Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Mathematician Redistricts Congress

 The 2013 GOP House of Representatives:
 An Embarrassment to Democracy

We've heard plenty -- including posts on this blog -- about the anti-democracy tactics being successfully employed in states where the entire state government is under Republican/ALEC control.  When a state governor, the state house and the state senate are entirely prepared to enact anti-democracy schemes, the results are not pretty.

In the 2013 election we can see the grisly results of this multi-state tactic.  Although a majority of votes were cast in the election for democratic candidates, the control of the Federal House of Representatives remained in the hands of John Boehner and the tea baggers.  When too many "Democratic" Senators refused to back Reid's proposal to reform the filibuster rule in the Senate, effective control of that body remained in the regressive hands of Mitch McConnell.

We can point at Boehner and McConnell easily enough, but we must remember that neither of these two "representatives" actually represents anyone in the states where they were elected.  Even the most generous over view of the "legislative habits" of these two, along with their respective cronies, hardly suggests that they have any particular interest in the needs of any visible constituency or the country.

Understand in no uncertain terms.  The Republican minority in the Federal Congress does, actually, represent the interests of a constituency.  It's just that this constituency is not the voters who put them into office -- or, of course, the rest of the country, either.  

These Federal boys work for billionaires.  So do their "little brothers" at the state level who have managed to successfully "crow bar jimmy" the districts back home.

This post is going to concentrate on the state level "monkey business" which resulted in the fall of majority rule in the House of Representatives.

A Few Thoughts About Gerrymandering

If you think that the farmers and ranchers in the red state "fly over" country are zealously independent now, try to imagine what this was like in the early days of the nation.  West of the Mississippi a crop of ruthless, rural barons emerged almost at once as the conquered territories were transformed into states.  The wealth and power of these earliest oligarchs was derived primarily from exploiting their ownership of various natural resources -- oil, cattle land, timber, gold and the like.

South of the Mason Dixon Line we found similar oligarchs whose wealth was derived from primarily agricultural holdings operated by slave labor.

This entire class jealously protected their advantages -- regardless of the legitimacy of how those assets had been accrued.  We may think of "Robber Barons" as banking, oil, rail road and manufacturing magnates, but this category of oligarchs operated mainly in the industrialized areas of the East.  Of course, the "Easterners" jealously protected their own holdings.

As it become increasingly clear to this class that the Federal Government was not only here to stay, but likely to become more and more of a presence as time bore on, their "control issues" began to surface.  When the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and other developments started their predictable intrusion into the previously slave driven Southern enterprises, every effort was, naturally, made to promote artificial priorities such as states' rights and to do everything possible to sustain their apartheid past by controlling the election of US Representatives.

In no time, these efforts began to "deliver the goods."  The Southern oligarchs, firmly in command of their state's federal legislators were able to extract all manner of corrupt economic advantages while undercutting any potential Negro voting influence with glacial Jim Crow Laws.

The rural Western oligarchs, seeing how profitable this had been for their Southern counterparts, began their own states' rights moves.  Sewing every possible granule of "distrust for the Feds" among the voters, the cattle-oil-gold barons established themselves as a trustworthy bulwark against federal intervention in their state policies.

In both regions the underpinning of the anti-democracy appetite was the same.  If you were an oligarch, your interests would be far better served if you controlled the "democracy" than it would be if the masses of Americans did it with their votes and through normal kinds of representative government.

The heavy weights in the East may have been the last "pigs at the trough," but they jumped into "remanufacturing democracy" on their own in no time.

How the House Was Designed To Work

MeanMesa will take advantage of an interesting summation of our current dilemma from SilverBuzzCafe (Read the entire article here. )

Rebalancing The House Of Representatives

I’ve been pondering the problem of gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral boundaries to take advantage of voter demographics. The Republicans have a significant majority (234 to 201) of the seats in the House of Representatives. However, they only won 48% of the popular vote versus the 49.2% that the Democrats won. They managed to retain control of the House because of gerrymandering by the Republican controlled States. 

The situation is now so skewed that the Democrats need 53.5% of the popular vote to gain a majority, whereas the Republicans only need 46.5%. The Republicans have a 7% advantage in a process that is supposed to be democratic. It’s a problem that will be very hard for the Democrats to overcome.

