Gerrymandering causes Global Warming

Lamar Smith Gerrymander Climate Change

The portrait of Lamar Smith that really matters

I could post a picture of Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, but suffice it to say he’s an old white guy with glasses. Since that also describes me, I prefer to believe that tells you little about the person and so I’ll post the portrait of Smith’s congressional district in Texas instead, whose contorted shape tells you most of what you need to know.

Smith is hitting the news in the New York Times today as he ratchets up his rhetoric against the government scientists at NOAA who’ve had the temerity to publish their findings that a purported hiatus in the rise of planetary temperatures is not true, a finding that has been reproduced extensively elsewhere but is discomfiting to climate denialists. It is a good time to raise a stink, since Obama is in Paris at the World Climate Conference, and the way the rules are set up it makes great politics for Republicans to signal the rest of the world that the US can’t be trusted to fulfill any commitments to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. To the extent the Republicans are successful, that act alone contributes to climate change.

Smith hails from a stolidly Republican district in a mostly rural District 21 in Texas that lies north of San Antonio and west of Austin. As a result of creative map-making the district is significantly whiter than Texas as a whole and has a significantly lower household income ($56k/year versus $63k/year according to Wikipedia). Being white and lower-income makes District 21 a meat-and-potatoes Republican district, garnished only with a soupçon of liberals shaved away from the suburbs of San Antonio and Austin but safely less than what it would take to make a race in District 21 interesting. Clearly as long as Smith keeps his nose clean according to Republican party standards he is safe in the House, which gives him leeway to be a bit of a kook on climate change if he wants.

He obviously wants to be a kook on climate science, though interestingly his own history shows he probably doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. An intriguing US News & World Report article from last month indicates he was more forthcoming about the human causes of global warming earlier in his career, but all that changed once he set his sights on the chair of the House Committee. More recently he may also have been alarmed by a Tea Party challenge, which artificially conservative districts like his seem to invite. But nowadays, having obtained his committee chairmanship, he is perfectly positioned to rake in money from carbon-intensive energy interests, who must be thrilled with his efforts to cower the scientific community about climate change.

So…

  1. Smith is safely ensconced in a conservative gerrymandered district, with nothing really to worry about from his constituents other than a challenge from the fringe right, which his corporate donors protect him from.
  2. If he taunts and intimidates client scientists, he draws more funding from carbon-based energy interests.
  3. To the extent he is personally successful, he retards progress in addressing climate change, which
  4. Accelerates global warming.

Q.E.D.

Posted in Politics of Redistricting, Texas | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

How do we get rid of Gerrymandering?

What to do about Gerrymandering?A new follower of this blog from Texas wrote me recently asking what he could do to help get rid of Gerrymandering. It is a really good question- one that I wish I could answer better. But let me take a stab at it….

As frequently happens in politics, the broad consensus among thoughtful Americans that Gerrymandering is wrong is not matched with a consensus view of what would be right in its stead. I’ve made the case here that a simple “hands-off” algorithmic approach to defining geographic Congressional districts is the best way forward, but I also admit I’m sometimes reticent to make the argument too strenuously. Other approaches being promoted in different states would be vastly preferable to the partisan carve-up that happens now, and there’s no time and precious little political capital to spend on arguing over different replacements for partisan Gerrymandering.

Handicapping the alternatives, picking a horse

I think good policy with regard to banishing Gerrymandering comes down to pragmatics, which means answering these two questions:

  1. What are the alternative approaches that both improve upon partisan political redistricting AND are achievable?
  2. What political processes are underway in my state (referenda, citizen’s investigatory commissions, federal lawsuits underway, etc.) and which of these offer an opportunity to place one of the alternatives on the table?

From my research, it seems like there are exactly three alternatives to partisan redistricting that satisfy question #1:

hands-off redistrictingSome form of “hands-off” approach like OPRA or Brian Olson‘s algorithm. This is still geographic redistricting as called for in the Constitution, but doesn’t allow any meaningful human intervention.

non-partisan commissionCreating a statewide redistricting commission. This is still geographic redistricting as called for in the Constitution, but relies on the non-partisan nature of a commission rather than the partisan state legislature.

proportional representationElecting representatives proportionally per party slate, based on the parties’ popularity at the polls. There is no geographical component- representatives can come from anywhere in the state.

 

Granting that all three of these approaches are better than the current system most states use, it is still fair to ask which is the best. The basic choice in terms of broad outcomes is that #1 and #2 maintain the notion of neighbors voting together, and of assuring that regions within each the state have their own point of view represented. That seems valuable to me and was unmistakably part of the original constitutional plan.

