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.

Saturday, 3 December 2005

Texas redistricting

Quaker at Crescat Sententia writes in commentary on this WaPo piece:

I honestly can’t think of a reason why the unanimous (!) staff recommendation would get overruled besides ideological opposition to the Voting Rights Act or a desire to see more Republicans in Congress. If anybody out there can think of better justifications, drop me a line; I’m all ears.

Perhaps the staff of the Civil Rights Division has been enforcing an interpretation of the Voting Rights Act that goes beyond the statutory requirements of Congress, and therefore has been making recommendations that do not enforce the VRA but implement something more stringent than the VRA. Thus, the political appointees at the agency felt an obligation to limit the review to the bounds of the statute, rather than the imagined law that the Civil Rights Division staff would like to see implemented. For example, the memo complains about partisan gerrymandering, yet partisan gerrymanders are not illegal under either the VRA or Supreme Court precedent (even if they probably ought to be).

After all, it is not beyond the realm of reason that young, bright attorneys might choose to join the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and forego greater earning potential and prestige in the private sector, for ideological reasons.