesn't matter terribly, since the most important thing is to take out the gerrymandering.

            If districts have to be drawn, they could be done by computer with a handful of simple algorithms.

            But as mentioned below, maybe the whole idea of congressional districts itself is unnecessary.   Not sure that the Constitution requires (or simply suggests) geographical districts with specific boundary features at all.

            If the Constitutional allows it, perhaps a State like Nebraska would just elect 3 representatives, with 3 nominees from each party, or with candidates listed on a ballot, with the top 3 vote-getters being elected.

            Come to think of it, though, if this happened, a State like Texas might send 29 Republicans and 0 Democrats.  The districts help to prevent that, don't they?

            •  yes. geographic districts are required (0+ / 0-)

              by the Constitution.  the census counts the people.  each Representative represents "x" number of people.  Those people occupy points in space.  Per the Constitution, Representatives do not share constituents in common.  If we implemented your suggestion then a citizen in Texas would have 29 congressmen and a Citizen in Wyoming would just have 1.

        •  then why have districts at all? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          nycvisionary

          The point of representatives is to represent. That means a community to me. Not some computer drawn lines that ensures the representatives exactly match some State wide norm. If an area of California is almost all Republicans (and has 700,000 folks) they deserve a Republican representative.

          •  the idea of congressional districts is fundamental (0+ / 0-)

            to the House of Representatives.

            Each State gets a number of Representatives matching its population, and each Representative represents a part of the State.

            Unless....well, each State could have "X" number of representatives that are not elected by districts, but would each represent the whole State?

            In Ohio, for example, how could it be set up to elect 18 representatives?    Perhaps there could be 50 candidates and the top 18 vote-getters in any given election would represent Ohio?

            It might work, and it would solve the gerrymandering problem.

            Or, there could be 18 openings, and each party could nominate 18 candidates.  That might work too.

          •  community? (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            i understand

            the constitution offers a ratio, not a community.  
            restore the ratio and the community restores itself.

        •  We would need a grid of population, (0+ / 0-)

          not whether they are Dem of Republican.  Maps should be as simple a grid of the specific state as possible, roping in enough population for each district, regardless political affiliation.  That is the problem we have now, the Rep & Dems have happily drawn these crazy maps to both of their advantage.  They leave little room for third parties, which is really what needs to happen in the House.  

        •  Not convinced. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          NH Flaming Moderate

          The problem with this is that congressman would end up trying to represent the interests of rural, urban and suburban issues at once. I just think that would be impossible. Take gun control, a rural area really deserves a different take from an urban area etc. congressman would end uo schisophenic

          •  why is that wrong? (0+ / 0-)

            if some district boundaries are wholely rural, some are wholely urban, some are mixed, but NONE are permanently fixed by partisan hackery.   Most of the "noble" gerrymandering you are hinting we can't live without is a result of district being stretched as a result of being held to 425 Reps, and might cease to be a problem if we increased the number of reps (and thereby reduced the area covered by each district)

        •  Gerrymandering is a big state problem (0+ / 0-)

          small states don't have to deal with this.

        •  Best idea.... (0+ / 0-)

          Have both political parties come up with a redistricting plan and choose the one uses the lines of the shortest combined length.

           

  •  Computers only follow orders (4+ / 0-)

    Saying "use a computer to execute an algorithm" is not a solution, the solution would be the algorithm. So you would first need to propose that. You may or may not then need a computer to help implement that solution.

    That said, you would need a Constitutional Amendment to implement such a thing. That seems unlikely to me, I think it's up to States to fix this just as California has done.

    •  They follow algorithms, which can be designed (0+ / 0-)

      in such a way that human manipulation is irrelevant.

      Basic rules: 1) All district proportions must deviate minimally from each other (no disproportionate districts allowed); 2) Contiguous boundaries separating districts from each other; etc.

    •  Some young programmers can run simulations. (0+ / 0-)

      It wouldn't be too hard to give a computer 2 or three basic algorithms, and the voting proportions from the last Census, by township in a given State.

      Once somebody tries this, and has enough simulations (10,000 or more run), we'll see how a computer would do it, and once we see how it's done, we'll see how easy it is to start using this approach.

      The basic approach wouldn't be any more complicated than programming a basic software for a simple computerized multi-player version of a board game.

  •  You don't have to start in the SW corner (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    eve

    You could start with a randomly selected precinct and a deterministric algorithm would still produce a result - but probably not the same one as starting with the SW corner.

    However, the problem may well be NP-hard and would take considerable time.

    Economics is a social *science*. Can we base future economic decisions on math?

    by blue aardvark on Thu Nov 15, 2012 at 03:28:40 PM PST

  •  Let's end the mispronounciation of "Gerrymandering (5+ / 0-)

    now!

    The only politician in recent memory who pronounces it correctly is Barney Frank. Which should make some sense, because its namesake is Gov. Gerry of Massachusetts.

    The "G" is hard. It's not "Jerrymandering". It's GGGGerrymandering".

  •  we should be winning 300+ seats (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RandomNonviolence

    in every election. we will know that america is done with gerrymandering when we consistently win those seats.

  •  I agree about using an algorithm. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    eve

    I would use a Wheel of Fortune approach to determine the starting point. However, I think multi-member districts with ranked choice voting would produce a more equitable result than any single-member district approach.

    I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

    by tle on Thu Nov 15, 2012 at 03:54:06 PM PST

    •  ignore state lines (0+ / 0-)

      allow congressional district to straddle state boundaries. This would allow us to get a more evenly distributed ratio of #of citizen served by each U.S. Congressman.

      Problems 1:  It would require a bunch of constitutional amendments

      Problem 2:  I don't see how Alaska & Hawaii could be fairly served by splitting districts with each other or any of the contiguous 48 states.

    •  Montana would support this.. (0+ / 0-)

      They have the largest CD in country of about 800,000.  They went to Supreme Court saying that it disenfrancised their citizens, but Supreme Court disagreed.

      Going beyond state lines would cause all kinds of problems.  Imagine if there were 3 CD that were 60% Illinois and 40% Iowa?

  •  The worst congressional district in VA is the 3rd (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    eve

    Bobby Scott's margin of victory in this majority-minority district was at least twice that of all but one other House race in Virginia.

  •  To do list (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomFromNJ

    1.  non-partisan redistricting
    2.  reform filibuster rules in the Senate (no secret holds, etc)
    3.  new laws that keep anonymous money out of politics
    4.  replace Electoral College with popular vote.

    All forms of fundamentalist thought breed magical thinking.

    by YankInUK on Thu Nov 15, 2012 at 04:42:14 PM PST

    •  incrfeasing the number of house seats... (0+ / 0-)

      ...and non-partisan redistricting would make electoral college reform a moot point.   the already unlikely occurrence of pop vote/ EV discrepancy becomes ever more unlikely.

    •  Don't rely on popular vote for President. (0+ / 0-)

      Because the various States use such incredibly different rules, and some States like Arizona would screw up the national vote count.

      The only way to do popular vote would be to make the Federal Government control the voting 100%.   It would be ok under Democratic Administrations, but if another GW Bush got in there, he would hack it to bits, cut the budget, and make damn sure that there were not enough voting machines in the big cities and liberal bastions.

      That is, under a (R) Government, the national popular vote would be rigged beyond all recognition.  The States have to count their own votes to protect against that; but the problem is that each State has completely different rules, so you can't count the votes (they are apples vs oranges) perfectly (what to do about provisionals in each State; chads?  hanging chads?  butterfly ballots?).  

      It's really not as feasible as it seems.

      Do we ever know what the national popular vote actually is, and if so, do we ever find out within 6 months of the election?

    •  one more (0+ / 0-)

      5.  term limits for Congresscritters.

      All forms of fundamentalist thought breed magical thinking.

      by YankInUK on Thu Nov 15, 2012 at 06:54:40 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I live in the birthplace of the Gerry Mander (0+ / 0-)

    and I will be happy to make any districts in any state. I wouldn't trust anyone else to do it.

  •  Turn the tables on them (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dadadata

    Right now, there is a smaller number of Democrats who racked up big wins and a larger number of Republicans who had close wins.  

    This means that all those Republicans who won by +3 or +5 are vulnerable to a big voter registration/minority recruitment/get out the vote drives that would swamp their small edge.  The only reason they can depend on their gerrymander is because they rely on historical turnout numbers.

    If the DCCC and DSCC got their act together, they could really rub the Repubs in the dirt in 2014.  Of course, they would have to deviate from business as usual, and they would have to field and support strong candidates in those targeted districts.  Instead of a 50 state strategy, they could call it a 50 district strategy.  

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