There are some other inequities in the system too. The House of Representatives is supposed to give a proportional share of power to each State based on population. The House controls spending, so States with a large population should tend to contribute more to the Federal government in taxes than small States, so it seems fair enough. There is always the problem that a small State with very high income per capita may be contributing more money than a larger one with low income occupants, but the principle of honoring the wishes of the majority comes into play. That power is balanced by the Senate, which has two Senators per State, preventing small States from being bullied by large ones.

Descending to straight mathematics, we see the United States population -- as it was recorded in the 2010 US Census -- as just under 309,000,000 (309 million) citizens. (Read more: 2010 US Census )  These citizens are represented in the US House by 435 US Representatives.

That all sounds simple enough, but there are just a couple of "special rules" which have been incorporated to make things more fair.  Although the states are divided into Congressional Districts, those districts don't cross state lines in order to create an equal ratio of citizens to Representatives.  There is also a "lower limit" as to the number of Representatives a state will have.  This provides a state such as Alaska -- one with very low population -- the opportunity not to be simply "bumped out" of the House, that is, left with no representation at all or left sharing a Representative with, say, Montana.

The following chart shows the number of citizens represented by a single House Member.  The idea was that this number would be very close as the population of states was compared.  If that were the case, the line across the top of the bars would be basically horizontal.  (You'll probably have to click on the image to find your state along the bottom of the chart.)

(Chart source.)

In practice, the allocation of the number of House seats per State has also gotten out of balance. The chart above shows the number of votes needed to elect a single Representative by State. California and Texas need around 700,000 people to get a Representative, whereas over-represented States like Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming only need around 200,000. Washington, DC is allocated the same number of seats as the lowest scored State. California has about 12% of the population and 12% (53) of the seats in the house, whereas Wyoming has 0.18% and 0.68% (3) respectively. Interestingly, the States that are disproportionately over-represented also tend to be the ones that contribute the least per person in Federal tax Dollars. However, both parties seem to be equally hit by this particular inequity.   (Read the article here.)

Back to Gerrymandering

If you happened to be a Republican Governor in a state with both state houses controlled by Republicans, you had a chance to redistrict, that is, redraw the boundaries of your Congressional Districts, after the US Census in 2010 had been completed.

If there were a way to cleverly perform that redistricting chore which could very carefully group collections of Republican and Democratic voters so that more of the new Congressional Districts had a majority of Republicans and just a sprinkling of Democrats, your state would wind up with more Republican Representatives and fewer Democratic Representatives.

Of course, you would not be outrightly disenfranchising the Democrats in your state, but you would be collecting them together in a special way which would make them a majority in fewer of the new districts you were creating resulting in a slightly larger number of Republican House members. This is exactly the reason why the US House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans when more than a million voters cast Democratic ballots.

This is also what is precisely what is meant by the term: "gerrymandering."

The result would be that your state would send a larger number of Republicans to the House of Representatives even though simply counting the number of ballots cast for each party would suggest the opposite.  However, for such anti-democracy schemes to actually work, the boundaries of the districts which are created for this purpose become grotesque.

The graphic below illustrates some examples of these bizarre Congressional Districts.  Similar district boundaries can be found all across the country in Republican held states.  Let it be added, Democrats are not even close to being "as pure as the driven snow" in this matter, either.

Examples of extreme gerrymandering
The intention is simple enough to understand.  By traipsing along a corridor on both sides of an Interstate or extending weird filaments of districts miles from population centers, the exact, desired "mix" of registered voters can be parcelled out to produce the exact election results desired.

Naturally, when we consider each case of these wildly manipulated district Congressional boundaries all across the country, there is a story of malice and conspiracy behind every one.  The current disaster in Washington is ample evidence of the anti-democracy menace posed by the practice.

The malady has never before reached the degree of the grave threat we are facing today.  One of the two established political parties has forsaken even the possibility of formulating policy which might attract a straight majority in elections and, instead, now commits its entire political effort at exploiting traditional vulnerabilities in the established electoral system.

When we look at each of the two issues brought out [above] in this post we see two serious, fundamental, problems with the system currently in place.  Some Americans have more and less access to the "representative" part of our "representative" democracy based on their state of residence, while others send "representative" delegations to the Congress which are clearly not "representative" and could have not won majorities in Congressional district elections other than arcane, snake-shaped, gerrymandered monstrosities.

The anti-democratic impact of this practice is further aggravated by the brazen voter suppression crimes being routinely conducted by states entirely under the thumb of the GOP -- and, entirely under the thumb of the oligarchs who own that party.  The prospect of the Supreme Court setting aside Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act makes ideas such as the one presented here even more immediately relevant.

None of this is acceptable.  Regardless of the original conspiracies which initially established each of the individual cases of this electoral mayhem, the task of correcting it falls directly to us.  Now.

 Re-Shaping Congressional Districts
 a Part of Election Reform

While MeanMesa visitors who pay attention to the commercial version of national news have recently heard  plenty about the problem of gerrymandering in Republican controlled states, they have also heard very little about what might be done to re-establish the representational fundamentals.  In fact, that same reporting seems to imply that any sort of meaningful correction to the current district boundaries is simply "out of reach" for citizens wishing to bring elections back to some semblance of rationality.

This is not the case.

MeanMesa is certain that we would hear the howls from some Congressmen in "safe" districts if it were even suggested that they might have to face an election where all sorts and varieties of living, breathing people were going to make that decision rather than entire land areas with painfully tailored boundaries inhabited by equally exclusive partisan voters.

Let's get the easy part out of the way first.  We know how many Congressmen we are going to elect.  We also know how many citizens are theoretically to be represented by each one.  We know the population of each state as reported by the census.  Of course, we also know all about the "special rules" which set the minimum number of representatives for low population states.

Presented with this data set, an eighth grader could assign the right number of Congressional districts to all the states in the union.  There would, naturally, be a few unavoidable inequalities in his final product, but it would look nothing like the bar chart up above in this post.  His result would show that almost exactly the same number of citizens was being represented by each Congressman.

Importantly, that is not what the chart above shows.  In fact, what the chart above shows isn't even close to that kind of equal representation.  Some of the most egregious discrepancies are indicating an almost two to one difference.

Of course there have been efforts to curtail the outrages of gerrymandering, but we can see that none of them were even marginally effective.  For the remainder of this post, we can:

1.  look at some of the traditional anti-gerrymandering plans, 

2. briefly analyze why such grotesque schemes were driven by the dated technology of the census, and

3. propose a modern solution which can reinvigorate the principles of democratic representative government.

Now, doesn't that sound like more fun than simply complaining?

Anti-gerrymandering Plans for Voting District Boundaries

The following sample is from WIKI: "Gerrymandering."  It is included here simply as an example of the pre-technology complexity of such schemes.  (Read the entire WIKI article here. Footnotes have been removed, but internal links remain enabled.)

Objective rules to create districts

Another means to reduce gerrymandering is to create objective, precise criteria to which any district map must comply. Courts in the United States, for instance, have ruled that congressional districts must be contiguous in order to be constitutional. This, however, is not a particularly binding constraint, as very narrow strips of land with few or no voters in them may be used to connect separate regions for inclusion in one district.

Minimum district to convex polygon ratio

One method is to define a minimum district to convex polygon ratio. To use this method, every proposed district is circumscribed by the smallest possible convex polygon (similar to the concept of a convex hull, think of stretching a rubberband around the outline of the district). Then, the area of the district is divided by the area of the polygon; or, if at the edge of the state, by the portion of the area of the polygon within state boundaries. The advantages of this method are that it allows a certain amount of human intervention to take place (thus solving the Colorado problem of splitline districting); it allows the borders of the district to follow existing jagged subdivisions, such as neighbourhoods or voting districts (something isoperimetric rules would discourage); and it allows concave coastline districts, such as the Florida gulf coast area. It would mostly eliminate bent districts, but still permit long, straight ones. However, since human intervention is still allowed, the gerrymandering issues of packing and cracking would still occur, just to a lesser extent. Also, it would not allow convex coastline districts, although this could be remedied by a secondary calculation using a "polygon" with a border being a defined distance from the shore

