Could we prevent gerrymandering by having citizens determine election boundaries?

Proposals for how to better redistrict to minimize gerrymandering tend to be either having a bi-partisan or non-partisan human commission decide or a completely automated algorithm. With human commissions, it’s always an open question of exactly how unbiased the commission is. With algorithms, there’s the fear that human features in the geography get ignored.

Instead, what I propose is this: Either at the voting booth or on the web, you enter in your home address and are presented with a map with a series of random points on it. For each of the points, you enter in the degree of affinity you feel to someone who would live at that place. All of this data then gets anonymously fed into an algorithm which draws electoral boundary lines that aim to maximize the degree of aggregate affinity.

Such a scheme would be possible to game but incredibly difficult as it would have to involve the coordination of thousands of people instead of a few commission members. It would also naturally conform to a human understanding of an electoral district and be able to tease out tacit boundaries in the geography (for example, a certain road might make the dividing line between two different classes of people and would serve as a good boundary for electoral purposes).

I know the chances of any meaningful gerrymander reform in practise are very slim. But at least in theory, this sounds like a potentially a very good solution to how to solve redistricting.

I used to feel redistricting was a partisan privilege thing and that if one party wants to be dominant, they need to rally their troops and win the majority in their states. Pubs have control of a lot of states now and so they’ve drawn the lines most favorable to them. But dems can hardly cry foul, they used to do it when they had control.

But when I saw on the Daily Show that Texas completely negated the liberal city of Austin by districting out ANY representative that could possibly reflect their views, then I thought maybe something should be done to make it a little more balanced. But I’m not sure what you mean by “degree of affinity”?

As a San Francisco resident, outside of the San Francisco city limits, I feel the most affinity towards the inner East Bay (Berkeley and Oakland). I feel some degree of affinity towards the Peninsula (Mountain View, Palo Alto) and feel almost no affinity towards Marin or the outer East Bay (Walnut Creek, Vallejo).

If there had to be a choice of of redistricting and San Francisco alone was too small to be a district, I’d feel far more happy with San Francisco & Inner East Bay being one district rather than San Francisco and Marin.

The reason why is because I think we have similar concerns, priorities and worldviews and could be relied upon to elect a representative that could represent us all fairly. That’s what I mean by affinity.

The citizens of California, in their infinite wisdom, voted for a non-partisan commission to do the boundaries. And in their infinite wisdom, the commission decided that I, who live in a suburb of Sacramento with a population of 100,000, am in the same State Senate district as farmers who live 150 miles away. The Republican candidate, who will probably win, is even campaigning as “Conservative Rancher”. How does that represent me?

Besides being so complicated that I don’t have any idea how this is supposed to work, I’m confused about a variety of other problems.

You’re asking people to choose their district while they are voting? When people are screaming about how long lines are now, you want to lengthen the time needed? How would candidates campaign if they didn’t know what their districts would look like? How would voters decide who to vote for? Your proposal essentially creates at-large representatives rather than area representatives. That may or may not be good, but it’s not our system.

You might also want to note that many (most?) states are moving away from screen balloting of any kind and toward optical sensors, because paper trails are easier to create for them (and more hack-resistant). You seem to be extrapolating off of whatever voting equipment you’re used to rather than the range of actual systems in use across the country.

I’ll bet you’re young and have grown up with computers. Do you really not see that millions of Americans, especially older ones, would find this impossible to work out, even with extensive training? Do you not remember the Florida butterfly ballots, which were supposed to simplify the ballot?

This sounds like a plan thought up by a person who works in IT. That’s a horrible insult, BTW. I find IT personnel the most clueless about how humans work of any group in society. I know nothing about you except that your user name might be a reference to an Assyrian king or to the computer in Stand on Zanzibar. I have a horrible feeling it is the latter.

Fairer redistricting is obviously a gigantic pressing need. But this won’t do.

