Getting Rid of Gerrymandering

I have friends and colleagues all over the political spectrum, so their reactions to last Fall’s election was quite varied, though perhaps all of them might agree that our country, post-election, feels more fractured and partisan than ever.

In wanting to be more politically engaged, I also wanted to find something that all (or, I guess, most) of said friends and colleagues could rally around as Americans. Surely we can all unite in eliminating gerrymandering.

You know what he’ll say. Also, he’s from Canada.

What is gerrymandering? It’s gaming the system for craven political advantage. Christopher Ingraham has a great explanation of it here, which I highly encourage you to stop and read if you haven’t already.

Seriously, it gives you both a good visual guide to how awful this is, plus examples of how its used to erode the whole notion of representative democracy.

Now having read that, I can see how cynical thoughts might pop into people’s heads:

  1. My side controls districting in my corner of the country and will always control it, so let’s leave the system as is.
  2. Gerrymandering will always be in place. There’s nothing we can do.

For #1, we can all agree that nothing lasts forever, especially in politics. And for #2: guess what, non-British subject? You can make changes that you and future citizens will benefit from!

And that’s the kicker, because there’s no way that you will not benefit from more accurate districting. Even if your party’s candidate loses the election, the other party’s candidate can’t ignore you as a constituent. Odds are they needed some of your party’s voters to win! In other words, when people aren’t gaming the system to make districts “safe,” there’s a far greater chance of candidates who have to moderate their views… and that also means a greater chance of elected officials who have to listen to a greater range of their constituents.

Right now, if you’re in a gerrymandered district (which you almost certainly are), even where the elected official is a member of your party, they don’t have to listen to your concerns as much, because they’re safe. And yes, even with less or no gerrymandering we’ll still have districts that “reliably” vote one way or another, but they won’t be so absurdly constructed.

This is where some visuals really help. Take a look at the difference between rationally divided districts based on the populations of census-defined neighborhoods and gerrymandered districts divided to maximize political “safety.” Here’s how North Carolina’s districts are currently divided:

We would have all hated geometry if we had to figure out the area of the shapes above. (Graphic from the Washington Post)

We may agree that politics is naturally crazypants, but I contend the gerrymandering above spastically dances over into the unnaturally crazypants column. Quite simply, that’s not the representative districting we’re looking for.

But there is a solution! Take a look at these districts by comparison.

Visually less Lovecraftian, no?
(Graphic also from the Washington Post)

Note those smooth, sensible districts. Those are the work of Brian Olson. Olson, a software engineer, decided to write an algorithm based on 2010 census data and based on census blocks, the smallest geographical unit used by the Census Bureau.

It especially hit home when I looked at how my own state (commonwealth) of Virginia could be changed.

Now I know things aren’t simply a matter of pointing at the algorithm above — and perhaps the algorithm above isn’t the definitive method to allocate districts. But it’s straightforward. How fair and transparent is your state’s system? Odds are, it could be both more fair and more transparent — and again: every voter benefits.

Obviously, these gerrymandered systems are in place because various people and organizations do benefit from districts being distorted. Not only that, elected officials seem to be even more annoyed at that pesky “will of the people” these days. Nevertheless, now is an ideal time to see what you can do in your state. The next census will be coming in 2020. Between now and then, there are many state and local elections. It’s a natural time to put in some reforms, even incremental reforms, for how your state apportions district.

For Virginia, there’s already a constitutional amendment proposed to address redistricting proposed by my state senator (SJ68) which I’m going to look at closer. An organization dedicated to establishing fair redistricting, OneVirginia2021, also mentions several other bills that have been introduced, including:

  • SB 59 Congressional and state legislative districts; standards and criteria for drawing districts. (which relates to SB 495 and HB555)
  • HB 553 Congressional and state legislative districts; criteria for General Assembly to observe in drawing.
  • HB 26 Congressional and state legislative districts; standards and criteria for drawing districts.

There’s also a very in-depth hour-long documentary about gerrymandering in Virginia you can watch and share.

You’ll see that the bills have been introduced by members of both major parties. Fair bills could have bipartisan support, but they’ll likely need prodding from constituents to pass them.

Odds are there are some efforts going on in your states. I’m guessing if you hunt down your state’s version of the legislative system, you’ll find bills making their way through the process that could use a little push. There might also be local groups looking to help with the pushing (and they’ll want some help to).

Check it out. It’ll take a lot less effort than it took to become non-British subjects, though timing may be everything.  The election to make things happen might be this year.

Good luck. He’s counting on you.

Update, Thursday, March 30th:  Added a few more bills introduced in the Virginia legislature as well as linking to the GerryRigged documentary.

Update # 2, Friday, March 31st: I’ve done a bit more research on SJ68, the redistricting constitutional amendment my state senator introduced.

In a manner worthy of the old maxim about the making of law and sausage, SJ68 was replaced by SJ260 which was then incorporated into SJ231 (finding out about all this transmogrification was not straightforward). Then, if you read the full text, the idea appears to have moved from the independent redistricting commission that kinda favors the existing majority parties, to having members of the redistricting commission always includes state legislature leaders. In fairness, it also includes three public officials that would be more independent than legislatures, those being the Auditor of Public Accounts, the State Inspector General, and the Executive Director of the Virginia State Bar. Still, it’s not the independent commission I had hoped for — and there appears to be ample room for politicking.

One silver lining in researching this was that in addition to trying to get more of a hang of Virginia’s online legislative information system, I also discovered Richmond Sunlight, a site that has all the legislative information the government site has, yet seems to organize it in a way that’s clearer. If you’re researching what the Virginia legislature is up to, I highly recommend using both in tandem.

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