Shortest splitline algorithm

The Center for Range Voting has proposed a way to draw districts by a simple algorithm. The algorithm uses only the shape of the state, the number N of districts wanted, and the population distribution as inputs. The algorithm (slightly simplified) is:
  1. Start with the boundary outline of the state.
  2. Let N=A+B where N is the number of districts to create, and A and B are two whole numbers, either equal (if N is even) or differing by exactly one (if N is odd). For example, if N is 10, each of A and B would be 5. If N is 7, A would be 4 and B would be 3.
  3. Among all possible straight lines that split the state into two parts with the population ratio A:B, choose the shortest. If there are two or more such shortest lines, chose the one that is most north-south in direction; if there is still more than one possibility, chose the westernmost.
  4. We now have two hemi-states, each to contain a specified number (namely A and B) of districts. Handle them recursively via the same splitting procedure.
  5. Any human residence that is split in two or more parts by the resulting lines is considered to be a part of the most north-eastern of the resulting districts; if this doesn't decide it, then of the most northern.
This district-drawing algorithm has the advantages of simplicity, ultra-low cost, a single possible result (thus no possibility of human interference), lack of intentional bias, and it produces simple boundaries that do not meander needlessly. It has the disadvantage of ignoring geographic features such as rivers, cliffs, and highways and cultural features such as tribal boundaries. This landscape oversight causes it to produce districts different from those an unbiased human would produce. Ignoring geographic features can induce very simple boundaries.
While most districts produced by the method will be fairly compact and either roughly rectangular or triangular, some of the resulting districts can still be long and narrow strips (or triangles) of land.
Like most automatic redistricting rules, the shortest splitline algorithm will fail to create majority-minority districts, for both ethnic and political minorities, if the minority populations are not very compact. This might reduce minority representation.

Another criticism of the system is that splitline districts sometimes divide and diffuse the voters in a large metropolitan area. This condition is most likely to occur when one of the first splitlines cuts through the metropolitan area. It is often considered a drawback of the system because residents of the same agglomeration are assumed to be a community of common interest. This is most evident in the splitline allocation of Colorado.

As of July 2007, shortest-splitline redistricting pictures, based on the results of the 2000 census, are available for all 50 states.

Minimum isoperimetric quotient

It is possible to define a specific minimum isoperimetric quotient, proportional to the ratio between the area and the square of the perimeter of any given congressional voting district. Although technologies presently exist to define districts in this manner, there are no rules in place mandating their use, and no national movement to implement such a policy. Such rules would prevent incorporation of jagged natural boundaries, such as rivers or mountains. When such boundaries are required, such as at the edge of a state, certain districts may not be able to meet the required minima. Enforcing a minimum isoperimetric quotient would encourage districts with a high ratio between area and perimeter.

First, we can try to "wrap our minds around" the prospect of doing something like this then explaining the results.  This scheme, regardless of the motives behind it, is practically guaranteed to deliver a product so complex that it will reinforce the very suspicious assumption that the actual working details of the democracy are beyond the grasp of common citizens.

Explaining Several Centuries of Gerrymandering

Next, let's allow our imagination to describe the actual process of traditional redistricting.  We see a basement room filled with long Formica tables where the staff from State legislators are pouring over huge paper maps of their constituent districts.  Greasy hamburger wrappers on the floor are already tempting the mice and cock roaches.

The maps themselves, now falling apart from the continuous "trial boundary lines," are covered with eraser crumbs, a literal cloud around the latest pencil lines setting the district boundaries.  At the end of the table, a road weary political hack is pounding out another few feet of tape from his ten key adding machine.  The cigarette smoke in the place is even thicker than the electoral avarice.  Heavily stained coffee cups have now been set aside, each one filled with cigarette butts and cold Maxwell House.

For the nineteenth time, the lines are once again erased, adjusted, replaced, trimmed, expanded and the process is repeated.  The geometric shape of the proposed districts grows more extreme and arcane with each attempt.

These tattered maps showed "roughly" where voters in specific districts lived, registered and voted.  They also showed the more or less permanent polling place locations.  When the election results from the last few elections were added, the gerrymanderers sitting around that table had everything they needed.

There was also a sense of stoic disassociation floating around with that cigarette smoke.  Every one present knows that a similar crew of "redistricters" was sitting through the same endless task in another basement somewhere.  Those would the the corresponding staff of the opposing party.

When the two contradictory boundary plans had been completed, there would be the inevitable court case for the next step.  An innocent judge -- we hope it will be an innocent judge -- would then laboriously reconcile the district dream boundaries.