It’s not at all clear what “fair districting” means. For example, suppose a region to be split into two districts has 55% Party X voters, and 45% Y voters. If the region is well-mixed, X will get two seats and Y zero. (Y might get a seat with OP’s proposal – the Y voters all click on the location of Y Lover’s Coffeeshop – though X voters could “game” that system.) If Y voters live in specific enclaves, Y can get a seat but only with a district shape that looks like a “gerrymander.” If the Y enclaves are contiguous, “appropriate” districting might give Y a seat; now, breaking up that Y district, perhaps resulting in compacter districts, might be called gerrymandering!

If you follow this reasoning, or OP’s proposal, to a natural conclusion, I think you’ll decide proportional representation (or party lists) is the way to go.

Lacking a major reform like proportional representation, all we can hope is that good-spirited judges and other public servants will detest the most blatant and egregious gerrymanders. Speaking of which, does anyone have a cite that “the Demos do it too”? (I’m sure Democrats have gerrymandered; I just wonder if during the last half-century theirs ever approached the blatant scale, across several states, of the GOP in recent years.)

You are dealing with people who can’t navigate a butterfly ballot. This might work well for tech savvy Millennials, but Aunt Clara is going to say: WTF?

There isn’t any objectively definable “best” districting, so I think most we can ask for is to minimize the politics involved. Letting the state legislature determine district boundaries is definitely not the best way to do it.

Ok, I get it. Why not take political views completely out of the equation and just draw the lines geographically?

America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts

I’m now represented by the only Republican representative in Maryland. The redrawn districts shifted all the others just blue enough.

Who gets to decide which geographic features to use?

Simply salami-slice each state with lines running due east/west. Lines are placed as far apart north/south as is needed to contain the pro-rata headcount.

Each state is measured for total extent N/S & E/W. States taller than wide are divided as I described. e.g. California. States wider than tall, e.g. Tennessee are divided using the same idea, but rotated by 90 degrees: N/S lines paced every so often E/W as needed to enclose the pro-rata headcount.

This has the advantage that exactly zero human input goes into any part of it, either now or at future redistrictings to take account of shifting population. Unless people start redrawing state boundaries there is no place for politics to get its grubby chisel into a crack.

The failings of this plan are obvious: the districts are almost certainly not culturally or economically compact.

But the underlying problem with the whole current system is precisely that it has the mixed and incompatible goals of being geographically defined, yet supposed culturally & economically consistent / compact.

For most things the Feds do, we each have far more affinity with folks of our social, economic, cultural, and political persuasions than we do with our physical neighbors. Any similarity we do have with our physical neighbors is really a manifestation of the first 4 parameters I named, with economics to the fore.

This is why PR makes sense in many cases. Not that I think the US could ever get there from here.

Local government districting is rationally based on geography because of the tasks they have. State government is a mixed bag. But having the Federal Congressional districts defined geographically is simply bad design. And we’re dealing with the inherent consequences of that bad design.

The Democrats don’t want strict-geographic districts because their voters are disproportionately distributed in concentrated areas, which in States like Ohio where lots of the suburbs (which in total have a lot of people) have thin Republican majorities and most of the truly rural areas have strong Republican majorities (but few people) you can end up with a situation where you may have a majority of the voters but you don’t get a majority of legislative districts (State or Federal level) because of your demographics and geographic distribution.

The Republicans don’t want strict-geographic districts (even though I posit it would benefit us somewhat and hurt Democrats) because of basic craven political traditions in which they want to be able to get as much advantage as possible through re-districting.

There are some number of voters in each party (like myself) that would love to see us adopt an approach like the British Boundary Commissions which genuinely do a good non-partisan job and draw reasonably geographically compact districts that “make sense.” But on both sides I don’t think the powers that be will ever want this. While the Democrats may seem to be more on the side of the angels (certainly to posters here), the reality is they have social justice concerns (majority-minority districts for example to guarantee a certain number of minority legislators) that conflict with a true pure geographic boundary drawing. To Democratic leaders if a State is 55% Democratic voters they should get a majority of the legislative seats or the districts are “wrong”, but geographically compact districts can absolutely create districts that do not reward the party with the most votes with the most seats (and in fact would do so in favor of the Republican party in most States–although less than intentionally gerrymandered districts) so I think politically it just makes sense for Democrats to just bitch about gerrymandering as a campaign point and hope they can do some of their own in 2020. Actually eliminating it would be bad for the Democrats as “natural” districts would not be to their benefit and at least under the current system they can override that with intentional gerrymandering when they’re in power (and due to court involvement some districts are intentionally gerrymandered in the Democrat’s favor even when they aren’t in power.)

