Friday, 6 August 2004

Gerrymander this

Jeff Jacoby has a moderately interesting column in today’s Boston Globe about reforming the redistricting process, citing Iowa’s use of an independent commission to set constituency boundaries—a practice that is also followed in Commonwealth countries like Britain and Canada. Needless to say, I’m generally in favor of such proposals; however, I do think there are two issues that ought to be of concern:

  • If many or all districts are competitive, small vote swings—say, a nationwide increase in Democratic support by 1%—will lead to large changes in representation, a problem seen regularly in British and Canadian elections. Existing gerrymandered “safe seats” pretty much guarantee that small vote swings will only affect a limited number of seats, negating much of the “manufactured majority” aspect of plurality elections.
  • Dilution of majority-minority districts, and other Voting Rights Act issues, could be problematic in states that are less homogenous than Iowa—which would be, er, most states. On the other hand, many of the most egregious districts from a gerrymandering point of view were specifically designed to meet VRA requirements. (This is less of an issue for people like me, who believe substantive policy representation is more important than descriptive representation, even though there is some evidence that at least some degree of descriptive representation improves policy responsiveness to minority groups.)

I also think most of the benefits of ending gerrymandering could be arrived at by using so-called “mixed PR” electoral systems—even a few “top up” seats in most states would negate all but the most egregious gerrymanders. However, about half the states don’t have enough representatives to make “mixed PR” really work for federal elections, and I’m not one of those who thinks the House of Representatives should be much bigger (although I would increase probably increase its size to allow any state not declining in population to not lose seats, and would definitely increase its size if a new state were admitted to the Union). Even in smaller states, though, I think it would be of value in state legislative elections.

For further reading: some recent discussion of the merits of top-up PR is available from Mandos of Points of Information and Andrew Coyne, albeit in the Canadian context.

Globe link via Eugene Volokh.