OPRA Explained

A brief synopsis of Hands-Off Redistricting and how the OPRA concept would work. The following is explained in slightly more detail in this YouTube video.

The Problem

It isn’t controversial to assert that the US House of Representatives is broken. Congress these days is oddly out of touch with the consensus popular views it was designed to represent, and it is incapable of working cooperatively with the Senate and Executive branch for the common good. It includes way too many hacks, cranks and ideologues, who seem to operate with political impunity. Why is that?

The simple reason is that the two dominant political parties control how the boundaries for Congressional districts are drawn. They are quite brazen about this.  You can find endless examples about how “safe” Republican and Democrat districts have come about that make politicians essentially unafraid of what their constituents think of their behavior.This is a blatent and corrosive conspiracy against the public interest. So…

We must get Politicians — and special interests of ALL kinds, whether we are sympathetic to them of not  — OUT of the Congressional Redistricting process entirely.

Simple Principles and Rules

There are really only two fundamental principles behind Hands-Off Redistricting:

    1. There is no place for special interests of any kind in determining Congressional districts
    2. Neighbors should vote in the same district

Once you accept these very simple and basic principles, you’ve accepted the need for a technocratic solution to the need for setting district boundaries.  In other words, it is wrong to think of this as a “political” problem, or even something that politicians should have anything to do with. Voters should demand a technical solution that can be measured by its effectiveness in allowing neighbors to vote together. And the best technical solution to that problem should prevail.  Period.

There are only precisely FIVE rules required for Hands-Off Redistricting. The first three are how things basically work now. The fourth is admittedly tricky, but we’ll dive into that later…

    1. The total number of Congressional Districts each state must create is revised every ten years
    2. Every Congressional District must have (approximately) the same number of constituents
    3. Every Congressional District must be contiguous
    4. Districts must be created that “maximize” the “neighborliness” of constituents.  (In other words: People within districts are, on average, as close as possible. Or in other words: Districts are drawn with Optimal Proximity of people within them)
    5. Anyone can propose a solution, and the proposal that best solves Rule 4, while conforming to #1-3, will be adopted

Optimal Proximity

What is Optimal Proximity? Think of it as the opposite of Extreme Gerrymandering…

OP vs Gerry

If extreme Gerrymandering means coming up with bizarre district boundaries that bend and stretch all over the place and have people living very far from each other in the same district, Optimal Proximity means compact districts with boundaries that seem “natural” and, importantly, “economical.”

With that fuzzy description as our goal, here’s a working definition of how Optimal Proximity is measured. Let’s say you need to divide a hypothetical rectangular state into Four congressional districts, keeping in mind that each of the four districts should have the same number of people in it, and the people will be clustered more densely in some areas vs. others.
3 schemes

You could sponsor a contest for anyone to enter, and you might get dozens or hundreds of entries.  If you imagined that a FENCE ran along the district boundaries of every proposed scheme, you would simply measure the total Fence required in each scheme, and the scheme that required the least fencing (Green Scheme 2 in this example) would be the new district boundaries! So…

Optimal Proximity is achieved with the redistricting scheme that is most economical with district boundaries.

OPRA: Hands-Off Redistricting for the Real World

How would this work in the real world? With apologies to the television personality, here’s a proposal forOPRA”, the Optimal Proximity Redistricting Algorithm. OPRA would just be a more sophisticated version of the example we just saw, with one addition to make it practical: all the “fences” between district boundaries have to follow along the established boundaries of US Census Tracts.

CA Census Tracts

Using census tracts is a natural thing to do, since the reason the census bureau was created in the first place was to provide the base population data for redistricting!  Each individual Census Tract tends to have between one thousand and eight thousand people in them, and their boundaries were chosen intentionally to run along major geographical features, so that they don’t need to change over time. When a census tract gets too many people, the Census Bureau just subdivides it into smaller census tracts.  California currently has just over 7,000 census tracts.

Take a look at these Census Tracts below, from suburban southwestern Sacramento, California. With the data and tools the Census Bureau already has, it would be easy to calculate the length of the boundary between every census tract.  This information could be used to create an interactive tool that anyone could use to try to map their own redistricting scheme, since the tool could keep track of districts, the number of people in each district, and the length of “fence” required in the scheme.  This could be a very public process, open to well-meaning citizens as well as cranks and very sophisticated political organizations. But no matter how sophisticated the participant, the iron law remains: whatever scheme requires the shortest fence is the scheme that will be adopted!


What would happen with Hands-Off Redistricting?

