Tuesday, June 16, 2009

25% Majority: The Census, Governors and Gerrymanders (Oh My!)

I want to take a little side trek from my usual focus on election methods, to put them in a larger context.

The census is coming up shortly, and while it provides all sorts of interesting trivia to pour over, its main purpose has always been to determine how seats in the House of Representatives will be apportioned among the states, although the Constitution leaves most of the details for filling those seats up to the states themselves. In general (although this is not universal), each state's legislature writes up a proposal for the new district boundaries, which must be approved by the governor. And it's usually assumed that, if the legislature and the governorship are all controlled by the same political party, that the party can pretty much get away with even the most absurd boundaries. FiveThiryEight covered the where's-and-what-have-you's of these redistricting battlegrounds last month.

Of course, this isn't because of an appreciation for fractal geometry or for modern art, but in order to maximize the party's performance in future elections. Under a system of proportional representation, if an electorate's support is divided 40% for one party and 60% for another, than approximately 40% of legislative seats will be filled by the first party and 60% by the other; not so if you have single-winner districts and free-reign for drawing district boundaries! Depending on how much wiggle-room you want to leave yourself, you can fill 100% of the seats with members of your own party as long as you have a sliver more than 50% of the voters. And even if you have less than 50%, effective gerrymandering can double your seating percentage; which means that even if only 25%-plus-one of the electorate supports you, you can still have 50%-plus-one of the congressional seats.

This leads to a very strong self-reinforcing system, where a thin pseudo-majority can artificially inflate its political power for many years down the road, or one where a real, but small, majority can effectively remove all opposition. Occasionally, something of an unsteady balance is found, which you could positively think of as a "bipartisan compromise". Or, if you're more cynically minded, you could think of it as the parties agreeing to systematically disenfranchise about a third of the electorate; but it's okay, because this way, both of them save equally as much money by not having to buy ads in nearly as many markets (well, except for the primaries); and since it's equal, who can complain? Some states have gone so far as to remove the elected legislature and elected governor from this decision-making process, to replace them with a "bipartisan committee", whose equal number of Democrat- and Republican-appointed members would have control over the boundary lines.

Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Americans don't think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats, and yet, 99.9% or more of elected officials do. These sorts of games are yet another of the ways that this imbalance is made to continue. We could throw our hands up in the air and say "It's terrible, but what can you do?"; or would could take the approach I always do here and ask if there's a better system, one that everyone (not just party-faithful) could agree is fairer. There are a lot of different suggestions for algorithmically-defined solutions (I'm currently enthralled by the third in that list), but like score-voting, effecting change will be an up-hill battle.

Just something else to think about when you're voting for governor next year, or filling out your census questionnaire.

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