Months later, the back breaking judicial task would be completed.  Neither party of the deadlocked State legislature would be pleased with the results, but the party in power would have managed to extract a cluster of tiny advantages from the final plan -- advantages which ultimately delivered one or two quite artificial, "safe" or even "safer," Congressional election districts and the correspondingly larger numbers of partisan House Members.

While this may be a great cartoon, this isn't funny. (image source)
All of this mischief was not only made possible by the state of electoral districting technology of the past, but it was also made inevitable by the savage political ambition of those with access to the decision making.  The rectifying technological possibilities have, of course, advanced significantly, but, unhappily, the ambitions remain just as cravenly intense today as they did then.

This anti-democratic practice was, occasionally, even openly defended by those most involved in the corruptly bewildering, manipulative process.  "We want these residents to be in one district because they have such common interests or common backgrounds."

Just remember that the elections results of the 2012 election handed control of the House of Representatives over to the party that lost the election.

Making The New Districts -- Every Ox Gets Gored

Don't kid yourselves. Unlike those old Formica gerrymandering tables of the past, every modern campaign equips itself with a cold steel data set containing the precise longitude and latitude of the pillow on every voter's bed.  The location of voters is neither a post election surprise nor a pre-election mystery.

Further, developing a "state sized" Cartesian field where every single registered voter can be located by a simple "x and y value" isn't any sort of high tech trick either.

The census has already provided the population data needed.  With that in hand, we can count on every state to jealously calculate the number of Representatives to be elected which is also the number of people living in the soon to be designed district which will elect that Representative.

A hundred years ago, the location of polling places was a consideration.  Voters had to endure a wagon trip taking a day or two just to get to cast a vote.  This is, of course, totally a thing of the past.  In Albuquerque any registered voter can show up at any polling place, have a ballot printed and cast his vote.

Next, we can return to our "not really so funny cartoon."  Those voters wanted a "consolidated" election district.

What does that mean?

For starters we can look at the grotesque examples shown up above, and we can decide that these are not the "consolidated" districts those voters had in mind.  Let's define some rough rules for the definition of "consolidated."

Why not rectangles?

We can begin at one corner of the state and start marking out rectangular shapes of various sizes, each one having just the right number of voters in it.  To avoid a politically "convenient" rectangle shape which happens to be 75 miles long and 800 feet wide, we can establish a minimum "balance" ratio of each rectangle's height to width, that is, each rectangle's North to South dimension compared to the same rectangle's East to West dimension.

Let's say that these dimensions must fall between the ratios of three and five.  This means that we may wind up with a variety of shapes for our boxes, but that  each box will be a rectangle with sides meeting these proportional limits.  This means that each rectangular district we create will be "consolidated."

When a state boundary is irregular because it, for example, follows a river or a coast line, we can employ the old tried and tested surveyor's technique of "double meridian distances."  The only additional "rule" might be to limit the length of the straight chords following the irregular side to, say, one thousand feet or less.  [The shorter the chords are, the more accurate the areas will be.]

But remember, Congressional districting is not about land, it's about people.

All this may sound confoundingly complex, but trust MeanMesa.  A ten year old PC could pull this off in a matter or minutes by raw trial and error.

What Happens

After the initial screaming begins to die off a bit, we find a very different map of political realities in the wake of these simple changes.

A Representative elected in one of the rectangular districts will have to earn his keep by actually representing all the voters -- including the ones who didn't vote for him -- in his election district.  And, horror of horrors, that constituency is going to be a mish mash of every kind of citizen.  The day of the "single agenda" Representative from a perpetually "safe" Congressional District will have ended.

Part of the notable challenge of preforming the responsibilities of being a member of the House of Representatives is to devise a way to actually represent the interests of the people who elected you.  A legitimate Congressional constituency has interests which conflict with each other.  When every effort is made to either exclude voters with such conflicted interests or strand them in synthetic district boundaries without even the most remote chance of constituent representation, democracy is not served -- it is subverted.

MeanMesa thinks that this could improve things immeasurably. Right away.  Some of the "creatures of darkness" prowling around the House of Representatives today would find their "divine right" to be outrageously out of touch had evaporated.

There are serving House members who could not even briefly "hold their own" in a civil conversation with MeanMesa.  Asimov famously said: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

These incompetents have conspired to do violence to our democracy.  The American voting booth is where these outrages end. 

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