Down with gerrymandering

The United States House of Representatives is not a representative body. In a representative body, the people would choose their representatives. That’s not how the House works today. In fact, it works almost the exact opposite: the representatives choose their people.

With today’s gerrymandering processes, politicians start with the desired outcome and draw districts to match. Being constrained by the census, they have to leave a few districts competitive, but in most cases the result is foreordained. It’s rather like a twisted form of proportional representation, except that a lot of people are deliberately put into districts that will never represent them, in order to obtain the desired overall outcome.

In the wake of Tuesday’s GOP wave, Republicans now control the districting process in a great many states. The Wall Street Journal predicts that Democrats, now bereft of its traditional gerrymandering advantage, will embrace reform. If so, Republicans should go along.

Yes, it’s tempting to stick it to the other side, now that the shoe is on the other foot, but we should show that we’re better than that. This isn’t a case of unilateral disarmament hurting our cause (as when term-limit advocates observe term limits on themselves and thereby disappear their own movement); there is good reason to suppose that districting reform could be permanent. (Although Nancy Pelosi did sponsor a ballot initiative to reverse California’s districting reform.)

As we (hopefully) move forward into a time of reform, I want to make a proposal. John Fund, writing positively of reform, remarks:

While there’s no way to take politics entirely out of redistricting, its influence can be limited.

Actually, I think it might be possible to take politics out entirely. Here is how I suggest redistricting should work:

  1. The law should establish an objective metric for compactness. For example, the sum of the squares of the circumferences of the districts, plus a penalty every time a district boundary crosses a county line. Exactly what the metric is doesn’t matter all that much; what is important is that it admit objective calculation.
  2. Anyone at all can propose a district map. All proposals in which every district contains the same number of people (within some specified tolerance) will be considered.
  3. All the proposals are evaluated according to the metric, and the one with the best metric is implemented.

In this scheme, parties would be welcome to make proposals that enhance their own representation, but they would be unlikely to prevail. The winning proposal would probably come from a team of computer scientists with a supercomputer.

UPDATE: Gerrymandering 101.

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