Brenton Mock has a must-read article in The Atlantic’s CityLab exploring how state-level gerrymandering consistently short-changes the priorities of people who live in cities. It is an important point, but while we worry about the unfairness of it all, we might also pause to worry about how this might be hampering America’s economic growth.
Low Voter Turnout and Gerrymandering
Mock opens his article by acknowledging the low voter turn-out that characterizes urban districts, but he then convincingly makes the case that simply increasing turnout would not be enough to get more balanced attention paid to urban voter priorities. (Others have presented evidence the gerrymandering actually depresses voter turnout as well.) He then gives his own well-documented take on how Republican-dominated state legislatures, whose political appeal is to rural and exurban/suburban voters, carve up dense urban areas to effectively deny them proportionate political representation in Congress and in state legislatures. They are able to do this, of course, by drawing lines that either “pack” (i.e. over-concentrate) Democrats into a small number of weirdly shaped serpentine districts, and/or by “cracking” urban communities into many smaller districts that are then attached to suburban/rural districts that numerically dominate the overall vote.
These of course, are common tricks of the gerrymanderer’s trade. It is easiest to view this as a Republican-vs-Democrat struggle, which of course it is. But it is easy to forget that underneath the Rep/Dem labels are pragmatic voter needs, and artificially carving up cities to make them politically unimportant can not only be unfair to urban residents but can also be disastrous for the economic health of the country.
If We Want Growth, We Want Robust Cities
It is no secret that the economic engines of growth are cities. A McKinsey Global Institute Report concluded that 60% of global economic growth from 2011-2025 will occur within 600 urban areas. With all the concerns about American economic competitiveness, with all the loose talk about massive infrastructure spending coming, with the runaway populist cri de coeur to “make America great again”, does it make any sense to politically neuter our own engines of economic growth and vitality?
At his inauguration today, Trump gave the city of Detroit a shout-out. During his campaign, he loved to hold the city out as a economic and political basket case. This is what the Detroit area’s congressional boundaries look like:
The city itself has a population consistent with being in a single Congressional district, but it is instead nibbled at by three highly-partisan Democratic districts (12, 13 and 14) that extend well outward from Detroit’s city limits. District 11 is Republican. After reading Brenton Mock’s article, isn’t it possible the Detroit area suffers from political balkanization and a lack of community focus, in addition to its other challenges?
Here is the mighty city of Chicago and its surrounding region. Play close attention to District 6 (in brown, off the left edge) and District 4 (in green, imitating a tweezer).
And Houston, in which Republic District 2 wraps around a weird Yin-Yang thing happening between Districts 18 and 29 that are firmly held by Democrats.
Hands-Off Districts Are Politically Diverse Districts
As Mock’s article implies, the problem is much more serious than Democrats not getting enough seats- they are getting plenty of seats in these maps, though not their proportional share in cities overall. The larger issue we should should be concerned with is that by nibbling away at the cores of urban areas in this way and diluting the focus on what the core urban areas need, we are ham-stringing the very entities that are vital to America’s economic growth.
The region of Akron/Cleveland looks very similar to the gerrymandered cities shown above, and the Republican cracking/packing around the cities is evident…
But any reasonable “hands-off” redistricting method, in which “compactness” (by some measure) were required, would never allow for malarkey like this. Compactness would require that densely-packed urban areas would tend to group together, and would disallow any intent to crack them apart. A visual characteristic of compactness is districts that are shaped liked soap-bubbles. Brian Olson‘s algorithm applied to this same region would yield voting districts something like this…
In a scheme like this, Cleveland and its surrounding area, and Akron and its surrounding area, speak with one voice in Congress. Both of the districts Brian Olson’s scheme designate for these urban areas contain a healthy mix of safely Republican and safely Democratic areas.
In today’s climate, could a Republican go to Congress to represent Cleveland and/or Akron in this scheme? Yes, of course. Some form of hands-off redistricting would force a reasoned debate in all of these districts about trade, welfare and tax reform, health care and government spending. And the right Republican or Democrat could easily make the winning case in a balanced and diverse district surrounding a large city. Hopefully he or she would arrive in Washington as part of a Ohio delegation that had worked out many of its most divisive issues at home, and in doing so pushed the extreme and divisive elements to the fringes where they belong.
A Republican, in other words, could show up in Washington to make the case on behalf of Akron, Ohio. But I doubt she would ever get there if she believed Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that global warming was a hoax.