Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gerrymandering Matters

The elections are over and the Great Game of Politics enters a new chapter. Everyone always remembers who they voted for President and Senator and even Governor. Below those marquee offices, the names start to get fuzzy. Most people (and by ‘most people’ I mean ‘me’) have a hard time remembering who their congressman is, let alone their assemblyman or state senator or school board council member. One reason for this is that Congressional Districts don’t make any sense. They have numbers instead of names, don’t match known geographical boundaries, and get redrawn once a decade (or more often if you live in Texas).

When I moved to West Palm Beach I ended up in the very misshapen 23rd District. This was when the scales really fell off my eyes about gerrymandering. This district had been drawn to encircle all the predominantly African American neighborhoods in South Florida. It ran inland along US1 from northern Miami for about a hundred miles up past West Palm Beach. My residence was in the small tentacle that crawled across Forest Hill Boulevard to catch the sugar plantation towns surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

The 23rd is flanked by the equally distended 19th and 22nd Districts (Del Boca Vista Phase III retirees and rich white people with beachfront property, respectively) and is wrapped on the north by Mark Foley’s old stomping grounds. Since I moved out of Florida the district has been redrawn but it still stretches from Miramar in the south to Fort Pierce in the north. This article from the Economist uses the 22nd and 23rd districts as part of a How To Rig An Election tutorial.

Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who had been impeached for bribery (which was overturned for technical reasons on appeal), was the front runner for my district. Hastings was from Miami, which has a whole different set of needs than West Palm Beach and definitely has little in common with Belle Glades. It bugged me that an entire district would be drawn just for the sake of one corrupt politician. I was much more naïve then. Hastings has run unopposed in most elections since then and is now rumored to be in line for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.

My current district (Maryland 3rd) is also wildly gerrymandered. It stretches from Annapolis through Elkridge up to Pikesville, Towson, and Parkton. For a state as small as Maryland, that level of convolutedness is unforgivable. There are a lot of tests to determine how “fair” a district is to meet voting right requirements, but none include compactness. This frustrates my engineer’s sense of efficiency. There needs to be some sort of perimeter to area ratio requirement that can be minimized or equalized among districts.

This district just elected the second generation of Sarbannes to national office. He won with 65% of the vote, which tells me this is his seat as long as he wants it. I’m not too keen on the whole nepotism in politics idea right now. It hasn’t seemed to be too successful lately.

I pick weird issues to get worked up about. For years it was the marriage tax back when only Dan Quayle an I ever seemed concerned about. Now it’s gerrymandering. If some politician out there ever decides to ride to power on a platform of voting district fairness, I’m behind him or her. I think I’ll be waiting a long time.


Anonymous said...

The third district is a hideous monster. It's also transparently racially-based. Within Baltimore City, it's drawn to encompass almost all of the predominantly white neigborhoods and leave out the predominantly black ones. I'm betting this applies to its tentacles in HoCo and other jurisdictions too.

(Where I live, Charles Village, is majority white, but we actually got left out of it by a few blocks for whatever reason. Maybe we aren't white enough?)

However, I think there's something to be said for districts drawn with considerations other than just geography in mind. There was one famously convoluted district in North Carolina after the 1990 redisctricting that was struck down by the Supreme Court. This district essentially consisted of the inner cities of a few mid-sized cities, all linked together by a corridor that was essentially the width of Interstate 85. At first flush this looks like gerrymandering at its worse, but, looking at it from a different perspective, don't residents of inner-city Charlotte and inner-city Winston-Salem (say) have more in common with each other than either does with the inhabitants of the wealthy suburbs just outside their respective cities?

Dunno if you're a registered Democrat, yellojkt, but the Democratic primary for the 3rd was quite competitive. I was rooting for Beilenson, who was the Baltimore City secretary of health; my wife has worked with him professionally and thinks very highly of him. Alas, Sarbanes' name recognition won out (though the primary was so crowded I think he won with less than 35 percent of the vote). Since the district is drawn to favor Democrats, you may want to pay attention to the primary since it's going to determine the course of the election in many cases.


yellojkt said...

My wife registered Democrat just for that reason (that and the teaching job is slowly brainwashing her). A coworker of mine was backing one of the Demo also-rans pretty strongly. There were also seven Republican candidates in the 3rd primary. Just none had a shot in the general election. Now that Sarbannes has won the seat, the primaries are meaningless even if you are a Democrat.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, yello, the seat will open up again with Sarbanes Jr. runs for Cardin's Senate seat when Cardin retires 12 or 18 years from now.


yellojkt said...

Or he goes for Mikulski's seat. How much longer does she have left?

Anonymous said...

David Brin has been ranting (I mean that in a good way) about gerrymandering on his blog and website for a while now. He has a lengthy article starting here:

Mooselet said...

There needs to be a committee composed of non-politicians to draw up new districts that don't cater to specific politicians. It's so obviously blatant it makes me queasy. No wonder people are so apathetic.

yellojkt said...

Thanks for the link. David Brin is one of my favorite writers, so to learn that my independent rant matches his thoughts makes me feel good. If anything Brin is even more worked up. He's a little scornful of the 'independent' committee idea, since he doesn't think that politics can be truly removed.

He does favor Josh's "Can't beat 'em? Join 'em!" strategy when you are stuck in a disadvantaged district. Multi-rep districts are another way to go, but those are rarely done higher than the municipal level in the US.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I thought the whole redistricting thing in TX was a riot when the Dems rewrote the zones - and then went AWOL so they it couldn't be undone. That's funny stuff!

Anonymous said...

Multi-rep winner-take-all districts (like the ones that the Maryland state legislature uses in the House of Delegates) tend to exaggerate majorities, actually. A three-person district in which 53 percent of the population tends to vote Democrat will elect three Democtratic representatives, unless one of the Dems is a very weak candidate, or someone from the other party is exceptionally attractive.

Gibraltar is an extreme case of this. The Gibraltar legislature is made of 15 people with no districts, and each voter gets 8 votes; the top 15 vote-getters are elected in the parliament. Inevitably, every election ends with the winning party getting 8 seats and the losing party getting 7.

The way to avoid this is to have a single transferrable vote system, used in many places around the world -- Ireland and New Zealand both use it in their national parliaments, for instance. You live in a district that elects three or four reps (say), and you rank all (or some) of the candidates. This tends to produce generally proportional results while still allowing you to vote for individuals, not parties.

Unfortunately, it's a relatively complicated system, and the math involved in determining the winner is pretty opaque to most people, so I doubt that it will ever be adopted here. One of the few places in the US that does use this system is Cambridge for its city council; presumably the presence of MIT boosts the number of math-savvy folks who grasp how it works.

Yes, I am a big voting-system geek.

yellojkt said...

I'm not sure an 8-7 split in a close election is a bad outcome. Most parlimentary elections are proportional. The big trend nowadays is to push "instant run-offs" to deal with multiple candidate contests. Montana swung Democratic because of Libretarian votes and a Green Party candidate nearly cost Webb the win in Virginia.

The Hugo awards have been using instant run-offs forever. I am such a geek.

trusty getto said...

Did someone say gerrymander? Now the Dems will have their chance. First the gerrymandering (choosing who you will represent rather than the other way around), and then the lawsuits, only to have the entire thing re-done in a few years when power shifts yet again.

I just love politics.