Category Archives: gerrymandering 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.

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.


  • 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?

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:


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.

Prisons Warp the Vote

Brett Blank just posted an interesting article discussing how districts that contain prisons get more political weight then those that do not have them:

Prisons Warp the Vote

…apportionment plans must be based on population and where voters reside should not affect the power of their vote. As a result, an industry or other economic interest can only exert political influence in proportion to the number of people that support it. The Reynolds case intended to permanently the settle the question of whether other interests besides population can be the basis of representative democracy.

Except it didn’t.

The Census Bureau counts people in prison where their bodies are located on census day, not where they come from and where they will return, on average, 34 months later. Forty-eight states bar prisoners from voting, and most states have constitutional clauses or election law statutes which explicitly declare that prisoner remains legal residents of their home addresses. When states draw districts based on the Census Bureau’s padded counts of prison locales, they give those districts extra representation just because the prison industry has a facility there.

Of the 12,594 people in the district containing the New Hampshire State Prison, 11 percent are incarcerated. As a result, every group of 89 residents in this prison district has the same political power as 100 residents elsewhere in the state.

The article references an advocacy site for this issue called Prisoners of the Census. That site has some good information about the issue including historical background for why the Census counts prisons in this way and arguments for why it is appropriate to change the way that prisoners are counted but not to change the way that college students are counted.

Do independent or bi-partisan commissions solve gerrymandering?

An approach to solving gerrymandering of districts is to use an independent commission to draw the districts. This approach can work but often instead of creating an independent commission a bipartisan commission is created. The bipartisan commission still gerrymanders but it does so in a way that is agreeable to the two main parties. (If you need a reminder of how a bipartisan gerrymander works, play mission 3 of the redistricting game)

You can read more about how this hazard seems to occur in practice.

Quoting Eli Rosenbaum from the WASHINGTON POST Saturday, 29 October, 2005:

So why don’t independent commissions work? One big reason is that, as the current commissions demonstrate, equal representation on the panel for both parties tends to favor the status quo. The commission is indeed bipartisan, not nonpartisan, and each party’s delegates on the panel are closely connected to their state parties and politicians. To avoid gridlock and approve a plan, commissioners must draw a map that is pleasing to both sides, and of course nobody on either side really wants a competitive district. Political scientists even have a name for this type of redistricting scheme: bipartisan gerrymandering.

On the other hand, non partisan redistricting seems to have worked well in some places.

Take Canada, where gerrymandering is almost non-existent.

The Canadians have an “independent non-partisan agency” to draw districts (“Elections Canada”). Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer, appointed 1990 to serve until age 65 or resignation, is Canada’s best paid civil servant. This post is appointed directly by parliament and reports to them. The C.E.O. can be removed from office only for cause, by the Governor General after a joint request following a majority vote by the House of Commons and Senate.

(Lazyweb: I can use some images to back the claim that Canada is not very gerrymandered.)

Iowa, which has used a non-partisan redistricting service since 1980 is also rather nice.

The Rose Report on algorithmic redistricting

The Rose Report discusses algorithmic approaches to redistricting such as the shortest-splitline algorithm.

The Rose report points out that these algorithms could be unconstitutional and seems to consider algorithmic redistricting approaches to be politically naive.

A recent letter-to-the-editor in The Appeal-Democrat suggested we just draw district lines according to latitude across the state to create the areas our legislators represent. Many people say such things, not unreasonably, because they are ignorant of the fact that such districts would inevitably be unconstitutional.

The idea behind such proposals is simple: people want to take the “politics” out of redistricting politics in a complete and total manner. Of course, in practice, trying to take the politics out of politics is as nonsensical and impossible as the verbal formulation. Further, such reforms might cause more problems than they would ever solve. Such exercises can be valuable as thought experiments, but realistic reforms strive for something much more moderate and, for lack of a better word, political.

I disagree with the assertions made by the Rose report that algorithmic approaches to redistricting are forever unrealistic reforms.

Continue reading

Revived attempt to ‘fix’ CA electorial college votes

I guess that I spoke too soon. The partisan Republican attempt to change the way that California distributes it’s electoral votes is back in action.

The Ballot Access News reports:

According to this story in the Riverside, California Press-Enterprise, wealthy Congressman Darrell Issa of San Diego County has agreed to pay to get an initiative on the California June 2008 ballot. That initiative would provide that each U.S. House district elect its own elector. The initiative already collected 100,000 signatures in August, then had been abandoned for lack of funding.

Here is Jack Santucci’s take on this development (Jack was an analyst at and I’ve disagreed with him frequently on other matters. Here I am nearly full agreement with him.):

CA Congressman Darrell Issa (R-49) will help bankroll the effort to split California’s Electoral College votes by congressional district (CD allocation). And he’s defending it as a move to “proportional representation.”

“This is about making people’s votes count,” he said. “It’s about proportional representation.” […]

Issa insists that he has not endorsed a candidate for president and said the effort is not motivated by politics, but by a desire to increase voter turnout in the state.

“If Florida had proportional representation [in 2000], Al Gore would be president today,” he said.

In another post I highlight some problems with CD allocation. The biggest (in my opinion) is that doing so would drastically raise the stakes of redistricting wherever the system were implemented. Bluntly, gerrymandering would affect presidential elections.