Thursday, January 13, 2011

Redistricting: What makes a fair map

I've been meaning to write this post for awhile and finally got the imputes from a Twitter discussion with Harry Niska yesterday. This is how it started:

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For those who don't know @amysd19 is Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch who was speaking at the Elephant Club luncheon. While Senator Koch is probably right, I took issue with her use of the word fair in regards to redistricting.

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What I was rather obliquely referring to is the structural "unfairness" of the current map, and likely the next map as well, in that Democrats are packed into the metro districts and Republicans are spread out in the suburban ones.

This creates a situation where the strongest GOP districts are much less partisan than the strongest DFL districts. You can see this just by looking at the hPVI's of the house districts (the same thing applies to the senate districts).

The GOP has a partisan advantage in the majority of the districts, 79-55, but if you simply add all the hPVI's together you get a DFL advantage of 241, divided by 134 districts for an average DFL edge of 1.8.

So the GOP has the partisan edge in 24 more districts than the Democrats, even though the Democrats have the overall partisan advantage. In a way, this can be seen as unfair.

Now obviously this problem isn't the result of some crazy partisan gerrymander imposed by the GOP, it's the result of the simple fact that DFL voters are packed into the Twin Cities and it would take a gerrymander to unpack them.

So with that in mind, is the current map, full of nice, neat, square-like districts, really fair?

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I'm not advocating that position, just posing the dilemma of drawing a "fair" map.

Almost any time you hear a discussion of redistricting the topic of gerrymandering comes up and how terrible it is. The solution to this problem that is generally agreed upon is that to prevent the possibility of gerrymandering districts should be compact and contiguous.

Harry is of this same viewpoint:

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I understand the desire for compactness and especially for contiguousness on an aesthetic level, but in reality there is nothing inherently more fair about a square district than an amorphous blob district. A square district may look fair, but that doesn't mean it is.

Take Texas for instance. In 2003, as many are aware, they undertook a mid-decade redistricting that resulted in a slew of lawsuits. The case eventually made it to the supreme court, with the court upholding most of the new map, the only district they objected to was the 23rd which they found to be in violation of the voting rights act.

This is what the Texas 23rd looked like:

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The Texas 23rd was compact and contiguous and yet it was found to be in violation of the law because, according to the Supreme Court, it diluted the Hispanic vote.

Let's take a look at another district, South Carolina's 6th:

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Most people, seeing this district, would immediately think it was a partisan gerrymander, but in fact it is a gerrymander to create a majority-minority district. This was not done in response to a legal challenge on Voting Rights Act grounds, but rather to prevent one, as the Courts would no doubt force South Carolina to create a VRA district if they hadn't done so on their own.

The Voting Rights Act itself is not without controversy, as some would argue that it's unfair to be required by law to gerrymander districts in such a way. On the other side of that argument are the minorities of the district who would no doubt argue that without the VRA they would be unfairly spread across many districts, thereby diluting their voting strength.

This just serves to prove my overall point, that there is no such thing as a fair redistricting map, there will always be lines drawn in places that some people will view as unfair.

To this point Harry responded:

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He's right of course, my point is a post-modern one and I'm sure most people will disagree with me about the value of compact and contiguous districts or lack thereof.

In a way this discussion reminds me of Baseball discussions I've had in the past. Most casual observers of Baseball think that batting average and RBI's are key stats to look at when evaluating players. This is because almost any time you watch or listen to a game those are the stats the announcers talk about, along with Home Runs.

So to say to someone that batting average and RBI's aren't really what you should look at but instead on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better indicators of a players true value, they are justifiably skeptical.

But that's the reality. Batting average is an incomplete stat that doesn't take into account some key outcomes, in this way, on-base percentage is a more robust stat.

Just as the reality of redistricting is that compactness doesn't necessarily equal fairness, only the appearance of fairness.


  1. Good discussion. While compactness is indeed a legitimate redistricting criteria, I believe assembling communities of interest should receive a higher order when drawing new lines. And while Minnesota is not a VRA state, efforts will be made to create majority-minority legislative districts.

  2. A bit of clarification; Minnesota, like all states, is subject to the Voting Rights Act.

    However, Minnesota is not subject to section 5 of the VRA, the preclearance provision.

    Here is a map of jurisdictions covered by section 5: