packing the house – how are those districts drawn?

A district-based system for choosing representatives has issues in-and-of-itself. Those issues become applified when you ask the questions “who draws the districts?” and “how often are districts redrawn?”.

All too often the answers to these questions indicates systematic abuse of power by those that are in power. In the US both the Republicans and the Democrats have a long history of abusing redistricting.

In fact, it goes back to before these parties existed. Consider Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

The image above is of the fabled ‘gerrymander’ named after the convuluted districting that was proposed almost 200 years ago to keep Mass. Governor Elbridge Gerry in power. At the time this abuse of power was rebuffed and the Governor was voted out of office.

The practice of drawing districts to maximize political advantage unfortunately remained.

Currently, in Massachusetts, redistricting is conducted by the legislature every 10 years and must obey the following rules:

  • districts must have roughly similar populations—plus or minus 5%
  • districts must be contiguous—in other words, that each district has a single footprint
  • districts cannot violate the federal voting rights act
  • very small towns cannot be divided

Within the confines of these rules there is plenty of opportunity for abuse.

Generally gerrymandering is used to:

  • favor incumbants
  • favor the party currently in power
  • allow representatives to live in areas that would be outside of more compactly drawn districts

Here is Common Cause on gerrymandering in Massachusetts. By no means is this problem limited to Massachusetts.


7 responses to “packing the house – how are those districts drawn?

  1. Gerrymandering is a bad thing and I oppose it. But some folks who are working for non-partisan redistricting believe that it can perform the miracle of making single-member districts both representative and competitive at the same time. Non-partisan redistricting criteria can favor representativeness over competition, or vice versa. But single-member districts cannot provide both simultaneously.

    I think that the real value of proposals for redistricting reform is that they provide an opportunity to educate people about PR.

  2. PR is a good idea Bob – and would essentially solve the Gerrymandering problem. But if you want to get PR, you have to break up duopoly, so you have to get Range Voting.

    And the upside is that Reweighted Range Voting is better and simpler than STV.

    Clay Shentrup
    San Francisco

  3. Redistricting IS one of the greatest problems with our system since it’s inseption. This practice creates a “Home Field” advantage for the incumbent (especially when his/her party is already in control) by making sure that this individual keeps getting voted into office. To defeat this, a challanger has to raise exhorbent sums of money which ofcourse put them in danger of being a “pocket aide” of the people who “put” them their. Before we can fix the national party system, we have to start making local reforms and get more people from various socio/ethnic backrounds involved.

  4. Curious that we’re not discussing Warren Smith’s shortest splitline algorithm.

  5. Clay I have a post on just that ready to go out in a few days.

  6. Pingback: do-it-yourself gerrymandering « All About Voting

  7. Pingback: I support CA prop 11 - redistricting reform « All About Voting

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