One of the most common responses I get to the idea of Hands-Off Redistricting is that – though people are uniformly disgusted with gerrymandering – they are concerned that automated approaches might lead to their own set of unintentional injustices. The concerns I hear fall under two broad themes:
Hands-off approaches may disenfranchise minority interest groups (especially racial ones) by dispersing these communities among Congressional Districts, and
Recognized communities like cities and towns may be split between congressional districts, where one would logically assume they would have the same Congressperson.
Though both of these may occur in Hands-Off Redistricting, I believe these results are consistent with the public interest, and in fact strongly enhance the representational function of Congress. The key is agreeing on what Congressional Districts are for, and being hard-nosed about what they may resemble but aren’t.
What Congressional Districts are not, are administrative districts. They have no legitimate executive function. They aren’t fiefdoms and Representatives aren’t the citizens’ feudal overlords. Congresspeople are there to represent their constituents’ interests and to work with others in Congress to balance those interests against the nation’s interests as whole. Congress works best when its outcomes are most representative in aggregate while being mindful of the legitimate communal interests of minority voices in the citizenry. A little pedantic, but that’s the test for a good outcome in Congress.
The most frequently discussed aspect of redistricting relates to racial minority representation in Congress. The conventional wisdom on this topic (that underlies a lot of judicial scrutiny) is that racial minorities deserve some sense of proportional representation in Congress. The political debate you hear about this is as tiresome as it is predictable: Democrats essentially arguing that this outcome should be measured by designated Democratic representation of minority interests, and Republicans essentially trying to dilute the influence of unsympathetic voters.
Viewed from the prism of bi-polar politics, the outcome is a compromise that results in safe Democratic and Republican districts when the parties have to deal with each other, and hyper-safe minority party districts alongside a greater number of suitably-safe majority party districts when one party is calling the shots, as discussed previously.
A more common-sense assessment of what is happening tells a different story about the outcomes when racial minority interests are concentrated in a minority of overall districts. When racial minorities (or coincident factors like low levels of income or high unemployment) are “ghettoized” into some districts, it allows the representatives in other districts to stigmatize these voters with relative impunity and essentially gang up against them.
Doesn’t that seem to be more like what is happening?
An interesting contrast to these minority dynamics is the breathtakingly rapid recent shift in attitudes toward the civil equality of the Gay and Lesbian community. Congress played no real role in this, but the relative restraint of Congressional right-wing demagogues while this shift is playing out is interesting. There is much more to it than this, but I suspect part of this quiescence is that homosexuals are fairly evenly distributed among the population and it took right-wingers time to realize this and calculate that gay-bashing rhetoric was not as safe as they previously thought it was. I don’t mean to imply that the recognition of Gay rights was fast, or easy, or pretty, but I do think that more politicians being more attuned to minority views in their districts – and more at risk when they stigmatize minority views – is a good thing for minority voices.
The issues are similar when dealing with municipalities that may be split via Hands-Off Redistricting. It does make sense that a town or small city would see some convenience in having one representative in Congress to deal with. One can argue that having two half-voices with two Congressional Representatives might be as good or better than having more attention from a single representative, and I actually suspect that OPRA‘s results would tend to retain the integrity of population clusters in districts because that is consistent with compactness. But the best argument for Hands-Off Redistricting and communities is to compare it to what happens when politicians are Hands-On, and there’s no better example of that than the silliness that is Texas’ Congressional boundaries.
You don’t have to imagine on this colorful map where the urban centers of San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth are, because the political mischief gives them away. It is easy to imagine that the vast rural regions are feeding on the urban centers and in a sense that is what they’re doing: nibbling off the fringes of these municipalities in order to dilute their political representation.
When you zoom in on these metro areas the intention is clear. You may be surprised that liberalish laid-back Austin is actually “represented” in Congress by 4 Republicans and 1 Democrat (Lloyd Dogget, the progressive Austinite, who has been hounded by right-wing redistricting for years. He now represents not only the progressives in Austin, but somehow a major slice of San Antonio 80 miles away.)
The other urban areas are no better. The point is, while Hands-Off Redistricting may in some cases divide municipalities in the larger cause of “compactness”, its very adherence to compactness protects citizens from having their influence intentionally diluted.
I’ll end this post with a graphical comparison generated by a brilliant practitioner in developing Hands-Off Redistricting algorithnms, Brian Olson. Brian’s fascinating and thoughtful blog bolson.org is well worth spending some time on. Brian has investigated and implemented in code different approaches to automated redistricting and reports that he is increasingly happy with this effort below, which attempts to economize the distance every person has to travel to the geographical center of his or her district. So to be clear, this algorithm is not OPRA, and may indeed be a better alternative to OPRA, but because of the compactness of the districts I would expect OPRA to give similar-looking results. (More on that in my next post.)
Keep in mind that in both examples, the same number of people are represented in every district. Which of the two do you think is more representative of groups of people with similar concerns?