Monday, November 26, 2012

Redistricting reform and its limits

The Journal Sentinel editorial board thinks it has found an  egregious example of bizarre gerrymandering in the recent redrawing of the 21st and 22nd Senate districts. I beg to differ.

First, let's go to the "eye test." The board thinks that the new 21st district is an imaginatively shaped "barrel" that could not be found in a "natural" world of redistricting. But as these things go, the shape of the 21st is not all that unusual. While it is far from the most compact and contiguous district you could draw, there are plenty that are worse. If you really want to see bizarrely shaped legislative districts, look at some of these, .

Beyond that, it is not hard to defend the new 21st and 22nd on  traditional redistricting principles which are are not limited to drawing a contiguous and compact set of districts or respecting existing political boundaries. For example, it is often argued that redistricting should respect "communities of interest," i.e., there should be an effort to draw boundaries in a way that includes citizens with common concerns.

The new 21st and 22d districts may well serve that principle. Voters in the cities of Racine and Kenosha may have more interests in common than they have with the suburban and rural residents of their respective counties.
This is not to say that there is no political consequence of respecting such communities. One man's respect for "community of interest" may be another's deployment of the time honored redistricting device of "packing"  voters.
But splitting up - or "cracking" -  like-minded voters is another way of gerrymandering.

This is why the United States Supreme Court has effectively made court challenges to partisan gerrymanders impossible. There is no such thing as an "ideal" map. There are six or seven common "nonpartisan" redistricting principles. Unfortunately, they often contradict each other. For example, keeping "communities of interest" within the same district may require ignoring municipal boundaries or drawing a map which departs from the state wide partisan balance of power or which maximizes competitive districts.

One solution might be to put the drawing of maps in "non-partisan" hands.
Good luck with that.
The editorial board offers two alternatives. One is to create a nonpartisan commission such as California's - a commission which is now under fire for acting in a partisan fashion (as the paper's op-ed concedes.) "Non-partisan" solutions rarely remain non-partisan and often succeed only in driving the politics underground. It is notoriously difficult to drive the politics out of something that is inherently political.
It is not at all clear that a nonpartisan approach will not have partisan implications. Many people believe that a map which draws districts in a way that maximizes things like the regularity of their shape and adherence to municipal boundaries will tend to benefit Republicans. This is because Democratic voters tend to be "packed" together in a way that Republican voters are not.

If that's true, then we can expect partisan wrangling to continue in a non-partisan context. Indeed, the battle over the redistricting criteria to be used may become partisan.

The other alternative suggested by the board  is to restrict the legislature to alternatives presented by a putatively independent state agency associated with the legislature, such as the Legislative Reference Bureau. But whether such an agency would be free of pro-incumbent bias - or would not be captured by one party -  seems unclear. Again, there is likely to be a partisan fight over which non-partisan interests to employ.
At best, this alternative would certainly moderate the potential for a gerrymandered where one party has both houses of the legislature and the state house. At worst, it would be a recipe for gridlock.
This is not to say that redistricting reform is necessarily a bad idea. It may well deserve consideration. My point is only that the matter is not as simple as it may seem to be.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin


William Kraus said...

I am less concerned about partisan districting than about consensus districting. Our congressional map is a product of the latter. The result of both, of course, is primarization of our elections and bipolarization of their product. The collision course of a legislature elected [anointed] by one set of constituents has no loyalty to an executive elected by another set. Winners in both can claim mandates, and the incentives for compromise diminish or disappear altogether. Disinterested districting will not end gridlock, but it might ameliorate it.

George Mitchell said...


What alternative do you propose?

I agree that more competitive elections are desirable, but "non-partisan" redistricting sounds a lot to me like campaign finance "reform." Or "non-partisan" judicial selection. The devil always is in the details.

Anonymous said...

RIght, George Mitchell, just keep the status quo. Spoken like a true insider.

The mode employed by Iowal for non-partisan redistricting has proven effective. This state's current redistricting system was first used in 1981. Prior to its implementation, Iowa endured numerous lawsuits over redistricting, which ultimately led to the Iowa Supreme Court deciding the maps. As a result of the current system, incumbents have been paired into new districts. The result? Hotly contested primaries.

Although, in New Jersey, independent citizen and politician redistricting commissions have adopted an informal arbitration system as the means of reducing partisan tension and facilitation the building of coalitions.

While I understand each state is different in its political and geographical make-up, it is reasonable to assume that some elements of the each model can be adapted.


Jeff Simpson said...

of course the lines are legal and no problem, you knew that before you even laid your eyes on them!