What would be the result of a process like this? First- and most important- with a common-sense and measurable standard for selecting the redistricting scheme, nobody can drive an unnatural solution. The current political parties will certainly still have their “safe” districts, but the number of truly competitive districts will increase dramatically. That means more representatives will have to worry more about what their constituents really think. It will be much riskier to vote the way your party boss wants if it isn’t what the voters in your district want. Who knows, maybe some viable 3rd-parties will grow out of all of this?

And finally, the whole process would radically change district boundaries immediately, and keep the boundaries somewhat volatile on an ongoing basis.  This introduces an element of uncertainty, almost of randomness, to the process of selecting congressional representatives. Talented and popular congressional leaders will still have their opportunities to serve, but their ability to rig the game to their own selfish benefit will disappear.

So, that is the concept.  It is early days, but don’t you think it makes sense? If so, please Follow this blog and help us figure out how to move this idea forward!

18 Responses to OPRA Explained

  1. Pingback: North Carolina gerrymandering and the government shutdown | Fair and Sane Redistricting

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  5. irmabob says:

    This is by far the sanest approach to non-partisan redistricting that I have seen, and I am promoting it on my (new) facebook page. Please go to Gerrymandering–Let’s Get Serious and like me. I am attempting to serve as the voice of what I am–an ordinary voter who is fed up with gerrymandering and feels helpless to get it reformed. I am thanking the tea party for getting the public back into the discussion. Now I would like to help translate OPRA into plain English that will resonate with the public.

  6. Epicurus says:

    There is no “fair” way to draw a single member district.

    The fundamental problem we have, which makes gerrymandering possible, is our system of single member districts. Single member districts award 100% of the representation to as little as a 50.1% majority. The people who support the losing candidate are left with no one to represent their views and values in government. Is that fair?

    The winner-take-all nature of the single member district always leaves some people, usually a lot of people, without a voice in government. This is why most democracies which have emerged since ours have rejected winner-take-all single member districts in their electoral systems in favor of what is known as proportional representation.

    Is it fair that up to 49.9% of the people in a district have no representation in government? This is probably the biggest single reason a lot of people in the U.S. don’t vote: they live in a district which is almost certain to elect someone they don’t like. So why should they care about voting?

    The basic concept of proportional representation is that like-minded voters in a geographical area such as a congressional district should be able to elect candidates in proportion to their share of the vote. For example, in a five-seat district, like-minded voters with 20% of the votes should win one out of five seats and like-minded voters with 51% of the vote should win three of five seats. This voting method is perfectly constitutional, but it does require that a federal law requiring single member districts be repealed.

    FairVote.org describes a simple method called Fair Representation Voting for moving from what we have now, winner-take-all single-member districts, to multi-member districts. In Texas, for example, Fairvote proposes combining existing five single-member districts into five-member super-districts all over the state. Fairvote has proposed similar plans for other states.

    Fairvote.org has a great six minute YouTube video which explains what Fair Representation Voting is, how it works, and what the benefits are. Here’s the link, but if it doesn’t work, search YouTube for “Fixing Congress with Fair Representation Voting.”


    Here’s the basic philosophical question: should your representatives be determined by your street address or by what you believe? The answer is obvious, isn’t it?

    Oh, you might say, but why didn’t the brilliant Founding Fathers think of proportional representation? In the 18th century, it didn’t occur to the Founders for a variety of reasons–tradition mostly. But the problems with representation we have now were not evident in the 18th century.

    First of all, at the founding of the country, each congressman represented no more than 30,000 constituents initially (with a provision for a maximum of 50,000 after a certain point in the original “Article the First” in the Bill of Rights), AND the House expanded with the population. It is commonly believed that “Article the First” was never ratified by a sufficient number of states, and the Republicans put a stop to House expansion in 1929, establishing a permanent limit of 435 congresspeople. Now each congressperson represents over 700,000 people and counting. That’s why you are lucky to get a canned email in response to your concerns from your congressperson.

    We all need to support and lobby for Fair Representation Voting and fight to allow all Americans to be represented by people who share their views and values. Absent Fair Representation Voting, many millions of Americans will continue to have no voice in their government merely because of where they happen to live.

  7. noahkennedy says:

    Hi, Sam and thanks for your extensive and detailed comment. Apologies for not posting it sooner.

    You make some excellent points and I think the FairVote approach is interesting but not infallible. The biggest problem I see is in mechanics, in an environment in which whoever is in the majority has the easy means and motivation to block reform of any type. IMO that makes it far more practical to implement simple process changes (e.g. how to draw lines) than more fundamental changes like how votes should be allocated across multiple districts.

