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October 14, 2003

the evils of "districting"

I think that the process for drawing legislative districts is the single worst feature of US democracy today, worse than the scandalous campaign finance system. Politicians have drawn congressional districts so that fewer than 50 out of 435 are at all competitive. This means that in the remaining 385 districts, there really isn't any point to voting. That's one reason why turnout is so low. Meanwhile, incumbents in uncompetitive seats are not accountable to the voters for anything but the grossest misbehavior. Nor is there any public political debate in these districts. As a result, Americans tend to see disagreement as something that only arises far away in Washington; they interpret it as a sign that professional politicians love to argue instead of solve problems. Citizens don't realize that we Americans have real disagreements that need to be addressed.

The recent redistricting of Texas looks like a sign that things are getting even worse. Now legislatures will redistrict for small partisan advantage every time they see an opportunity, no longer waiting for the next decennial Census results. But I see a silver lining. Maybe this is the reductio ad absurdum of the whole process. As one state after another dissolves into constant conflict over legislative lines, maybe people will start demanding the process used in Iowa, where a non-partisan commission is appointed to draw the districts.

If I had my way, districts would be drawn by computers that were programmed to maximize competitiveness and compactness, while preserving opportunities for minority candidates. I suspect there's no magic algorithm that will maximize these three goals at once, but a computer could compromise arbitrarily. I know that making a goal out of competitiveness is a pipe dream; no incumbent government will ever create such a system. However, we have nearly the opposite today: a map that is skillfully designed to minimize competition. This is really outrageous.

October 14, 2003 12:27 PM | category: none


Your interest in reforming Congressional districts for competition, not incumbency, is truly good for democracy (as far as I can tell) and I agree that with the zany events in Texas, we might come to a sort of minor crisis-opportunity in some states. More and more state courts have been brought into the process, and a whole new field of election law has emerged in the last 30(?) years. These, too, are signs of strain.

For a few reasons I am not yet confident, however, that "non-partisan" commissions or "computational formulas" resolve partisanship concerns.

Is it truly possible for an agency or administrative process to rise above politics? While the Federal Reserve seems to have done it, this is still disputed.

Supposing it can be done sufficiently, is it a good thing to rise above politics? Do state representatives and their constitutents lose some of the valuable politically-forming experiences of fighting for justice/against injustice? Tocqueville worried about the desire for efficiency over the messiness of local freedoms. Is the redistricting decision analogous to, let's say, school boards or juries, which draw people together for inefficient but public processes?

December 1, 2003 12:30 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Scott Dinsmore

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