some proposed reforms to the problems of gerrymandering

If one insists on electing members of a legislative body via districted single-winner elections then the problem of gerrymandering will surface.

Can gerrymandering be solved?
There are a number of proposed reforms out there.

U.S. Representative John Tanner (TN) has proposed the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (FAIR Act) which mandates the establishment of independent redistricting commissions in each state and limits the factors that can be considered in drawing lines by these commissions.

Read more about the FAIR Act.

Common Cause has also recommend creating non-partisan independent redistricting commission guided by strict standards. Read their recommendations for Massachusetts.

I have also read some interesting ideas on the range voting yahoo group. There, some posters work with the (perhaps cynical, perhaps realistic) assumption that trusting ANY people to draw districts is an invitation to abuse. So instead they seek an algorithmic solution where you plug census data into a computer program and are told what the districts will be.

Here is a write up of their shortest-split line proposal.

They key insight is interesting but the proposal currently has some issues that prevent it from being an actionable reform.

Some issues with this proposal are:

  • The plan is not compatible with current US law in that the law currently requires some gerrymandering as part of the Voting Rights Act. The act seeks to ensure that minorities are a majority in some districts. (caveat: I have not researched this claim but deduced it from the redistricting game)
  • Districts are not stable in that small changes in the input data can cause large changes to the districts
  • The algorithm intentionally ignores geographic and man made (eg bridges, roads) features. This means that:
    • towns can be split into districts in ways that require surveys to determine which building belongs in which district
    • districts can cross over natural features like bodies of water or mountains to include populations on both sides

Update 7/22: Here is Arizona’s 2nd congressional district referenced in the comments:


9 responses to “some proposed reforms to the problems of gerrymandering

  1. California voters have rejected proposals for redistricting reform a number of times (I think the number is five, but I can’t look it up right now). The most recent was Prop. 77 in 2005.

    The problem seems to be that such proposals are generally perceived by voters as being designed to benefit one party or the other. This was certainly the case in both Ohio and California in 2005. Interestingly, the side thought to benefit was different in each case, and the voters rejected both.

    This suggests that who designs and proposes the redistricting method may be just as important as the details of how it attempts to control gerrymandering. One possibility is the Citizens’ Assembly process pioneered in British Columbia.

    Don’t expect miracles, though. Gerrymandering adds a few more safe seats to those created by the SMD system itself. But they’re the tip of the iceberg.

  2. I voted against the last CA proposition that addressed gerrymandering. The proposition included a lot of language about how an ‘independant’ commission would be appointed. The language was based on assumptions that we live in a two party system where each party has roughly equal popularity. Although that may describe the current situation, I did not feel comfortable with codifying those assumptions into law.

  3. These 2 other splitlining & gerrymandering pages on the website are perhaps better:

    The “disadvantage” that splitline districtings are “unstable” is somewhat countered by the *theorem* that *every* reasonable districting method *must* be unstable:

    The “disadvantage” that splitlines ignore things like rivers and mountains is somewhat countered by the facts that
    (a) that doesn’t seem to happen very often [see pictures for all 50 states ]
    (b) the human districters also have those same problems, sometimes very intentionally. Arizona is a very dramatic example with a district with a tentacle winding 200 miles along the river in the Grand Canyon to link up to another region. Oh, yes, it was districted by an “unbiased bipartisan commission.” Gee. Several other states contain “go out to sea and come back to land” districts.

    The “disadvantage” that “surveys are required to judge whether buildings are in what district…” is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that splitline districts are convex polygons. The entire map of a districted state is defined by just a few points.
    You can then use a laser or a GPS device to figure out which district you are in (if it isn’t obvious). With conventional maps it is harder, not easier, to figure out which district you are in, and you need a hi-res map. A laser or GPS device will not do the job but with splitline it can.

    The “issue” that gerrymandering to make majority-minority districts is required by law… sounds interesting. I encourage you to actually look at the law and inform us what the heck you are talking about. I will say that recent supreme court decisions seem to be against you. Further, the long record of supreme court decisions, a partial record of which is available at shows an extreme amount of unpredictable randomness that can be used to justify or invalidate damn near anything. Any additional contributions to this page are welcomed.

    Basically, what I claim is going on with majority-minority is old fashioned bipartisan gerrymandering where the Ds and Rs both try to create safe seats for them both by deal. They just dressed that up in racial clothes for this occasion to pretend they were “reformers.”

    Bottom line:
    The fact is – judge for yourself by looking at the 50 state pictures whether splitline is better or worse than the human-drawn district maps. Don’t buy AllAboutVoting’s theoretical hogwash. Look at the pictures.

    [AllAboutVoting: editted formatting on this comment]

  4. >You can then use a laser or a GPS device to figure
    >out which district you are in (if it isn’t obvious).
    >With conventional maps it is harder, not easier, to
    >figure out which district you are in, and you need
    >a hi-res map. A laser or GPS device will not do
    > the job but with splitline it can.
    Can you clarify how this is done and who does it?
    Many other districting proposals use natural (eg: ‘this side of the river’) or man made (eg ‘this side of Main street’) boundaries. If the shortest-splitline algorithm splits an urban area, who decides who lives on which side of the split? What about properties that are actually divided by the split line? This process sounds painful and expensive. Furthermore it will not be useful information after the next redistricting which may split through urban areas again but is very unlikely to split along the same line as it did in the previous redistricting.

  5. Well, splitline boundaries are lines (more precisely, great circles since earth is round). If you know the (published) coordinates of the line’s two endpoints, then you can deduce from your coordinates (got from a GPS box) which side you are on. The GPS box might even in future provide an option to answer such “which side” questions so you do not personally have to do the math, it will do it.

    So you do not need a map. (You also could do it with a map of course. I’m just saying, with splitline, you do not actually need one. This is an advantage for splitline over other methods.)

    If the boundary is really “main street” then that WOULD be easier because everybody knows which side of main street they are on. But actually, gerrymanderers often wiggle wildly – in cases where they feel the need, trying to include and exclude individual houses. In that case it ISN’T just “main street” it is something horribly complicated for which you need a high res map, with considerably better than mere local street level resolution. Almost nobody has such a map.

    (Also, prodded by AllAboutVoting I published some more theorems about how “chaos” is inevitable for any districting method, on the range voting bulletin board It seems therefore this is not a “disadvantage” for splitline.)

  6. Pingback: shortest splitline algorithm vs voting rights act? « All About Voting

  7. Pingback: The Rose Report on algorithmic redistricting « All About Voting

  8. Pingback: » Gerry Mander: Public enemy number one | Djelloul Marbrook

  9. Update:

    I supported the last CA proposition addressing gerrymandering. It’s far from perfect but I see it as an improvement.

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