Outside of the U.S., many countries give their electoral districts helpful names that tell you where they’re located, in contrast to the United States’ prosaic, utilitarian system that yields bland, unmemorable monikers such as “California’s 47th Congressional District.” Today, we’re here to fix that.
Now, not all of the parliamentary constituencies in the United Kingdom have names that trip off the tongue in as mellifluous a fashion as “Vale of Glamorgan” or “Forest of Dean,” but most of them at least contain a specific reference to the town, county, or neighborhood where they’re located. (New Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for instance, represents Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which tells you right away which neighborhoods in London his seat covers.) What Canadians call “ridings” are much the same.
Not so here, though. Where the heck is California’s 47th District anyway? Without a map at hand, you can’t know. This is a problem that’s long bothered us at Daily Kos Elections, so we’ve finally decided to do something about it.
The result is our new spreadsheet of congressional district geographic descriptions and largest places. It won’t definitively settle any arguments about what we should call these districts (in fact, it’s probably just likely to start more of them), but it does offer some easy shorthand that describes where in each state every congressional district is found.
In fact, we offer two different approaches to the problem, one qualitative and one quantitative; you can choose whichever one you prefer, or combine them to form your own mental map. Below we’ll explore both.
The qualitative approach is the result of a crowdsourcing ask we made last year. We simply asked our community of commenters and Twitter followers to contribute short descriptions of every district, based on the cities, counties, metropolitan areas, and geographic regions and features they contain. The Daily Kos Elections staff, led by Stephen Wolf, consolidated all of these many submissions and edited them down to brief yet inclusive and descriptive names, oriented purely toward helping someone without a detailed geographic knowledge about a particular state to mentally place a district within it.
This is a harder task than you might think! For one thing, gerrymandering has a bigger impact in the U.S. than in other countries: A congressional district might take a bite of a city, then snake through the suburbs out into rural territory, in order to maximize the political advantage for whichever party drew the lines. What would you even call this monstrosity?
When a district covers not just multiple municipalities, but whole different categories of locations, it’s going to be hard to narrow it down to just a few words. This is amplified by the fact that U.S. congressional districts, which are usually in the ballpark of 750,000 residents, are much more populous and therefore simply take in more places than those in other countries. United Kingdom constituencies, by comparison, usually have under 100,000 residents.
For another thing, you need to be flexible about what you call things, since there isn’t really a consistent “human geography” that applies throughout the United States. For instance, we call California’s 47th District the “Long Beach area,” since much of the district’s population is in that city. The neighboring 48th, however, needs to be called “Coastal Orange County,” since none of the individual towns in that district are very well-known on their own, while the very populous Orange County is also one of the nation’s few counties that’s well-known enough to be its own sort of cultural touchstone.
We have to cast an even wider net, though, for instance, in the 22nd, called “Central Valley near Fresno and Tulare,” where the district covers a wide variety of counties, and we’re best off using the name of a well-known agricultural region within the state. At any rate, all these pithy names are in the “geographic descriptions” column of our spreadsheet.
To the right of that column you’ll see our quantitative approach, where we use census data to name the three largest places by population in each congressional district and show how much of the district they each take up.
“Places” is basically census-speak for incorporated municipalities, like cities or towns, though it also includes “census-designated places,” which are areas that are unincorporated below the county level, but are dense enough and where there’s a mutually-agreed upon name that most people use for that area. (One somewhat-well-known example of a CDP is Paradise, Nevada, which is the unincorporated part of Clark County where the Las Vegas Strip—which, ironically, is not in Las Vegas—is located.)
So, for instance, our qualitative description of Alabama’s mostly rural 2nd Congressional District is “Southeastern Alabama,” which certainly helps you get initially oriented on a state map. If you’re wondering with a little more specificity as to which parts of the lower-right quadrant of Alabama are specifically in the district, though, the subsequent columns will tell you that the largest cities in the 2nd are Montgomery (which makes up 20% of the district’s population), Dothan (10%), and Prattville (5%). If you want more of a Canadian-style riding name for the 2nd, you could instead call it “Montgomery–Dothan–Prattville” if you prefer.
Keep in mind that the percentage of a congressional district encompassed by a particular place may reflect only part of that city; many major cities (and many minor ones as well) are split into multiple districts. Montgomery, for example, takes up 20% of the 2nd District, but it also takes up 7% of the 7th District. Montgomery is split for gerrymandering purposes, with many of its traditionally African American neighborhoods going into Alabama’s sole black-majority district, the 7th.
We’ve also included a “None” column, which reflects the percentage of a district’s population that lives in no “place” whatsoever. That doesn’t mean those residents are in some sort of Medium Place limbo; it means that they live in unincorporated areas that aren’t dense enough to earn CDP status from the census. In other words, the “none” percentage closely tracks what percentage of a district’s residents live in rural or exurban areas (or, in some cases, small but dense suburban areas that have simply fallen through the cracks because no neighboring cities have yet annexed them).
One other thing to notice is that in some of the nation’s largest cities, you’ll see one or more districts that contain only 100% of that particular city (case in point is New York’s 6th through 15th, all of which are 100% New York City). To provide greater detail, we’ve also created a separate “By Neighborhood” tab, which takes those districts that are entirely or almost entirely found within one city and details by percentage which neighborhoods are covered by those districts.
For instance, New York’s weirdly shaped 7th District, which joins together a variety of mostly Latino neighborhoods throughout the city, can at least be somewhat pinned down as “Sunset Park & Windsor Terrace–Bushwick–Chinatown & Lower East Side.”
The task of quantifying which neighborhood goes where is a tricky one, since only a few major cities—Chicago is probably the best example—officially delineate neighborhood boundaries. Elsewhere, it’s an informal and hazy concept at best.
One great but little-known census feature, though, is something known as the “public use microdata area” (or PUMA for short), which attempts to break populations down into manageable chunks of around 100,000 residents within (or across) municipal boundaries, sort of like super-census tracts. Unlike tracts, which just get classified with a string of numbers, the Census Bureau names its PUMAs, which is the closest it comes to formally naming neighborhoods, so that’s what we’re using in the neighborhood tab.
(The percentages for both places and PUMAs within each congressional district are calculated using the Missouri Data Center’s Geographic Correspondence Engine, a free and easy-to-use resource that lets you examine overlaps between various geographical categories.)
As we said at the outset, the goal of our new spreadsheet is to give readers—and ourselves—a basic vocabulary for describing where on the map a given district is. But we’re not expecting this spreadsheet to be any sort of argument-settler. In fact, we welcome the arguments! Please feel free to chime in in the comments with any further refinements, and we’ll issue updates as warranted.