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.

Thursday, 28 July 2005

The 50% solution

Former Mississippi governor Bill Waller is playing at being a reformer, but he’s only got the solution half-right:

Former Gov. Bill Waller Sr. says Mississippi should reduce the number of state legislators and limit lawmakers to two terms.

Waller spoke today at the Neshoba County Fair. He was one four former governors to speak in Founder’s Square along with incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour.

Waller, a Democrat who was governor from 1972–76, urged lawmakers to streamline state government.

“It has been obvious for years that we have too many members of the Mississippi Legislature and the numbers should be reduced in both the House and the Senate,” he said in prepared remarks. “Only 11 states have larger legislatures and most of those are much more heavily populated.”

Waller also said Mississippi would benefit by limiting terms for lawmakers.

“A two term limit on a smaller number of legislators would give the best and most modern state government of all 50,” he said.

I’m all in favor of halving the size of the legislature, but pretty much everyone who’s studied the issue of term limits seriously finds that the effects of term limits are pretty much the opposite of those promised by proponents: instead of producing “citizen legislators” who aren’t beholden to parties or organized interests, it produces a legislature full of political novices who have to rely on unelected party leaders and lobbyists, since they lack the political expertise and experience necessary to exercise good independent judgment.

A far better method for producing an accountable legislature is to ensure vigorous competition for seats, which suggests that Mississippi would be better served by overhauling the gerrymandered monstrosities we call legislative districts than selecting a fresh batch of mediocre politicians every eight years from constituencies that are the result of racial and partisan redistricting.

Monday, 7 March 2005

Redistricting editorial

The lead editorial in today’s Clarion-Ledger calls on Mississippi to adopt a non-partisan redistricting panel to set congressional and state legislative districts, noting the mess resulting from the last redistricting round in 2001. As noted before, a initiative to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot would be a long-shot, but perhaps the prospect of another fight over congressional districts will get the legislature to consider adopting a non-partisan districting proposal.

The Clarion-Ledger also carries an article today looking at the wrangling over judicial redistricting and the defeat of Ed Blackmon’s “single-shot” districting bill.

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

California redistricting plan draws GOP ire

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to end redistricting as we know it in California may be hitting a snag; James Joyner notes that opposition has emerged among California’s Republican members of Congress who were gerrymandered into safe seats in the 2000 election and might have problems winning competitive elections due to the national GOP‘s position far to the right of the median California voter.

More details in today’s Los Angeles Times; meanwhile, Robert Tagorda looks at the redistricting politics on both sides of the aisle, while Kevin Drum denies he’s a hack but senses an opportune time to switch sides and support the Schwarzenegger plan nonetheless. At least Greg Wythe has been on the bandwagon all along ☺.

Incidentally, is anyone up for collecting nearly 110,000 signatures (12% of the number of votes cast in the 2003 gubernatorial race) in twelve months to qualify an initiative to do the same thing in Mississippi?

Monday, 7 February 2005

Redistricting Roundup

Today’s New York Times has a somewhat lengthy piece on efforts in various states to reform their redistricting processes. As far as I know, aside from various efforts to create majority-minority Supreme Court districts, there are no serious efforts to fix redistricting in Mississippi—an oversight that surely ought to be corrected.

And, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says plans for a redistricting initiative in California may potentially be hijacked by partisan interests, although Walters doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how—he just alleges that requiring the redistricting commission to create competitive districts might somehow favor Republicans. (þ: Rick Hasen).

Update: More on this theme from John Fund at

Thursday, 21 October 2004

A new hobby for Tom DeLay

David Adesnik asks:

Why not give one electoral vote to the candidate with the most votes in each congressional district (plus two electoral votes for the state-wide front-runner)?

Because I don’t think America needs yet another incentive for state legislatures and courts to engage in partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.

For what it’s worth, I favor (if there needs to be anything at all, a point I’m somewhat dubious on) “proportional-lite”; allocate the representative-based electors based on proportional representation, and give the two Senate-based electors to the plurality winner. This has the nice bonus of retaining the psychological effect of Duverger’s Law, as winning the plurality is guaranteed to gain a big bonus.

Of course, I think it’d be fun to run unpledged electors and get back to the system the Framers intended, just to see everyone whine about it. (There seem to be provisions permitting separate slates of unpledged electors in Mississippi law, at least, but it’s unclear how you’d qualify such a slate.)

Monday, 20 September 2004

Wasn't he on “Leave it to Beaver”?

Professor Bainbridge, Sebastian Holdsclaw, Kevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias all agree that gerrymandering sucks. No argument there. Now let’s see what actually can be done about it…

Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Redistricting initiative in California

Professor Bainbridge links the text of the California anti-gerrymandering initiative. It looks more-or-less like a good idea to me, but the selection procedure for the “special masters” looks overly complicated. But, I suppose, that’s the way California politics works…

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.

Tuesday, 30 March 2004

Election reform

Russell Arben Fox has a lengthy summary of an article from February’s American Political Science Review, “Election Time: Normative Implications of Temporal Properties of the Electoral Process in the United States,” by Dennis F. Thompson.