On the other hand, #3 Proportional representation will tend to break the U.S. out of this two-party power condominium we live under today and invite more minority parties into the mix. I’ve lived under this in Europe and I think it works very well. I think it could also take a lot of the crudity out of our bi-polar, total war, take-it-or-leave-it brand of present-day American politics. When I am dissatisfied, I want to be able to vote for something other than against whomever I’m mad at. It would be great to see a ballot, for once, with meaningful options for Greens, Libertarians, Socialists or targeted protest parties on it, where I know my vote might take the minority part from say 3 to 4 seats (or to achieve a minority threshold, where it essentially goes from say 0 to 3 seats) rather than sending an impotent message that I’m mad that I know nobody is listening to.

The major problem with Proportional Representation, in my opinion, is a practical one. In most states there is some kind of opportunity to propose a different process for drawing districts, but that still results in geographical districts. If as frequently happens a judge has found the districts were drawn improperly and is looking for alternatives, friends of the court can suggest Hands-Off redistricting or Non-Partisan Commission redistricting as an obviously neutral alternative, or even present specific redistricting schemes generated by these methods for consideration. Similarly if there is a mechanism for a citizen’s referendum, these improved methods of geographical redistricting can be proposed. On the other hand, it is a much bigger step to propose an entirely new mechanism for how to represent the citizenry, and much easier to imagine a court ruling that even if Proportional Representation is arguably an excellent system, it is not the system called out for in the Constitution. The recent Arizona Redistricting case at the Supreme Court made it clear that states can select alternative methods of drawing districts without action by the legislature, but the idea that states can select an entirely new mode of representation is obviously a much tougher legal row to hoe.

Practicality also has a very important time component: a quick solution that can be felt starting in 2020 after the next census is vastly preferable to one that can’t arrive until after then, because for most states their districts will be set in stone immediately thereafter for the remainder of the decade.

So, finally, what should you do?

  1. Get “social” and play your part to keep the information flowing…
    • Follow this blog (instructions here) and let me know what is going on in your state and anything I can highlight or should write about.
    • Follow Gerrymandering – Let’s Get Serious on Facebook, an excellent source for news on the issue and a good place to discover what’s going on in your state.
    • Follow the Brennen Center for Justice, which tracks redistricting issues thoroughly.
    • Check out FairVote.org for a comprehensive view of how proportional representation might work.
    • Give me other suggestions, and encourage your friends to do the same! (If you have good websites/blogs/organizations to add to the list let me know.)
  2. Look for opportunities to insert Hands-Off, Non-Partisan Commissions, or Proportional Representation  into your state’s conversation. Look for citizen’s groups who are focused on improving things in your state.
  3. Be pragmatic! if you’re a fan of Non-Partisan Commissions but Proportional Representation has an opportunity to work, become a fan of Proportional Representation!
Posted in Brennan Center, Brian Olson, Politics of Redistricting, Proportional Representation | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Gerrymandering results in dismal turnouts – Richmond Times-Dispatch

depressy face free for comml useVery persuasive Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial with examples from Virginia’s experience that gerrymandering leads to a vicious cycle of low voter turnout and congressional races that are uncontested even at the party level. This is a good, quick read…

Gerrymandering results in dismal turnouts

Posted in minority rights, Politics of Redistricting, Virginia | Leave a comment

Can single-member districts ever be truly fair?

red and blue smily and frownyRecently I’ve been challenged in a very forceful but thoughtful way by a WordPress user who uses the handle realrepresentation. This reader advocates Proportional Representation as the system the United States should use to select its delegates to the House of Representatives.

I lived in Germany for a couple of years and watched a variant of proportional representation in action there, and I have to say I was impressed with the way it worked. Not only are there multiple viable political parties involved, but there is a fluidity among the fortunes of the parties that does indeed seem to reflect the changing opinions of the electorate, and friends of mine who were able to vote in Germany seemed to think that their vote mattered and that voting was important.

“RealRep” also makes the case that, not only is proportional Representation far superior to the gerrymandered single-member district system we have today – with which I heartily agree! – but it is also far superior to any single-member districting scheme that can ever be devised including OPRA or other “hands-off” variants – with which I don’t agree for a variety of reasons. I think my two areas of disagreement with RealRep probably fall into two broad buckets: first regarding fairness (i.e. is one system inherently more or less “fair” than the other), and second regarding practicality (i.e. given the political situation today, is one inherently more likely to be implemented than the other.) Both are intricate and interesting topics in and of themselves and worthy of detailed analysis, but I’d like to dip my toe in the water today focused only on the topic of fairness.

