The Compactness Solution to Gerrymandering

In my last post, I concluded that Ned Foley’s argument that the original meaning prohibits partisan gerrymandering does not work. This is really very regrettable, since I believe that partisan (and other types of) gerrymandering is extremely problematic. I do have a solution to the problem of gerrymandering, but unfortunately it requires that the legislatures enact it, rather than the court, and the legislatures seem unlikely to adopt it.

To my mind, partisan gerrymandering, like virtually all types of gerrymandering, is an undesirable practice. I believe that elections should be fair and that such gerrymandering interferes without any good justification with the voice of the voters. That both parties have long engaged in such activities does not make this situation any better. While the Constitution’s original meaning unfortunately does not prohibit such gerrymandering, the Constitution allows the political process to eliminate it.

My preferred solution to gerrymandering is to draw legislative districts in the most compact form possible. While there are different measures of compactness, compact districts would not have the ugly and peculiar shapes that current districts have that are drawn to serve the purposes of incumbents and political parties. Instead, they have more ordinary shapes similar to rectangles and circles. It is true that different measures of compactness would have different virtues, but in my view any measure would be better than no compactness requirement.

It is possible that there might not be a single result that turned out to be the most compact, but instead a few different district maps might involve the most compact districts. In that situation, one might have to choose between the maps on some basis – perhaps through chance, such as picking from a hat – but the differences would be unlikely to give significant advantages to one party or another.

One issue involves whether other matters could be considered, such as drawing districts so that they would not be divided by a river or a large highway. I recognize the disadvantages of such divisions, but I think the advantage of having a clear rule of compactness outweighs them. But even if one wanted to take some of these considerations into account, that could be done, allowing those predetermined and clearly defined exceptions, but then insisting that the districts otherwise be as compact as possible.

For congressional elections, this rule could be adopted at the state level (if the states draw the districts) or by Congress (if Congress chooses to adopt the rule for the country). For state legislative districts, the state could adopt the rule.

Unfortunately, the existing legislative incumbents and parties in power do not have an incentive to adopt the compactness rule (even if they agreed with it on policy grounds). But there is a way to lessen their opposition. Congress might adopt the compactness rule with a twenty year delay, so that its effects would be hard to predict. Better yet, a constitutional amendment could be proposed, perhaps with an even longer delay, to constitutionalize the compactness rule. That would be the best way that our Constitution could address this matter.

Reader Discussion

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on April 23, 2018 at 12:59:12 pm

A compactness rule limits the amount of gerrymandering that can be done (limits how exacting the legislature can be in defining a map to include a certain % of voters). But it does not solve gerrymandering. To gerrymander, even with compactness, you start by placing areas with dense concentrations of the opposition party into as few districts as possible. This can be done even with extremely compact districts (although it is harder around the edges). Then each area where your party's voters are extremely dense, you segment those areas into lots of thinner districts that spread out further into the surrounding areas. This allows the areas where that party is very high % of the population to impact far more districts. All of this can be done with very compact districts (at least by modern standards).

The only way I have seen to truly remove partisanship to the maximum extent possible. A computer program (run by an independent non-partisan agency) ends up drawing the lines based on very strict rules set by the legislature in a completely non-partisan way. It does have a compactness requirement, but this is just one of several rules that limit the discretion and ability to draw the lines in a partisan way. The independent agency is prohibited from considering voter registration data, officeholders' addresses, previous election results or population data other than census head counts. The legislature is given an up or down vote, with no amendments allowed. If it fails, the agency again tries a new map resolving the problems presented in the initial one, and again a new up or down vote without amendment is done. If no plan is enacted by Sept. 1, responsibility for state legislative redistricting shifts to the Iowa Supreme Court.

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Devin Watkins
on April 23, 2018 at 12:59:48 pm

(Sorry I should have been more clean in the second paragraph, that this is the way that Iowa does it.)

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Devin Watkins
on April 23, 2018 at 17:30:07 pm

" If no plan is enacted by Sept. 1, responsibility for state legislative redistricting shifts to the Iowa Supreme Court."

So we are back where we started - with the Black robes have final say.

Yes, I know, the politicos were given a chance BUT - BACK to the Black Robes.

So what if, one party in the Legislature insists on obstructing the redistricting approval process, knowing that the Court in that State is likely to favor them. Like nobody says - people respond to incentives. Here the incentive is to "screw the pooch" and send it to the Black Robes.

Another option:

Not just compact districts -but "straight line" borders sized to contain as equal amounts of population as is possible and using a GPS grid of longitude and latitude.

Of course, that too presents a problem wherein we may have a farm district "roped in" with a commercial district / financial district, etc.

Hey, here is a wild one: Let's try to incorporate John C. Calhoun's concept of "concurrent majorities" into our redistricting efforts. Let us have a farm district, a manufacturing district, a commercial district, a poor district, a rich district etc etc etc.

oops, isn't that what the Democrat Party has been trying to do these past decades with their own peculiar
"geraldo-mandering" process of including illegal aliens in districts to give Hispanics power in the legislature and Municipal councils - all to the detriment of Black Americans.

Yep, that John Calhoun, a Democrat then and a role model for the Democrat Party now.

What a world, I'm luvvin it!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 23, 2018 at 17:34:57 pm

You took the words right out of my mouth!

But I agree with Rappaport - Let the Legislature resolve the issue.
Devin Watkins example has possibilities - but may still be foiled.

The Press and Brewery man does have a point about "straight" and compact districts. So what if those districts include both rich and poor, farmer and city dweller, etc. Is that not what the Legislative elections are supposed to be "polling" - the opinion of a diverse community?

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on April 23, 2018 at 19:22:15 pm

To Devin Watkins: I don't agree with this criticism. First, a specific measure of compactness should be adopted. That is unlikely to produce a tie. And it is unlikely to allow the shenanigans such as considering voter registration data. Your example suggests you are using a general notion of compactness. Second, even if two maps were equal as to compactness, the map to be chosen should be determined based on a random process, such as picking from a hat (as I said in my post). That would prevent the majority party from selecting the map it preferred.

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Mike Rappaport

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