Algorithmic Redistricting

Thanks to Shane Goldmacher of Capitol Alert for the link:

Redistricting is an inherently political process, as the adage goes.

So Brian Olson, a computer programmer whose Web site says he works for Google, designed a computer program to automatically draw district boundaries based on the principle that allows people to “have the lowest average distance to the center of their district.”

There are obviously problems with this methodology, starting with the fact that it wouldn’t pass in court because it does not take into account requirements in the Voting Rights Act.

Shane goes on to quote Dan Mitchell’s comments on Olson’s ideas. I’m sure Dan will have more tomorrow, but until then see our old post on the subject of such proposals. There is potentially room for the use of algorithms and the sort of thing Olson is trying to accomplish, but such proposals need to be set within the complex political realities that govern redistricting.

In that post, we mentioned that a recent letter-to-the-editor in The Appeal-Democrat suggested we just draw lines according to latitude across the state. Of course, these districts would lead to inevitably unconstitutional districts. It reminded me of Barry Keene’s idea:

…we were going to create redistricting by computer, and use something called a random number generator to resolve differences. So after all of the criteria had been applied, the criteria of equal numbers of districts, the criteria of minority representation-there’s some federal criteria on that-after all of the attempts to consolidate areas of interest and not cross too many jurisdictional boundaries, you would still be faced with the capacity to create an infinite number of districts. . .So how do you resolve that? You do it with a random number generator. Well, nobody understood this business. I shouldn’t say nobody. Most legislators said, “Well, we can’t turn redistricting over to a computer, its not politically good for us, and we don’t understand what it is that you’re proposing.”

The letter-to-the-editor and the full interview with Keene after the jump:

There has been considerable discussion regarding the redrawing of the political districts of California. It has been suggested to use a group of judges or a citizens redistricting commission to take the politics out of drawing the district boundaries. Here is a suggestion that would do just exactly that.

California districts could be determined by dividing the state, by population, from west to east by using latitude or parallel lines. These districts would be truly nonpartisan as they would include people from the coastal regions to mountainous regions. An example would be San Francisco to Tahoe in one district. This would eliminate the need for a group of judges or the Legislature to try and juggle lines around to suit any one group. All it would take is a group of analysts every 10 years to determine where the population fell along these latitude lines, and politics would not even come into the decision.

This idea is probably too simple and couldn’t be manipulated to suit any one party, but it would be an equitable way to determine these districts. An assemblyman or senator would really have to work to get the support of his entire district.

Roland D. Zook
Yuba City

A discussion on a gun rights site, for instance, recently mentioned comments made on pages 169-174 of this interview with Barry Keene detailing some of his efforts to reform redistricting:

HICKE: So there were four years there when you were not too involved with policy?

KEENE: No. Mills gave me the chairmanship of the Elections and Reapportionment Committee, which is a peculiar committee that doesn’t do anything except every ten years. [Laughter] It s like Halle’s Comet, every ten years. Over a time it becomes important.

HICKE: Ah, yes, there comes the Elections Committee again. [Laughter]

KEENE: Yes, it’s redistricting time, so you get to do redistricting.

Well, the politics of redistricting was fascinating, and it was coming up, but it was not really my cup of tea. Having power over the survival of lots of legislators by drawing districts is a source of great power, but it s also not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be back in substantial policy, and the Elections and Reapportionment Committee, the E and R committee, was not the place for it.

Now, I did have one stroke of interesting luck, and that was that I went back to Washington to discuss redistricting with [Philip] Phil Burton, who was the congressman from San Francisco, and the genius behind the Democrats redistricting. It was a learning experience, working with him on these issues, his thought processes, his maneuvering and all the rest. He was truly the consummate politician. He missed becoming speaker of the House of Representatives by one vote.

HICKE: Did you propose redistricting by computer, or was that just something that happened?

KEENE: Yes, I did. I ve always felt that redistricting more than anything else poisoned the well in the legislature, particularly the assembly, where Republicans felt that they would never be permitted to become a majority, and decided that they would throw bombs within the institution and bring the institution to a halt. They were probably correct in their judgment on the first part, that under redistricting by Democrats they would never be permitted to become a majority.

Even with a Republican governor it was a standoff. And it would go to the courts, or to special masters, and they would have to take their chances. But the previous redistricting put them so far from a majority that the likelihood of their being successful at pulling off a majority in a post-reapportionment election year, even when it was done by the courts, was very minimal.

So they became very bitter. That caused a lot of the partisanship and breakdown and gridlock, particularly in the assembly. Now, because assembly districts are smaller, the amount of maneuvering is much greater in the assembly. It s like having a jar of eighty marbles rather than a jar of forty marbles; the combinations are many more, and so you can manipulate district lines a great deal more in the assembly than you can in the senate.

But my policy reason for opposing incumbent redistricting, and you can imagine this is not very popular, was not so much that it would give . . .

[End Tape 10, Side B]
[Begin Tape 11, Side A]

KEENE: … a fair shake to Republicans as it was to avoid the political concrete that was being created.

Here s the situation: in order for a legislature to act, you have to have a sufficient middle. You have to have something that approaches a bell-shaped curve, with a large middle and the reduction of the extremes. Several rounds of redistricting had created exactly the opposite, where you had a growing number of people at the extremes and fewer and fewer in the center.

Now, why did that happen? Every time you create a safe Democratic district, you create a safer Republican district, because what it means is you take Republicans out and you pour them into Republican districts. That satisfies the Republicans who are in office, because they personally are in more secure districts. So you increase the percentage of Republicans in Republican districts, the percentage of Democrats in Democratic districts, you make incumbents less defeatable, and it tends to place people at the extremes. People in intensely Republican districts tend to be extremely Republican people, and intensely Democratic districts the same. So you re bringing in these people who can get reelected and be as stubborn as they want
to be. The more partisan they are, the better their chances of getting reelected, because the districts have been set up to be more partisan.

And so they begin not talking to each other, not having to move toward the middle, not having to justify their reelection by solving problems, because they re going to get reelected anyway, because the districts have been set up to do that. One of the other results is that people feel that their votes don t make a difference, and indeed their votes don t make a difference, because they can’t knock the incumbent out. They can protest and complain, but the incumbent doesn’t have to listen because the districts have been set up to reelect them, and that causes people to drop out of politics, out of more active participation in government. They don’t run for office and they don’t vote.

So reapportionment sets up another incumbent advantage, in addition to fund-raising capacity, and being a person whose name is known. It sets up another incumbent advantage in that it drives people away from the public arena. It gives people the feeling that they don’t count.

People didn’t like commissions, because they always figure that no matter how much you try to balance commissions, there’s always going to be that odd vote that s going to be the deciding factor, and all the pressure will be on that person. If you get six Republicans and six Democrats and six this and six that, you’ve got to break the tie, and that tie-breaker is going to have a lot of power and not be subject to political accountability or political constraints. So
commissions are poorly thought of.

So I said, “What else can we do?” And maybe borrowing on my-why I borrowed on it, I’ll never know-on my coin-tossing experience as a way of producing staff reduction, [laughter] we were going to create redistricting by computer, and use something called a random number generator to resolve differences. So after all of the criteria had been applied, the criteria of equal numbers of districts, the criteria of minority representation-there’s some federal criteria on that-after all of the attempts to consolidate areas of interest and not cross too many jurisdictional boundaries, you would still be faced with the capacity to create an infinite number of districts. It would just be a smaller infinity than you had before.

So how do you resolve that? You do it with a random number generator. Well, nobody understood this business. I shouldn’t say nobody. Most legislators said, “Well, we can’t turn redistricting over to a computer, its not politically good for us, and we don’t understand what it is that you’re proposing.” John Garamendi, I believe, in one of his moments of appealing to the television spotlight, got up and said, “You know the old saying, Barry: it’s garbage in, garbage out.”

Well, it died a fairly uneventful death.

HICKE: It did?

KEENE: With only a few people interested in it as a possibility. So then I went back to a commission mode and said, “Look, we can’t create a perfect commission, but we can do the best we can. What we need to do is have a commission to which we present the additional criterion that the districts have to be as competitive as possible. So they have to create as many competitive districts as possible.” You can imagine how popular that was politically. [Laughter]

HICKE: Yes, because anything you did to go against the system that was, was against the incumbents.

KEENE: Yes. And even the minority incumbents would rather retain their seats without the possibility of ever gaining majority, than running the risk of losing their seats with the possibility of their party gaining the majority. The survival instinct is powerful. The survival instinct is stronger than the partisan instinct.

HICKE: I guess that proves it. Is that the Keene theory of government?

KEENE: Yes. So that battle was lost. Later on, I proposed that that be adopted as a reform by the people in a constitutional convention, and the political trade-off that might make it appealing to Democrats, which I thought was a fairly logical trade-off, was that the Republicans would give up the two-thirds vote. The reason I thought there was a logical link, as well as a political link, was that if you have a prospect of becoming a majority, you don t need to retain minority power given by the two-thirds vote, that the obstructionist possibilities that the two-thirds vote allows, where one-third plus one can prevent anything from happening, is something that you give up because you have the opportunity of actually becoming a majority. So I thought there was a logical connection there, and I thought politically it might be an appealing connection, where the Democrats trade off their reapportionment advantage to the Republicans, who trade off their two-thirds vote power.

But it never came to be. I pushed those as two aspects of consideration for a constitutional convention, reforming government.