RealRep uses my own new smiley-/frownie-face graphics to make his point.* To quote him/her directly:

“Note the three examples of districting in the hypothetical rectangular state at the very top of this page. The voting population is as follows: 60% (9/15) black voters and 40% (6/15) red voters. One example shows how the state can be gerrymandered to give all three elections to the black voters, and two examples show how the state can be gerrymandered to give the red voters one or two of the three seats.

“Shouldn’t 40% of the voters be represented in the government? Of course. Should they have the majority of the three seats? Of course not.

Fair Representation Voting would establish the entire state as one district with three seats, and the red voters with 40% of the vote would win one seat while the majority, the black voters, would win two seats REGARDLESS OF WHERE IN THE STATE THE PEOPLE CHOSE TO LIVE.

“The beauty of FRV is that election outcomes are determined by like-mindedness of political belief and are independent, or mostly independent, of geography with very few wasted votes (i.e. votes which don’t elect anyone).”

Fair points, to be sure. But I’d like to kick the tires on one point RealRep makes when he/she implies that, in the hypothetical example, 40% of the voters are without representation. That does happen in the current system, but I think that is an artifact of gerrymandering and the related fact that, largely due to gerrymandering, the US is stuck in a two-party rut.

It DOES matter whether you win or lose, and whether you win or lose depends on how you play the game.

Let’s look at the diagram RealRep is referring to and get some terms straight. The diagrams show how two outcomes (a pink or a gray, indicated by which outcome “wins” in one of three districts) relate to two types of voters (a black symbol who wants gray to win, and a red symbol who wants pink to win). Given that there are three Congressional districts, and nine voters prefer gray while six prefer pink, the outcome of this election could be (from left to right) an undeserved 3-0 landslide by gray, a reasonable 2-1 victory for gray, or an underserved 2-1 victory by the minority position held for pink. The faces smile or frown according to whether their point of view prevails in the district in which they live. The larger point is that, with the exact same voting result, you may be happy or sad and your position may win or lose based only on how the lines were drawn. It is, in fact, a thematic way to describe what Pennsylvania’s State Senator Daylin Leach more comprehensively described as what happens in Pennsylvania.

In this example blue faces agree with "I prefer Democrats to Republicans", red faces disagree.

In this example blue faces agree with “I prefer Democrats to Republicans”, red faces disagree.

The obvious comparison in the US is to equate pink and gray with the Republicans and the Democrats, and indeed if you live in a gerrymandered district and your party doesn’t win, you probably do feel like your vote doesn’t count and you have no meaningful representation for your views. But that is largely due to the fact that your opinions carry no weight with another party member who is safely installed in your district. In fact, one can argue your opinions don’t matter that much even if you’re representative is in the same party you are in: he/she is focused much more on what the party bosses want than what you want. This reality is usually masked but occasionally abruptly intrudes into the open, as when prior to Bill Clinton’s impeachment national polls found the general electorate very strongly opposed to impeachment, but faced with this strong preference only five Republicans broke from their party on the article of impeachment that finally passed. (Only five Democrats broke ranks with their party, presumably due to the heat they felt in their districts, though in doing so they were breaking from the solid national consensus.)

sacked smiliesThe way we want it to work, I think, is for representatives to broadly reflect what the people in their district think over the variety of all the issues they have to vote on. So, for example, a representative should know and respond to how his/her constituents think about several issues, and either vote as they would vote, persuade them they are wrong, or just vote against them confident that on balance the voters approve the representative’s voting record.

Getting back to RealRep’s question: yes, today if the election comes down only to “Do you prefer a Republican or a Democrat” and you’re on the losing end, the 40% who vote in the minority will not be represented. (And I actually don’t think the 60% majority are going to be well represented either.) But if your representative fears losing because he will lose his constituents on too many issues, your 40% minority view on any single issue doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice in government, it means your representative, on that issue, is faithfully representing his district. And when it comes time to vote for a new representative, if you’re in the minority you lose on that one issue also, because on balance the voters in your district prefer someone else.

The real test is whether, across a variety of issues, the 435 members of the House would tend to vote approximately as the millions of voters in the United States would vote. I suspect both hands-off single member elections and proportional representation, if implemented properly, would achieve that result.There are obviously big differences between the two, but in my opinion broadly-defined “fairness” is not one of them. Though on the issue of fairness I suspect there is interesting thinking to be done around realrepresentative’s phrase “where in the state they choose to live”.

What do you think? And what do you say, realrepresentation?

