governing.com article – Redistricting: Should Computers Draw the Lines?

Josh Goodman has an interesting article up about redistricting algorithmically (An idea which I support):

Redistricting: Should Computers Draw the Lines?

What’s more, the maps only would be as good as the formula that Tim or Mike Fortner or anyone else wrote. Fortner pointed out that some elements of redistricting are awfully difficult to code. How do you tell a computer to abide by the Voting Rights Act, which is a matter of judicial interpretation?

Fortner did say that a computer might be able to handle a relatively simple map, like Iowa’s congressional districts. Iowa is overwhelmingly white, so it doesn’t have to worry about Voting Rights Acts compliance in redistricting. It only has five congressional seats. And it has a rule that counties can’t be divided. Of course, the same factors that make it an easier place for a computer to draw a map also make it an easier place for humans to draw maps. “The computer is best as a tool to guide people,” Fortner told me, “and let them know how they’re doing.”

Just to make sure my idea was bad, I posed it to a couple of panelists discussing technology in redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislature’s annual meeting in Louisville (where I am this week). Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., said there actually has been quite a lot of academic research into using computers to redraw maps — with lousy results. “If you think legislative plans look crazy,” he said, “wait until you see what a computer does.”

Mark Stratton, who works on redistricting with Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency, made another point: A redistricting plan only does any good if legislators are willing to vote it into law. “The computer,” he said, “can’t vote for the plan.”

At first, that comment struck me as missing the point. Whether the maps are drawn by humans or computers, there are plenty of ways to structure the redistricting process so that lawmakers have no choice but to accept proposals that abide by objective criteria. Fortner’s constitutional amendment would have done just that in Illinois.

But, the more I think about it, Stratton was making the critical point. People are perfectly capable of drawing fair, reasonable congressional and legislative lines. When states end up with unfair, unreasonable lines, it isn’t because no one could figure out how to draw a better map. The reason is politics.

voting in the America – epic FAIL

I gave a 11 minute talk on voting in the US and it’s issues last night at the Urban Hive in Sacramento. This was to a very small audience and was something I threw together at the last minute.

These are my notes for the talk:

voting in America - epic FAIL
---

intro
 * not well prepared speech - expect a very bad talk on a very important topic
 * goal is to make people think about democracy in US and whether it
    works / could be improved

principals of democracy
 * choice by people
   "Democracy is a system of government in which people choose their rulers
    by voting for them in elections."
   root demos = people
   FAIL: $ in politics, single winner districts, gerrymandering,
         2 party system due largely to plurality voting
 * representative democracy (vs direct democracy)
  * communication more effective (direct democracy does not scale)
  * specialization (reps are knowledgable about issues)
  * delegation
  * representative
  FAIL: unrepresentative representatives, in pockets of large special interests,
     gerrymandered to get reelected
 * consent of governed
  FAIL: see representative democracy list
        current #s: 26% approval rating for congress, 49% for president
 * accountability
  FAIL: unrepresentative representatives
 * transparency
  FAIL: voting machines, lack of publicly observed counting, vote by
        mail to a degree, blind trust in election results
 * US specific concepts:
  * federalism for national powers
    FAIL: In my view this is inappropriate; people should be
          represented nationally rather then states
  * Separation of Powers - legislative vs executive vs judicial
    OK

off-topic:
 * majority rule vs minority rights
 * - democracy not necessarily enough and/or need for compromise
   *unless* people moderate their views to respect the minority

problems with US system:
 * single winner districts => unrepresentative representatives.
   In extreme only 50%+1 represented
 * gerrymandering => representatives choose voters instead of vice versa.
   In extreme only 25%+1 represented
 * money in politics, money as 'speech', corporate personhood under the law
    => corporate money as speech
   "A bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the government may
    not ban political spending by corporations, labor unions or other organizations
    in elections. The court’s majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
    swept aside a century-old doctrine in election law, ruling that the campaign finance
    restriction violated the First Amendment’s free speech principles"
 * national government is a federation in which *states* are represented NOT people
  * eg. senate weighs each state equally
  * house of representative does not weight states fully equally - rounding errors,
    formula for # of reps, etc...
  * president elected by electoral college - not national popular vote
 * single winner election systems - plurality voting.  lesser of 2 evils.
   Bush v Gore v Nader
 * => 2 party system - systemic issue

we can do better
 * takes political will
 * understand that there are proposed reforms and that some have obstacles
   or are contradictory
 * some are worse then what we have currently!

what you can do:
 * donate to relief efforts in Haiti - not strictly related but important :)
 * read and be aware of the recent news on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
 * sites and organizations to check out:
   $ in politics: "changeCongress.org" "maplight.org"
   and "Center for Political Accountability"
   voting systems: "score voting.net aka rangevoting.org"
   general: "allaboutvoting.com" - my site
 * terms to research:
   "election reform"
   "asset voting"
   "approval voting"
   "score voting" aka "range voting"
   "delegatable proxy"

Q&A

Should I apply for the Prop 11 redistricting commission?

I’m thinking about applying to be on CA’s prop 11 redistricting commission. In the unlikely event that I become part of the commission this would necessitate a 9 month commitment to work full time on commission business (compensated $300 per day involved in commission business – but still). Anyone want to talk me into/out of applying?

I’ve talked before about redistricting approaches on this blog before.

Briefly:

  • Prop 11 is not perfect but I do support it as significantly better then the previous highly-partisan approach.
  • To me, an ideal solution would be to use good multi winner winner election methods to select a body of representatives rather then using single winner districts. Ideally representatives would be chosen in a way that each person is equally represented by someone they (helped to) choose and whose political viewpoints closely resemble their own. This could be achieved through proportional representation or, even better, asset voting.
  • Where single winner districts are needed I would prefer that they be selected in an automated fashion – without much human input.
  • …but the voting rights acts (both federal and state) apparently requires the creation of minority-majority districts – which effectively requires gerrymandering
  • Given these constraints, an independent redistricting commission approach seems to be the only viable option. Prop 11, although flawed creates such a commission.

So… should I apply for the commission? Do I have enough to offer? Is the potential time commitment worth it?

insane election results? chalk it up to IRV

A great video about how instant runoff voting (IRV) works.
Be sure to watch through to the end so that you can see how it falls apart when a candidate convinces voters to vote in a manner that ought to improve that candidates results.

Teaching company voting methods video

A great video about various single winner voting methods can be found here:


The teaching company voting methods video.

CA voting rights act leads to gerrymandering again

I just saw an article describing another case where the CA voting rights act imposes a remedy of (gerrymandered) districts on an at-large election.

(I previously wrote about the CA voting rights act and the city of Modesto)

Madera Unified case is changing elections throughout California

An injunction in the case is forcing Madera Unified, which is 82% Latino, to change the way it elects its board.

The latest step along that road was a ruling in September by Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley, who invalidated, in advance, the results of the November school board election. Oakley said Madera’s at-large voting system, in which all voters in the district cast ballots for all board members rather than for a candidate representing their section of town, violated the Voting Rights Act.

Relying on the remedy suggested by the law, he called for the district to be divided into seven trustee areas, with candidates to run in each.

The state’s Voting Rights Act, enacted in 2002, bans at-large voting if there is evidence that it “impairs the ability” of a minority group “to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”

Other jurisdictions are paying heed. In the wake of Oakley’s order, the Madera City Council decided to switch to district elections, City Councilman Robert Poythress said. And in neighboring Fresno County, where 28 of 32 school boards use at-large elections, all 28 decided to follow Madera’s lead and switch to district elections, county schools Supt. Larry Powell said.

And this gem:

Deciding not to fight the ruling, the school board drew up a map in which three of the seven voting districts have Latino majorities. In a delicate exercise in gerrymandering, each of the incumbents was given a separate district.

I’m no fan of at-large voting but imposed gerrymandered districts is a remedy that is worse then the previous situation. There should either be a process to ensure that the districts are not gerrymandered (such as algorithmic redistricting) or use of a decent multi-winner election method.

I support CA prop 11 – redistricting reform

CA prop 11, ‘Redistricting’ is one of the 12 state propositions in this election cycle. This proposition is also known as the ‘Voters FIRST Act’.

I support it. Please vote yes on 11.

I’ve written a fair amount about redistricting approaches so I’ll reference some of these posts in my explanation for why I support prop 11.

The problem

Currently the legislature is responsible for drawing districts in which those same legislatures are elected. This creates a clear conflict of interest. This conflict currently occurs in that:

  • legislators want to protect their own seats
  • legislators want to maximize the seats that their party gets

In CA I would describe the current status quo as a ‘bipartisan gerrymander’ in that the problem is more characterized by seats being protected then by a power grab where one party has a disproportionate number of seats and controls the redistricting system to maximize the number of seats controlled by that party. (I may be wrong in this regard; If you have evidence to the contrary please leave a comment.)

The result of this gerrymandered system is that rather than having voters selecting their representative we frequently have representatives choosing their voters via partisan or bi-partisan gerrymandering.

See also:

My ideal solution

In my view the problem of redistricting is best handled in two ways.

1. Use a multi-winner election method with larger (or state-wide) districts. Election methods that do this are known as proportional representation systems.

2. Where districts are used have the method of creating the districts be automated by software without any human input once the algorithm is determined. This is called algorithmic redistricting.

See also:

Prop 11 – an ‘independent commission’ solution

Prop 11 proposes having an independent commission which is responsible for doing the redistricting. This is a considerable improvement over having the state legislators do it. Much of the proposition details how this commission is selected.

What I like:

  • The power to create and shape districts is taken out of the hands of people who have a direct stake in the outcome.
  • Prop 11 only addresses districts for CA legislators. It does not address districts for US House seats. This is important since other states (Texas notoriously) are known to gerrymander in favor of having more Republican US House members and some people opposed previous CA redistricting reform since they considered this to be ‘disarming’ relative to TX behavior. It is my view that national redistricting reform is needed to address how US house districts are selected.

What I dislike:

  • The independent commission that is created is designed to have a precise balance of Republicans, Democrats, and independents on it. I find it extremely distasteful to enshrine into law an assumption that there are two major parties and that the parties have an approximately equal power balance. This does not necessarily reflect future reality even if it closely resembles the current reality. (And it does not even represent the current reality in CA. The Pew Center reports that currently 39% of CA voters identify themselves as Democrats compared to 28% as republicans. (Pew Research citation) That is a 3:2 ratio not a 1:1 ratio.
    See also:

Conclusion

Prop 11 is not perfect. It’s not how I would design a solution. But, on balance, it is a clear improvement over the current perverse system. I recommend voting yes on prop 11.