Lessons From CGR Redistricting

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerI’ve had “one person, one vote” (OK, “one MAN, one vote”) drummed into my head since the 4th grade. Yet this didn’t apply to many legislative elections until the mid 1960s. Congressional seats, while allocated to states according to population, were distributed within the states many different ways. Only in a series of decisions handed down between 1962 and 1964 did the Supreme Court declare that Congressional and state legislative districts had to contain roughly the same number of residents, basing its decision on the “Equal Protection Clause” of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Morris Udall of Arizona, a Congressman representing the 2nd of Arizona’s three districts, noted at the time that while he represented about a third of Arizona’s residents (thus the right share), the 1st district contained just over half of the state’s residents and the 3rd district only 15%. Udall reported similar discrepancies in other states: The City of Atlanta had a single representative in Congress for its million residents while one of Georgia’s rural districts contained only 270,000 people.

The practical application of the Court’s decision was to force all state legislatures to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts to contain roughly equal numbers of residents, a political dance that now occurs after the decennial census reshuffles the 435 members of the House of Representatives among the states. The Supreme Court’s decisions applied to both Congressional and state legislative districts.

CGR, in partnership with the League of Women Voters, recently explored the process of reapportioning residents among the 29 districts of the Monroe County Legislature. We created two viable redistricting maps without paying any attention to party enrollment. As the Democratic Party has an enrollment advantage in Monroe County (39% of registered voters v. 31% for the Republicans), we expected that our new districts would hand it an electoral advantage. To our surprise, both of our “blind” district configurations yielded the same balance of districts (i.e. districts with a majority of enrolled voters in the party or like-minded third parties) as exists in the sitting legislature. See our website at www.cgr.org to see one of our maps and download our report.

We explored a number of questions: What makes a “good” map? While it is easy to argue against a blatantly political map, we found it more difficult to describe the “perfect” outcome. Capturing “communities of interest” makes sense. But is a “community” defined by geography, (like a neighborhood), or by demography (race or ethnicity)? They aren’t always the same. Districts should be “compact,” right? Yet a nicely symmetric district may capture a “community of interest” less well than a weird squiggle.

Should the process be “blind” to party enrollment? Some urge the creation as many “competitive” districts as possible, i.e. districts with nearly equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans, and that this would promote debate about society’s challenges. In Monroe County, this approach would slice the City of Rochester like a pie, diluting Democratic-heavy City neighborhoods with suburban Republicans. As many of those City neighborhoods are disproportionately minority, such an attempt might run afoul of the Voting Rights Act, however, as they might dilute minority influence.

Do “winner take all” elections make sense? The Independence Party has about 18,000 enrollees in Monroe County. Legislative districts 8 and 9 are relative “hotbeds” of Independence support with 889 and 883 enrollees, respectively. It’s tough to win an election if you start with only fewer than 900 enrolled members. In “winner take all” elections, minor parties have almost no ability to elect candidates, which explains why the Democrats and Republicans continue to dominate our elected bodies. In a system of proportional representation, however, seats are allocated by share of the vote total. Thus if Monroe County’s Independence Party delivered votes equal to its share of enrollment, it would be allocated 4-5% of the seats, thus 1 or 2 of the 29.

“Winner take all” also explains why the Monroe County Democrats rarely control the Legislature, despite having 35,000 more enrollees than the Republicans. With Dems concentrated in the City of Rochester, they crush any Republicans who dare to run there. Republicans’ advantage in districts that lean in their direction is more modest, but there are more Republican-leaning districts. Despite the claims of the county’s Democrats, Republican gerrymandering in 2001 does not seem to be responsible for their majorities.

A system of proportional representation would likely assign 14-15 seats to the Democrats, 11-12 seats to the Republicans, 1 to 2 seats to the Independence Party and possibly 1 seat to the Conservatives, assuming that votes roughly tracked enrollment. Proportional representation would make a big difference to the Democrats but would also confer power on the minor parties, making it possible for these parties to form winning coalitions with interest groups drawn from the major party ranks. Over time, the “minor” parties would gain supporters as voters observed that they had a role to play in the legislative process.

How should redistricting treat incumbents? Some suggest that we should redraw the district lines expressly to weaken the power of incumbency, although that argument carries more weight in a community without term limits (which Monroe County has). Our redistricting “experiment” was blind to the residences of incumbents. Both of our maps pitted incumbents against one another in several districts, something that the final map presented to the Monroe County Legislature consciously avoided. Thus while the new district configuration doesn’t seem to have aggressively disadvantaged the minority Democrats, it certainly favors the “Incumbency Party.”

Is an independent process possible? We still support independent redistricting, even if we failed to find evidence of flagrant partisanship in the current legislative districts. A truly independent process is hard to achieve, however. Many who might be interested and qualified are already politically active, thus aligned with one party or another. California’s complex selection process still has partisan elements, although it is the more promising approach on offer. It seems that taking the politics out of politics is easier said than done!

ORIGINALLY published in Rochester Business Journal 5/20/11