May 06 2021

Gerrymandering – Politics vs Logic

People are extremely social animals, and being social means that you need to learn the rules that govern social interaction and society. This applies to social animal species as well. Corvids, for example, can remember the faces of animals that harm or threaten them and will punish them later. They will also punish their own members for not following the rule – fail to warn us when a predator is coming and we won’t warn or protect you next time. Young children also are quickly socialized, and learn that there are rules of fairness. Fairness also means that you cannot change the rules on the fly in order to favor your own interests over others. Children will try, for example, to make up new rules to a game in the middle in order to accommodate what has already happened. Other children are likely to immediately see this as unfair and loudly protest.

We continue to engage in this behavior as adults. We’re just more adept at hiding it, or trying to justify it with some rationalization. One of the more blatant examples of this is gerrymandering. I have never heard anyone actually try to defend the practice. At best you get the lame excuse of – well, the other side will do it when they get a chance, so we have to do it to level the playing field. Or, more brazenly, they will just do it because they have the power to do so and think that this is justification enough.

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing congressional districts in order to favor your party. It has been accurately described as politicians choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. It is one of the most obvious flaws in our current democratic system (referring to the US). It’s difficult to get rid of, however, because it can benefit both sides. The politicians in power benefit from gerrymandering, so it is self-sustaining. Gerrymandering is used in a couple of ways. One is to create safe seats, where one party has a lock and the other party has no chance. Safe seats favor extremism because candidates never have to appeal to the middle. Gerrymandering can also be used to favor a party by giving them more congressional seats than their share of the voters.

Let’s say, to use an extreme example for the purpose of illustration, a state as 60% party X and 40% party Y.  What would a fair drawing of congressional seats look like? There is some reasonable discussion to be had about the details, but in general it would seem fair that 60% of congressional districts would favor party X and 40% party Y, and on average the number of representatives would hover around that distribution. But you could arrange it so that every district had 60% of voters in party X, so that they hold 80-100% of the seats. Even the 40% party could use gerrymandering to give themselves 60% or so of the seats, essentially creating minority rule in the state.

It should be obvious to anyone that this is not fair, and not good for democracy. One of the basic rules of fairness, essential to a stable democracy, is that the rules treat everyone the same. One way to achieve this is that the people making the rules are agnostic toward how those rules relate to them or their side, or that they have no skin in the game. The last people who should be making the rules are the ones most affected by them, but that is the system we currently have. Elected officials determine who elects them, and political parties determine if the rules favor their party.

Currently, this is what we have:

Congressional redistricting: In 33 states, state legislatures play the dominant role in congressional redistricting. In eight states, commissions draw congressional district lines. In two states, hybrid systems are used, in which the legislatures share redistricting authority with commissions. The remaining states comprise one congressional district each, rendering redistricting unnecessary.
State legislative redistricting: In 33 states, state legislatures play the dominant role in state legislative redistricting. Commissions draw state legislative district lines in 14 states. In three states, hybrid systems are used.

What’s frustrating is that this is obviously wrong, everyone knows it, but the temptation to cheat is simply too great, and the system is rigged against the system fixing itself.

If we ever wanted to fix this one aspect of our democracy, we increasingly have the tools to do so. Perhaps the most neutral and objective entity to draw district lines is a computer – an AI or algorithm. They may not make the final decision, but at least they can inform the process. In fact there is an open source tool that can analyze district lines and determine their fairness. It seems obvious that independent and politically balanced commissions using mathematical tools following agreed upon rules of fairness should be drawing districts, not the politicians whose careers benefit from cheating.

I don’t think anything short of massive public outrage is going to make it happen. But that is lacking too, because many voters are all too happy to have their “side” benefit from gerrymandering. It’s like a bad-call in football that favors your team. You’re probably OK with it, more so than if the same exact bad call went against your team. Yet again we fall victim to the tribal nature of humanity.

The solution to our tribalism foibles is to think in terms of a bigger tribe. In fact, we exist in nestled tribes – our family, our community, our nation, and our species. What it will take is for a majority of Americans to start acting in defense of the American tribe, rather than their political tribe. We need to favor democracy, because without a stable and functioning democracy, we all lose, even if our political side temporarily wins. For now too many of us are acting like 5 year-olds (with an apology to 5 year-olds everywhere) on the playground. We need an adult to come in and patiently explain why rules have to be fair. Democracy requires that, at least to a minimal degree, we can act like adults once in a while.

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