Nonpartisan Congressional Redistricting

Steve Bainbridge proposes a solution to attempts by the Hard Right and Hard Left to organize against centrist candidates: “A national system of nonpartisan redistricting designed to maximize the number of truly competitive seats.”

This concept is of dubious constitutionality but it’s not inconceivable that Congress could craft a way to make it pass Supreme Court muster. Article I, Section 4 provides that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” but this is mitigated substantially by “but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.” And goodness knows SCOTUS has stripped a lot of discretion from the state legislators over apportionment in recent decades.

Presuming such a system is legal, is it a good idea? I’m not so sure. While the tendency of “safe” seats to lead to the election of ideologues and the re-election of incompetent well-past-their prime Members is undeniable, highly competitive seats would not be without their disadvantages. For one thing, it would make pork barrel spending even more attractive as a means of getting re-elected, since partisanship would no longer be a safe fallback in the general elections.

More importantly, though, maximizing “competitiveness” may well come at the cost of “representativeness.” While computer-aided cherrypicking is highly questionable, the various guidelines set forth by SCOTUS at least incentivize drawing districts that reflect local boundaries. Communities are often quite naturally conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican. I’d hate to see homogenized districts take that flavor away from the House. Indeed, representing localized interests is the whole reason to have districts in the first place; otherwise, we should just elect Representatives on an at-large basis in each state.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. It seems naive to imagine a nonpartisan committee could be selected or sustained for any length of time when power in Washington is at stake.

  2. William d'Inger says:

    Somebody’s inhaling premium crack if they believe that would ever fly. Politics IS partisanship by definition. “Nonpartisan” is one of those fantasy words like “fair” and “equal” that one uses to fool children who still believe in Santa. I can’t imagine why you devoted space to such a boneheaded idea (unless your purpose was to show lunacy in action).

  3. Bandit says:

    You could map redistricting based on population and travel in about a week with off the shelf optimizization software. Funny they haven’t tried that yet.

  4. I think you go about this “slowly”. You first set an objective standard as the default. For example, start with the most eastern part of a state, then go to the northern corner of the county (or parish in Louisiana). Then starting adding counties until you have 1/x people in the state in the district (where X is the number of representatives the state gets). The added counties would be those contiguous to the initial county spiraling outward. If you need to add parts of a county to com out even (e.g. in heavily urban areas), do the same thing with the country (start in North east corner) and increment in 1 square mile increments.

    The resulting districts will be relatively geometrically compact, but are not likely to correspond to any established media or population groupings.

    Now make this the default redistricting plan. If the state legislature can’t reach consensus or the plan they adopt is found to be unconstitutional, this becomes the default plan the state falls back on.

    An arbitrary plan that only looks at geography is likely to be the only true “non-partisan” plan possible.

  5. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with fairly simple algorithm for elimanting gerrymandering by insisting an minimizing the ratio of the border of a voting district to the area of a voting dictrict, but it just has no chance of actually being enacted.

  6. William d'Inger says:

    It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with fairly simple algorithm for elimanting gerrymandering by insisting an minimizing the ratio of the border of a voting district to the area of a voting dictrict, but it just has no chance of actually being enacted.

    The problem with the algorithm approach is that it would violate the Voting Rights Act in the Southern states. Under the act, redistricting must not dilute minority voting power. Those states are so heavily gerrymandered to create black majority voting districts that any rational redistricting would be a violation of the law.