Sunday, January 6, 2013

Redistricting is not Enough

The other day, Harry Enten had a great piece in The Guardian debunking the common wisdom that gerrymandering lies at the root of the polarization of Congress.  Many articles on progressive blogs since the election have faulted gerrymandering for the fact that Republicans continue to control the House although Democrats won more votes overall.  However, wide demographic trends, such as the concentration of liberals in cities and conservatives in rural areas, also bear strong influence.

As I see it, the current system of single member geographical districts produces a conflict between representativeness and democracy, which are both important in a nation that purports to have a representative democracy.

Although I, like many others, may decry gerrymandering, one can argue that gerrymandering produces the most representative districts possible, especially if it is done on a bipartisan (rather than partisan or nonpartisan) basis.  In other words, if Democratic majorities in cities are maximized and Republican majorities in rural and suburban areas are maximized, you end up with a map in which the largest possible number of people feel represented by the winner of their district's race. 

Pretend that we have 200 people, 100 Democrats and 100 Republicans.  Creating a 70-30 Democratic win and a 70-30 Republican win would yield a total of 140 people who feel as though their House member represents them.    On the other hand, if you created a 51-49 Democratic district and a 51-49 Republican district, only 102 people feel as though their House member represents their will.

However, even though the awkward and often aesthetically displeasing districts on a gerrymandered map can prove more representative, they are decidedly less democratic than the alternative.  In a democracy, each person's vote should count the same (one person, one vote).  Deep blue districts and deep red districts create the problem of wasted votes.  In the above scenario of the 70-30 district, there are 20 people whose votes did not ultimately matter to outcome of the election.  Such deeply partisan districts could also discourage voters from either party.  The voters of the majority party might feel as though their vote isn't needed, and those of the minority party might feel as though their vote is utterly meaningless.  Competitive districts help to maximize the number of meaningful votes and encourage voter participation.  However, if the winner achieves a victory of 50.2 to 49.8, the end result is hardly representative of the full range of popular will.

The ideal solution, as I see it, would be multi-member districts with proportional representation.  Treat each state as its own district, and allocate the seats in proportion to the popular vote (as closely as math allows).  With PR, every vote is meaningful and equal because all votes count towards the state-wide total, and the outcome will better reflect the popular will across the state, providing both parties with the number of seats that best reflects their popular support.  Granted, because of the varying number of seats per state, larger states such as California will end up with more accurate apportionment of seats than will smaller states such as Maine; however, the system as a whole will reconcile the claims for democracy and representativeness.

Moreover, PR by state will help solve another challenge to the democratic ideal of equal representation ("one person, one vote") that our system of representation produces.  Although districts should theoretically be equal in size, there will inevitably be an accepted margin of error.  One district might have 713,000 while another has 712,000 because equal population is just one of many factors to consider (geographical contiguity being another prominent one).  Multi-member state-wide districts eliminates such effect on a district level--ensuring that each vote is counted equally toward a state's total representation.  There will be, unfortunately, still be differences in population per House seat between states; however, representation by state remains important because of the tradition of federalism and because of the overall size of the country.

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