lies, damn lies, and statistics

Let’s talk about gerrymandering.  It’s bullshit, and I’m going to explain exactly why.  The topic sort of requires visual aids which is why it’s a post and not a podcast.

Let’s invent a state and call it Fredonia.  Let’s say that Fredonia has six million residents, which allots it ten congressional districts and ten electoral votes.  Let’s also say that of its registered voters, roughly 40% are registered as Democrats, 40% are registered as Republicans, and 20% are registered as Independent or ‘no party stated’.  Let’s also assume that it follows the same rough demographics as other states, and have the registered Democrats be more concentrated around cities, and less concentrated in rural areas; with the inverse true of registered Republicans, because this is the general trend in the population of America.  Independents are all over with no particular concentration points.  (I might use this construct again, so if in future posts I refer to Fredonia, I’ll link back here and we’ll all agree it means ‘average state with a fairly even distribution of political sensibilities’.)

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the state legislature would follow the 40/40/20 spread or something fairly close to it, or even that it would be fairly evenly divided between the two major political parties with the odd independent; and that their representation in Congress would be similar.


Absent the idea of gerrymandering, congressional districts are divided up by population, with each district getting as close to an equal portion of the population as can be managed with a target of ‘as close to six hundred thousand people as possible’.  Other than that, the lines are supposed to be drawn to be roughly in line with borders of cities, towns, counties, etc.  This makes it simpler for someone to tell who their representative is – ‘I live in Hooterville, so I’m in the 3rd district’ vs. ‘Lemme just plug my zip code and four digit extension into this here calculator’.

Gerrymandering is the practice of jiggering congressional district borders around to produce an intended result – either by drawing the lines to include as many members of their desired political party as possible, thus increasing the chances that the district will vote that way; or excluding their opponent’s party.  It also refers to splitting a concentration of a rival political party among as many districts as possible, to dilute their effect and deny them a bloc.  Advanced Gerrymandering flips the script a little – it recognizes that Overshoe Heights is hopelessly lost to their opponent, so it draws the district around Overshoe Heights to pack as many members of its rival party into it as possible, thus keeping those voters out of other districts.  Master-class Gerrymandering is a reactive process vs. the proactive processes of basic and advanced gerrymandering: it involves either merging two districts together and making up the difference by creating a new one elsewhere, thus forcing two incumbents to compete; or flipping a district from predominantly one party to another to dispose of an annoying incumbent.

But wait, you say, no matter how you draw the lines, there’s still going to be a few Republicans in your gerrymandered Democrat district or vice versa.  And you’re right, but remember, the goal of gerrymandering isn’t to manipulate individual voters, but rather, districts.  Furthermore, people tend to succumb to the ‘wasted vote effect’, which means that although Dogville might have 20% of its voters registered as Democrat, they’re likely to look at the fact that 75% of its voters are registered Republican and figure ‘why bother’ and stay home on election day.

My good friend Professor Wik E. Pedia has seen fit to provide me with some examples:

12th district of North Carolina – this one’s packed with as many Democrats as possible to get them out of neighboring districts, favoring the Republican party.

38th district of California – this one’s jiggered around to favor the Democrats.

(4th district of Illinois.  You can just barely see the thin line on the left there that connects the two halves.  Districts are required to be contiguous, but there’s nothing saying you can’t have a connecting bit that’s exactly as wide as Interstate 294.  This was redistricted in 2013 to make the connecting bit a little bit wider, but it’s still positively ridiculous.)

Okay, so if gerrymandering is so obviously bullshit, why is it allowed?  Several reasons – first, it’s a game of inches.  It’s not as if someone with evil in their heart starts with a completely even map of districts that would be a simple grid laid over the state modulo some wobbles for population density, and jumps straight to the horrible runes illustrated above, they’ll nudge a line a little here, a little there, until half a dozen revisions later they get what they want.  Second, both parties do it.  Seriously, although the bulk of cases of obvious gerrymandering favor the Republican party, the Democrats aren’t innocent either.  Why would either party outlaw a practice they have used to great effect?  Third, it’s been a Thing since there’s been a United States.  Seriously, Patrick Henry and his bros gerrymandered Virginia’s 5th to try and keep James Madison out of Congress. (It didn’t work.)  And finally, gerrymandering is a bit like pornography – hard to really define when you get right down to it, but you know it when you see it, to borrow a turn of phrase from Justice Stewart.  There’s a difference between pointing at that horrible nightmare going on in Illinois, and being able to actually codify the difference in legal language.

Okay, so if gerrymandering is obviously bullshit, and we’re not getting rid of it anytime soon, what now?

The short answer is to change the way we vote.  For Presidential elections, and for congressional representation in all but one state (Maine), we use a system called ‘first past the post’.  Everyone gets one vote, they vote for one candidate and one candidate only, and the candidate that gets the most votes wins.  Simple, but lends itself well to manipulation via gerrymandering and some other tactics.

Maine recently switched to a system called Ranked-Choice Voting – each person still gets one vote, but instead of picking one candidate, they list them in order of preference.  When it comes time to tally the votes, first the counters look at everyone’s first choice and tally those.  If one candidate takes more than 50% of the total votes, wham done.  If not, then the candidate who got the fewest votes is eliminated, and the ballots who had that candidate listed as their first choice are counted for whatever that ballot had listed as its second choice – so on and so forth until one candidate beats 50%, and then they’re declared the winner.  This system is still slightly vulnerable to gerrymandering in that by packing, you can still produce a district that’s all but guaranteed to vote a certain way, but fogs it up a little by removing the disincentive to vote for less popular candidates.  In first-past-the-post, a vote for a candidate that isn’t the nominee of either of the two major political parties is not only almost guaranteed not to win, but also means that vote ISN’T counted for either of the two political parties – ask your buddy who wrote in Bernie on the ballot how much grief they took from Hillary supporters to explain how that goes down.

Most of Europe uses a system called Proportional Representation, in which each party on the ballot nominates not a single candidate, but a list, and voters vote for which party they want.  A party which wins 40% of the vote wins 40% of the seats, which they fill from their list from the top down.  A variant called ‘open’ allows voters to also vote for individual candidates on the list, thus choosing which candidates on the list fill the seats the party wins.  This actually eliminates the need for congressional districts entirely – instead of each district choosing a representative, the states chooses all its representatives at once, and the proportion of each party’s candidates in the pool of that state’s representatives reflects the proportion of that party’s supporters within the state.

The downside is that voting gets a little more complicated with Ranked-choice voting or with Proportional Representation than with our simple first-past-the-post method, but it’s significantly more fair, breaks the duopoly the Democrats and Republicans have, reduces the impact of gerrymandering and other forms of manipulation, and (especially with Proportional Representation) more accurately reflects the will of the people.  In exchange for that, I think we can handle ‘rank these candidates in order of your preference’ or ‘what party do you want, optionally, which people on that party’s list do you want’.  It’s an idea whose time has long since come, and the only parties that stand to really lose out are the established political parties who, let’s be real, haven’t accurately represented the will of most people for a very long time.

Give it a think and maybe start some conversations about it.  Be excellent to each other, I love you all.