Unlike my usual practice when it comes to the APSR (which is to scan the table of contents, find nothing of immediate interest to my research agenda, and then dump it onto the stack of journals—yes, I’m a bad political scientist when it comes to journal-reading), I actually read the article, and while I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Thompson’s conclusions as Russell is (particularly because I don’t at all buy the argument that campaign finance regulations, no matter how strict, will put an end to the “permanent campaign”), I agree that Thompson does make some worthwhile contributions to the debate, including a strong argument that partisan gerrymandering is fundamentally antidemocratic.

I do wonder, however, where one buys a single copy of the APSR, as Russell implores his readers to do. My advice: go to your local college’s library and read it for free.

Friday, 16 January 2004

Solomon Unpunished

Robert Prather thinks the best solution to the District of Columbia’s electoral quandry is something I’d call “electoral retrocession”: the district’s residents would be considered residents of Maryland for the purposes of electing senators and representatives.

I can see several potential problems with this arrangement:

  1. The residents of the District of Columbia would have no say in the redistricting process of Maryland.
  2. Although it’s likely Maryland would treat D.C. as a unified entity in creating a single-member district, there are nefarious reasons not to do so—for example, by attaching majority-white but still overwhelmingly Democratic Ward 3 to the Montgomery County suburbs to further dilute Republican voting strength in the Maryland suburbs.
  3. The amendment, as proposed, requires Maryland’s assent to become active. No other constitutional amendment has ever required the assent of a particular state to become effective. (The only reasonable explanation for this provision: Maryland might legitimately argue that its equal suffrage in the Senate is being deprived by the amendment.)
  4. Any state on the threshold of losing representation has an interest in not supporting the amendment.
  5. The Democratic Party’s interests are better served by whining about the lack of representation of D.C. than adding a single guaranteed-to-be-a-Democrat member of the House of Representatives—especially if the net effect is to reduce the number of guaranteed electoral votes for the Democratic presidential nominee by three.

The first two problems could be solved by making D.C. residents eligible to vote in senatorial contests in Maryland, and adjusting the amendment to allocate a single representative to D.C. exclusively (while having no effect on Maryland’s representation in the House). The House could expand its membership by one (from 435 to 436) by statute to solve the “threshold” issue. The last problem could be solved by giving the Democrats the “carrot” of retaining D.C.’s 3 electoral votes—which, combined with an extra House member, are probably more valuable to the Democrats than two senators they’re most unlikely to get any other way.

Also on the D.C. topic: the D.C. Board of Elections has released ward and precinct-level results for the non-binding D.C. primary. I’d imagine some political scientist who knows something about ecological inference might just be able to use the precinct-level data to predict Al Sharpton’s likely share of the African-American vote in other states, if he were bored enough.

This is today’s entry in the Beltway Traffic Jam.

Tuesday, 23 December 2003

Rigging Democracy

James Joyner excerpts at length from a Stuart Taylor National Journal piece on the Supreme Court’s latest entry into the fray of legislative redistricting by state legislatures and the courts, Vieth v. Jubelirer. Much of Taylor’s discussion echos the discussion in the amicus brief of Bernard Grofman and Gary Jacobson, two political scientists who know a thing or two about legislative redistricting.

Also of interest: Erick Erickson’s post on the oral argument in the case.

Monday, 27 October 2003

Texas and Colorado redistricting thoughts

Greg Wythe ( notes a Washington Post account looking at the Texas and Colorado redistricting plans; notably, it quotes a lot of political scientists, instead of the legal scholars that generally appear in these accounts.

Notable quote from the article:

Whatever the answers, Thomas E. Mann, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that the Texas and Colorado experiments in multiple redistricting could have profound political consequences.

“If this is sustained, what we will have is a form of arms race where there is no restraint on keeping the game going on throughout a decade,” Mann said. “You ask, who wins in this process? This is a process designed not for citizens or voters but for politicians. It will lead politicians to say there are no limits. I think it threatens the legitimacy of democracy.”

I think this is the natural consequence of the Supreme Court’s muddled post-Baker jurisprudence: insistence on exact population equality between districts, despite the huge known sampling error of the Census making that equality essentially meaningless; a ridiculous level of deference to partisan gerrymanders coupled with the unclear dictates of the Voting Rights Act and vague, O‘Connoresque prohibitions against racial gerrymanders—which, due to bloc voting by African-Americans, are virtually indistinguishable from partisan gerrymanders; widespread abandonment of any conception of geographic compactness or geographic logic as desirable features for districts; naked partisanship by the federal judiciary; and a general failure to incorporate anything that political scientists who do applied and theoretical research in the field contribute. No wonder it’s a giant playground for political opportunists from both parties.

I still think the only viable way to eliminate this mischief is to incorporate an element of proportional representation into the system—even two or three seats in a state the size of Texas, elected by “top up” proportional representation, would be enough to both undermine the possible benefits of partisan gerrymanders and ensure that incumbent-protection gerrymanders don’t lead to a sclerotic delegation.

