Redistricting: Gerrymandering as a Competitive Sport

Gerrymandering – redrawing the boundary lines of districts to benefit or hinder various political interests – is a very old game in politics. The term was coined in 1812 as a description of the oddly-shaped beast that resulted from a partisan re-drawing of district boundaries in Massachusetts. (The beast looked a bit like a cross between a salamander and a corrupt politician, and “Gerry” was the name of the governor who signed the redistricting bill.)

The latest incarnation of gerrymandering takes the form of various ballot initiatives about who gets to re-draw district lines. In 2008, Proposition 11 passed in California, creating a “Citizens Redistricting Commission” to re-draw district lines for the state’s legislature. Vaunted as a reform by such credible advocates as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the claim was that the commission would make the drawing of district boundaries more fair (with “fairness” defined in the “bipartisan” sense of applying only to the balance between the Democratic and Republican parties and disregarding every other principle of fair representation). In the upcoming election on November 2, California has two more redistricting initiatives on the ballot: Proposition 20 and Proposition 27. While these initiatives take opposite positions concerning the new redistricting commission (Prop 20 extends the commission’s authority to Congressional districts, Prop 27 eliminates the commission), both initiatives, like Prop 11 before them, are pseudo-reforms that do not serve the cause of improved democracy.

In a true democracy, people are represented fairly, and elected bodies reflect the population. This is called “proportional representation” – because a “representative body” should reflect the voters in proportion to the support for each viewpoint. The idea is to get the different viewpoints to the table in order to support meaningful dialogue toward solutions. The various views can then be considered and discussed before a decision is made democratically.

The House of Representatives, state legislatures, county Boards of Supervisors, and city councils are all examples of elected representative bodies that should reflect the views of the voters of the region as accurately as possible. For example, when electing a five-person body from a region inhabited by people whose viewpoints are 55% A, 20% B, 20% C and 5% D, a proportional body would consist of three A representatives, one B representative, and one C representative (see graphic below). Instead of this, our current “winner-take-all” system will almost always elect five A representatives.

One way we can achieve fair representation is by using “choice voting.” Choice voting (also called “single transferable vote” or “STV”) results in proportional representation as long as more than one seat is elected at the same time. This and other methods of achieving proportional representation require getting away from purely geographic single-member districts and creating multiple-member districts. FairVote’s suggested plan of replacing 80 single-member districts with 16 five-member districts is an example that would employ the choice voting method to elect the California legislature. (Click here to see a map of California’s legislative districts under this plan.)

Redistricting, as presented in ballot initiatives such as California’s, is about how the boundaries of single‑member districts are drawn. To try to give some representation to minority groups, efforts are made to gerrymander districts so that a minority group can have a majority in one district. Other efforts are made to gerrymander districts so that minority groups get no representation whatsoever. This struggle between gerrymanderers is dubbed “redistricting,” with both sides claiming to want “reform.” What it actually amounts to is gerrymandering as a competitive sport. If we had multiple-member districts with proportional representation, there would be very little interest in how district boundaries are drawn; there would be much less partisan stake in who gets to draw the lines; and any conflicts about line-drawing could have been settled sensibly and fairly without becoming the subject of multiple ballot initiatives.

Redistricting is a pseudo-reform. No matter how one re-draws the boundaries, the current system of single-member districts will never allow our elected bodies to reflect the make-up of the populace or represent their views.

The current tug-of-war around redistricting is essentially a distraction from the central problem with our supposed democracy. Debates about who gets to draw boundary lines are tantamount to debates about who gets to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic: utterly meaningless. The real solution ismultiple-member districts with proportional representation.

Cat Woods is a writer/editor in Novato, CA and an advocate for multi-partisan democracy and other election reforms. She can be reached at Read other articles by Cat.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Unga_Khan said on October 8th, 2010 at 7:24am #

    Another solution is to just leave voting districts up to a mathematical shortest-splitline algorithm, which takes no demographic data into account other than population density. While multiple-member districts may give a more accurate representation of the voters within a district, if implemented under current rules for districting there is still the potential for gerrymandering if various demographic factors such as race, party, income, etc. are allowed to be considered. There would still be an incentive to disenfranchise groups of voters based on which party in power gets to do the redistricting. The best solution would be to have algorithm-derived geographical districts combined with multiple-member representation to encourage fair, detailed representation.

  2. Don Hawkins said on October 8th, 2010 at 7:42am #

    Unga much to complex how about a 100 or so human’s who just run the show at least we wouldn’t have to watch hate, madness I mean political ads then maybe paint, write, pottery gardening is good.

  3. Unga_Khan said on October 8th, 2010 at 3:43pm #

    ESL classes are also good for you Don.

  4. Steve Chessin said on October 23rd, 2010 at 2:10am #

    Unga_Khan, multi-member districts that use proportional representation (PR) make gerrymandering less effective. With single-member districts, one needs slightly more than half the vote in slightly more than half the districts in order to elect a majority of the legislature. That means, properly distributed, 26% of the voters can overrule the other 74%. With three-member districts, the threshold of control increases from 25% to 37.5%. With five-member districts it becomes about 42%. (The formula is 0.5*(N/(N+1)), where N is the number of members elected from each district.) (This assumes that the jurisdiction is divided into districts. If there is only one “district”, then of course the threshold of control becomes 50%.)

    The higher the threshold the harder it becomes to draw lines that will cause one group to be over-represented and another to be under-represented, so it matters less who draws the lines.