In my state, we have a nonpartisan commission (established by referendum a few decades ago) which draws up the congressional districts.

Short of creating a computer program capable of perfect impartial districting, this is probably the best possible solution to the problem.

The result of the neutral district lines in California was that there were more Democrats voted in than prior to redistricting. This was at a time when the Republicans, even though they were a minority, had enough seats in the Legislature to prevent pro-Democratic gerrymandering. Instead, there was pro-incumbent gerrymandering. But that doesn’t happen any more.

I certainly want this. I loudly advocate it.

Try to give an example of a Republican leader who has said otherwise. Please. I want to see that quote with my own eyes.

There are actually two separate strands in history that have to be addressed. Gerrymandering districts occurs both for federal elections and for state ones.

The federal examples are probably more familiar and go back before the name was coined. Those boundaries mostly are drawn to benefit one party or the other. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, federal guidelines mandated that minorities, often geographically concentrated, get dispersed among districts. This is true even if they are not a majority of all residents.

The distrust of cities starting in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th, manifested itself by not redistricting state legislatures to reflect urban population gains. This resulted in rural voters having a disproportionate say in the legislature. The “one man, one vote” Supreme Court decisions, on both federal and state cases, said that districts had to be as equal in population as possible. This is what has been considered “fair” for a half century.

The notion that a majority should be represented by a majority goes back deep into the country’s history, even though it was widely flouted by politicians of all stripes. That’s one reason why many want to keep the Electoral College, because it magnifies the majority and counter-intuitively makes the popular vote appear more democratic. The fight to represent people fairly was made by groups on every part of the political spectrum. The recent (i.e. post WWII) successes were part of the huge historical trend that has eliminated historic biases against huge numbers of groups. Fairness for all is the future. The future always wins, no matter how long people try to hold it back.

Can you say that liberals cheered this trend while conservatives fought it bitterly and violently every step of the way and that history will vilify them endlessly for it? To a good first-order approximation, sure. That’s why they get treated like they do on this board. The deeper reality is messier, and liberals deserve castigation for their failure to do more and do more in a timely fashion. I wish I could say that conservatives are in some ways less to blame than they appear. I just can’t think of any.

Of course, the desire to have majority minority districts to some extent conflicts with the desire to avoid Republican overrepresentation. The more you concentrate Black voters, for example (which you need to do in order to have adequate Black representation, except in some very large cities and in areas like the Mississipi delta), the more you end up concentrating Democrats, and the more you concentrate Democrats, the more you end up with a bunch of other districts that are (say) 55% Republican. So these two goals are in a bit of conflict with each other, except in areas (like the city of Detroit, Mississipi Delta, etc.) where there is already a natural Black majority.

Some people would of course argue the real solution here is to get rid of geographic districts and first past the post anyway- then you could have proportional representation for Democrats, reserved seats for Black legislators, etc…

Fuck it. Go proportional.

That’s pretty much my thought.

The whole argument around a single-member district is obviated if you just go to multi-member districts, with some form of STV to make sure minor parties aren’t screwed.

Yes. Please do.

The US, by virtue of installing Modern Democracy before everyone else, has ended up with an alpha release of the system, and we could really benefit from some of the features (like proportional representation, STV, and so on) more recent versions have had built in.

Politicians loathe to support anything that would make things less predictable. However, why do we not simply use the existing geographical boundaries of our county lines? Or groups of counties, with their existing boundaries intact? We are beholden to counties already when it comes to jury duty, for example. Honest question - why not use existing county boundaries?