Monday, 10 February 2003

More Lords Reform

Jacob T. Levy has the scoop on the latest discussions in blog-world (from Iain Murray and Michael Jennings) on the abject failure of Lords reform in Britain to get anywhere. (I meant to post on it earlier but got distracted by bright, shiny objects.) The telling sentence:

Now that the traditional British constitution has been abolished, with astonishingly little debate and no clear sense of what to replace it with, that's proving to be a real disadvantage.

Incidentally, upper houses in general have proved themselves rather pointless without either federalism or feudalism as a justification. Take U.S. states for example, post-Baker v. Carr (369 U.S. 186)*: one state (Nebraska) has abolished its upper house, while the rest just plod along with an upper house that's smaller but otherwise elected on the same basis of representation (single member districts, first-past-the-post) as the lower house. While this arrangement does preserve the check of requiring both bodies to agree, it's not clear how much of a check this is as a practical matter (free grad student paper idea: compare the rate of passage of legislation in the Nebraska legislature to a bicameral state).

It seems to me that proportional representation (either pure PR, or the “top-off” form used in Britain's subnational legislatures that still allows some districts) is the ideal solution for making upper houses more relevant: it also has the bonus (if you go for pure PR) of not requiring redistricting fights. Even regional PR might be a good idea — states like Mississippi and Tennessee that have notable sub-state regions (the three Supreme Court districts of Mississippi and Tennessee's Grand Divisions) could use them as the basis for regional lists, apportioning the seats by population.

The downside is that it would probably lead to more partisan state legislatures, so PR Senates may only be desirable in states that already have strongly partisan legislatures — so Tennessee would probably be a reasonable case, while Mississippi may not be.

Previous discussion here.

* Baker v. Carr and its successors invalidated the apportionment of legislative chambers in the United States on any basis other than population under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, with the sole exception of the U.S. Senate (whose apportionment is specified in the Constitution in a particularly airtight fashion).

Saturday, 16 November 2002

Libertarians cost Republicans filibuster-proof Senate margin

At least, that's what John J. Miller claims in today's New York Times. John, who doesn't seem to be a libertarian in either sense, thinks that's bad for libertarians, mainly because we won't get the Bush tax cut permanently (me, I'd prefer a cleaned up tax code to yet another layer of gobbledygook; between all the capital gains rates and normal income rates, we're now up to about a dozen real tax brackets). Glenn Reynolds makes the reasonable point that libertarians are sensibly reacting to Republicans' policies that they disagree with, even if they are "closer" to being Republican.

I don't necessarily disagree with the "Libertarians are closer to Republicans" thesis; a former Libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, is now a Republican House member from Texas, and Republicans' national rhetoric is somewhat more "libertarian" than Democrats'. At a more practical level, it's harder to advance a socially-conservative agenda in Washington than a fiscally-liberal one, so voting Republican is probably less of a risk to freedom than voting for Democrats — particularly since most Dems run for the hills when it comes to actually sticking up for fundamental freedoms or ending the War on Drugs, lest they appear "too liberal." Then again, a fellow libertarian (and political scientist to boot) tends to vote Democratic (but that's only because he thinks South Carolina's Republicans are fascists).

It seems to me that Democrats and Republicans have two realistic choices to deal with their third party problems: they can either try to get stricter ballot-access laws (which could be hard — the most stringent are being thrown out by the courts fairly regularly, even with the bogus "state interest in promoting a two-party system" argument that seems to pop up from time to time; my recollection is that our Founding Fathers would think our system already has two parties too many), or they can promote some sort of ballot reform like approval voting or Condorcet vote counting that would preserve their duopoly in the short-to-medium term but still let voters blow off steam by voting Green or Libertarian.

On the other hand, such reform could conceivably lead to the full-scale disintegration of the Democrats into various client-group parties (probably a rump comprised of union voters plus a few racial-interest parties concentrated in gerrymandered districts, with the rest defecting to the Greens) and the loss of the socially-agnostic wing of the Republicans to the Libertarians.

More likely it would end up in a situation where Republicans and Democrats would have the bulk of the seats but third parties would be coalition power-brokers; the big question is whether there would be permanent parliamentary-style coalitions in Congress or a more ad-hoc arrangement with no "majority" like we know it today, just floating coalitions assembled by the White House to get its preferred legislation passed.

Thursday, 14 November 2002

State legislatures and the median voter

Tacitus has some thoughts on state legislatures vis à vis political parties and the liberalism-conservatism scale. It's an interesting piece as far as it goes, but it begs a couple of empirical questions:

  1. Why do Republicans fail to compete effectively for the median voter in "liberal" states? Democrats in the South seem able to separate themselves from the national party, yet this eludes Republicans. Is it simply a matter of gerrymandering or incumbent advantage? (Some political scientists would argue that on the "local" issues Dems have the advantage of the right issue positions, though; no state legislator is ever going to have to vote on defense or national security, two Republican-"owned" issues, to borrow from John Petrocik.)

  2. Why does Democratic control of state legislatures persist in states that elect Republicans regularly to national office?

Some people have gotten at corners of these questions (and I'd cite them if I could remember them offhand; the realignment literature is an interesting place to start), but I don't think there's been a good answer yet. And a good answer might actually be relevant to the real world, something us PoliSci people are rarely good at providing.