 

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*These diagrams, btw, come from wikipedia commons and were used in an article on gerrymandering.

Posted in Boundary mathematics, minority rights, Pennsylvania, Politics of Redistricting, Proportional Representation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

You’ve Been Gerrymandered

Just to demonstrate that gerrymandering slices both ways…

Maryland's GOP Legislative District 15

            FROM THE MALL TO THE MOUNTAINS

The Washington Post put the case for reform of Maryland’s electoral map rather well in a November 16 editorial chastising Democrats for their “…grotesque gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts…” As the Post said “…the congressional map they drew following the 2010 census is a study in political cynicism…a crazy quilt of comically contrived districts in which voters are treated as pawns in an insiders’ game.”

Not Bethesda Not Bethesda

Indeed, when you next go shopping at Montgomery Mall pause a moment and reflect that you are literally standing on the eastern edge of the Sixth Congressional District and that the western edge is closer to Pittsburgh than Bethesda. Where, you might ask, is the common interest that argues for such an oddly-shaped district?

The analytics firm Azavea mapped all 435 U.S. congressional districts to determine the degree of gerrymandering…

View original post 94 more words

Posted in maryland, Politics of Redistricting, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Samantha Bee discovers Gerrymandering in Austin, Texas

DailyShow screen grab Samantha BeeLove Samantha Bee! And wouldn’t want to contemplate life without The Daily Show.

This isn’t one of her/their best (in general the Daily Show seems to be weakly pandering to Austin’s self-conscious hipster-ism) but it does bring out the absurdity of redistricting in the Lone (Red) Star State. But check it out…

The Daily Show 2014- South by South Mess: Austin’s Real Weirdness

And if you want some details behind what they’re talking about, check out these previous posts…

LLoyd Doggett and the Winnebago District (this is the guy Samantha says looks like he could fire your father)

Hands-Off Redistricting and Minority Voices

Posted in minority rights, Politics of Redistricting, Texas | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Economist Swings and Misses on Redistricting

SWING AND A MISSThe Economist squandered precious public attention on the issue of gerrymandering in this week’s edition by bringing it up in a major article (subscription required), and then sloppily dismissing it. The venerable rag’s parting advice to Americans is to stop being so partisan yourselves, and just live with it until one party controls both the legislature and the presidency so something will finally get done. (“Something” is left undefined.)

Where to begin?

The article follows the tone of the standard-issue Economist style guide: stand up a straw man argument, concede its strength, and then with a dash of intellectual panache tack to the opposite argument and bring that argument home before taking leave of the reader with a final smug comment. In this, The Economist can be compared to Mighty Casey taking two strikes before hitting the ball out of the park.

The problem is The Economist never really bothers to examine what to most is the obvious evidence that gerrymandering is driving partisanship in the House. The expected tack to the opposite point of view- even presented nominally as a hypothetical- comes off as a bit of a head-snap: “If gerrymandering is not the main reason for the lack of competition in the House, what is?” Hold on there, cowboy!

The same basic flaw that caused the article to whiff the set-up persists in the remainder of the piece as the author seeks to make contradictory points: the fundamental confusion of cause and effect. Voters have sorted themselves into neat blocks of blues and reds. (Odd that they chose to do that in such weirdly-shaped districts.) Conservatives like to live in the suburbs in big houses, and liberals like to live in smaller urban houses closer to where they can buy tofu*. (Then why do so many urban voters end up getting their votes diluted by being pie-sliced into suburban districts?) The number of “split districts”, defined as districts that voted for one party for President and another for Congress is dwindling. (Of course it is, because the congressional districts are being gerrymandered to be safer for the parties.) The fact that Democrats have recently been significantly out-polling Republicans overall for House races but end up in the minority is only evidence, according to unnamed “political scientists” that the Democrats “waste too many votes in the election of their representatives.” (Whatever that means. And why is it the fault of political parties that they are “wasting” votes, and what is to be done about it?)

113th_Doggett2

I think the yellow district is an example of Democrats being gerrymandered into a weirdly-shaped Congressional district. The Economist thinks they were attracted to this district because it has smaller houses and better access to tofu.

But the main sin of the The Economist’s breezy and poorly-thought-out article is that it assumes, unchallenged, the notion that the legitimate arbiters of public opinion are the parties, and these two specific parties at that. Hands-off redistricting takes the view that the arbiters of public opinion are the voters, and that the parties (and the politicians associated with them) need to fear a reasonable ad-mixture of voters in their districts, and therefore deal reasonably with each other.

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*Yes, the author actually said that. An attempt to be clever that is revealing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments