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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.  

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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Comment Preferences

  •  This shouldn't be a problem... (0+ / 0-)
    There inevitably would be some uncomfortable changes, starting with the dethronement of veteran legislators on both sides.
  •  Increase the number of Representatives. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    James Allen, A Citizen

    Notice: This Comment © 2012 ROGNM

    by ROGNM on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 01:24:37 PM PST

  •  what's wrong with the way California did it? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It's probably the fairest way to accomplish all of your goals and without needing to go through the step of having a computer program make a starting point map that would have to be torn to shreds anyway because of VRA requirements.

    ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

    by James Allen on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 01:31:57 PM PST

    •  California is better than most... (0+ / 0-)

      Our current map is a vast improvement over the old one, but there are still some indefensible districts - Look at the 36th and 46th for particularly bizarre examples. They are better than the previous map,  but far from compact and fair.  

      •  how are they unfair (0+ / 0-)

        and why does it matter that districts are compact?  Aren't the kinds of people and communities in a district more important than how it looks?

        ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

        by James Allen on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 02:02:26 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  It matters... (0+ / 0-)

          I'm about three miles from the neighborhood where a representative lives - but it's not MY representative. "My" representative is fifteen miles away, and during the recent election made only one stop anywhere near my town. "My" representative is much more interested in the Beverly Hills donors who are where he lives, and can't be bothered with the problems of my community. He never found time to be interviewed by the weekly paper that serves my neighborhood, and shows no sign of caring that he doesn't know us and vice versa. He's not gong to come to me because I'm not a big donor, and for me to go to his office for a meeting takes a fair amount of time. This is in a mixed urban and suburban area where districts are fairly small - multiply it by ten in rural districts that get carved up and you'll see why compact districts are important.  

          •  I don't see what that has to do with compactness (0+ / 0-)

            There will always be someone who lives closer to a different legislator than their own, redistricting doesn't center districts around where legislators live.  I, for example, live closer to legislators other than my own, but I think the districts where I live were drawn very well, and were community-based.  I'm not in California, though.

            ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

            by James Allen on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 03:12:21 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The quality varies widely (0+ / 0-)

              Our new districts were an improvement mainly because what came before was so atrocious. I should have mentioned that noplace in the district right next to me is as far away as the part of my district where "my" legislator lives and where his attention is centered. I also should mention that he isn't a bad guy as far as I can tell and I don't disagree with most of his political stances - he just is not in contact with my neighborhood, and has no motivation to become in contact with us. Compact districts mean that there is a greater likelihood with the citizen knowing the legislator and vice versa.    

  •  There are many ways to draw district (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    boundaries objectively, fairly, and in a non-partisan manner. There are even purely mathematical methods that would involve no human intervention.

    Unfortunately, putting such methods in place involves getting sitting legislators to voluntarily giving up political power. Good luck with that. Absent some political cataclysm, we are stuck with gerrymandering for the duration.

    Note to Boehner and McConnell: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." --Bob Dylan-- (-7.25, -6.21)

    by Tim DeLaney on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 04:38:29 PM PST

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