    The other issue of course is “fairness”, which I put in quotes not because it doesn’t exist but because it is complex. A more fundamental change would be worth it if it were much more “fair”, but I have my doubts. I’d like to focus on one thing you said, which seems to summarize much of what bothers you:

    >>The people who support the losing candidate are left with no one to represent their views and values in government. Is that fair?

    I don’t think that is what is happening when districts are drawn with optimal proximity, or at least I think it is likely to be minimized. I think it does tend to happen with gerrymandering. No matter how you select them, there are going to be, say, 435 members in Congress. The key question to consider is what incents them when THEY vote. And the key thing to keep in mind is that there will always be a spectrum of issues to vote on. If 49% of voters in a district disagree with their representative on a single issue only, she is faring very well. If 49% despise her for almost everything she does, she’s toast next time around. If 49% on balance are opposed to the individual, that should worry her IF THE DISTRICT IS DRAWN FAIRLY, and it probably means someone like her opponent is going to win somewhere nearby. But if the district is being gerrymandered, 49% opposed to the candidate may not be much of a concern as long as the party bosses are satisfied with her performance.

    It comes down to a test like this: would 435 people, if given say 20 things to vote on, overall vote approximately as millions of individual voters would vote given the same information? when you have examples like http://handsoffredistricting.net/2013/12/23/keystone-state-gerrymandering/ the answer is plainly no. Would that happen with OPRA, or similar approaches like Brian Olson’s? the data seems to indicate that it would. Would it happen with FairVote scheme? Makes sense to me that it might, but I don’t know, and I don’t know how you get from here to there in the current political environment.

  8. Epicurus says:

    BTW, this is a fantastic website–the best source I have come across for explaining the intricacies and horrors of gerrymandering. I have already recommended the site to a political science professor and some other friends.

    It would be great if there was an edit button so commentators like me could edit our posts. It’s difficult for some of us to write a long post without making some mistakes or omissions.

  9. Jayson says:

    Hi, I want to fight Gerrymandering and am looking to support an organization. Something like, Americans Against Gerrymandering, which is a name that I just made up. It could have a bumpersticker that says something like, “Gerrymandering Is Wrong: http://www.aag.org.” Please let me know what I can do. Thank you.

    • noahkennedy says:

      Hi, Jayson- I like the idea of “Americans Against Gerrymandering” or something along those lines, because one of the tricky aspects is how to capture the broad and deep revulsion “AGAINST” Gerrymandering, without getting splintered into little ineffective groups that are each married to a particular alternative they are “FOR”! As an example, I am partial for various reasons for just continuing to do geographic redistricting, but insisting that it be done mathematically. Others go for non-partisan commissions to create the lines, others plump for just chucking geographical districts entirely and going straight to proportional representation. To me any of these are vastly preferable to what we have now and I don’t see why every state has to do it the same way.

      But as to your question: I know of a Facebook fan site Ban the Gerrymander started up by a fellow traveler of mine you can take a look at, maybe there are some suggestions there? And btw what state are you in if you don’t mind me asking?

      I should do a post on this topic- it’s an important question. I see that you are now a follower (Thanks! and please encourage others to follow also!) When I do that post, if you have any further ideas or learn anything more please comment there.

    • realrepresentation says:

      Gerrymandering would not be possible were it not for our system of single member districts. Even if single member district boundaries were drawn with some nonpartisan mathematical formula, do you really want to be a Democrat with a Republican representative or vice versa, or a Green with either? Should you be forced to sell your house and move into another district in order to have a representative of the party you like? Should 51% of the vote in a district equal 100% of the representation? Most people living in modern democracies find that crazy. Here’s another way:


  10. Jayson says:

    Hi Noah, thank you for your reply. I am now going to contact that “Ban the Gerrymander” site as you suggested. If possible, I will share our exchange of ideas with the one who runs that site. Consider yourself signed up for the cause! Stay well.

    • realrepresentation says:

      Jayson, if you are interested in a much more democratic America, check out all the proposals of Fairvote.org.

  11. Pingback: How do we get rid of Gerrymandering? | Fair and Sane Redistricting

  12. MultiplePOV says:

    Please add all the typical share icons without requiring use of the log-in from your readers’ social media.

    • noahkennedy says:

      Hi MultiplePOV- happy to do this but not sure what I can do or what you’re asking for. I think you’re saying if you click on Facebook share button, for example, it asks for your FB login? I don’t know how that can be avoided but please educate me!

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