Every ten years, after the Census numbers come out, we go through a hellish process called redistricting. The Constitution mandates that Congressional districts be apportioned at that time, and most states re-draw their state legislative districts as well. Unfortunately, the Constitution doesn’t really give any guidance on how that process should go. Lines are drawn by the state legislatures, meaning the majority party goes out of its way to draw districts that give them the advantage. Concentrations of opposition voters are usually divided into multiple districts to dilute their concentration, and lines are drawn around large swaths of majority voters to ensure that they stay in the majority.
The opposition party, of course, does whatever they can to mitigate the damage, and an absurd degree of horse-trading and political sausage making takes place in the process. The Supreme Court has, over the years, thrown a few monkey wrenches into the process. Districts may not be drawn to disadvantage racial or ethnic minorities. However, political considerations such as political party may be used. After the 2010 elections, in which Republicans swept at both the Federal and state levels, redistricting gave them the opportunity to create the boundaries of four times more districts than Democrats. They used that advantage to turn swing districts into safe districts across the country. In state legislatures controlled by Democrats the process is just as partisan.
Check out Stephen Colbert blowing the lid off of Gerrymandering last year:
Over the years, the Supreme Court has heard numerous cases on redistricting and a few principals have been put in place to guide the process. Districts should be “compact.” That means the geographic shape of the district shouldn’t have long tendrils, nor should it snake about the map, picking up some neighborhoods, while cutting others out. The districts must also be contiguous, meaning that they can’t have islands spread out all over the place.
Ideally local political subdivisions, such as cities or counties will be kept together, and “communities of interest” should be maintained. It’s this requirement, laid out in a 1995 case called Miller v. Johnson, that has given state legislatures carte blanche to draw lines essentially however they like. Though the court’s intent was to create a guideline to reduce political gerrymandering, they instead created a principle so vague that it can cover a variety of sins. It’s unclear what a community of interest is, and so legislators use it as an excuse to ignore compactness and local political subdivisions, and draw crazy, spindly districts that only make sense if you look at them from the perspective of protecting the majority party’s position.
To combat the political manipulation of the districts, a few states have gone to non-partisan redistricting committees, but this solution has a limited impact. The committee members are appointed politically and so the question of political manipulation remains. Software engineer Brian Olson has proposed another solution.
Olson wrote a program to draw districts that are both compact, and equal in population. It follows neighborhood boundaries by using census blocks to avoid drawing arbitrary lines through properties, and it takes politics totally out of the equation. This kind of solution would require some changes to the legal rules about redistricting that have been put in place by Congress and by the Supreme Court over the years, but it might just put both parties back on an equal footing going into each election, rather than protecting whichever party happened to be in power during the redistricting year.
By focusing just on compactness, Olson’s algorithm ignores “communities of interest” as well as the racial and ethnic considerations that the voting rights act requires. However, by taking political motivation completely out of the process, it is likely that the districts would reflect the actual demographics of the various areas of a state, rather than a carefully hand-selected demographic makeup sought by certain legislators.
It’s not a perfect solution, but its an innovative and 21st century way to deal with the age-old problem of political gerrymandering, and that can only be a good thing for the democratic process.