Local knowledge (part 2, gerrymandering)

Saw a great documentary tonight, Gerrymandering, at a screening sponsored by Campaigns & Elections magazine, about which I’ve written before. Every ten years, following the Census, Congress redraws Congressional districts. At a state level, state legislatures also redraw state and local districts. The process is a nightmare, regulated by different rules in different states. As the film points out, this is pure politics – no voters, no policy, just protecting your power and territory and looking to maximize it at the expense of other guys.

Given how much we’re all now fluent with maps and cartography (one of the best parts of Catfish was the use of Google Maps to show the distance – and connections – between the two sets of protagonists), this seems like an issue primed for greater attention. The nonprofit Common Cause is featured in the film, leading the charge for a ballot initiative to put redistricting in the hands of an independent citizens commission in California. A representative of the New York chapter spoke after the screening tonight, and pointed out that there are even computer simulations of redistricting available online, and that for a generation weaned on Sim City, this kind of cartographic manipulation could feel intuitive.

One line that struck me during the Q&A was that there is no silver bullet in terms of an optimal solution for redistricting, and that the goal is to find a local system that works for that community. Iowa is held up as an example of relatively successful redistricting, but the point is made that it’s culturally homogeneous (and square, which seems to matter for some reason), which makes it particularly easy to redistrict more fairly. Not sure I get that, but the intriguing point is that local knowledge should really guide the redistricting process. There are three kinds of gerrymandering: racial, partisan, and pro-incumbent. In different communities, the temptation for each of those will be different.

So given what I’ve written about the promotion of local knowledge being a potentially bipartisan issue, where does redistricting/gerrymandering fit in? Seems like a case where some federal intervention makes sense, to ensure that local traditions don’t unfairly exclude certain populations (probably racial/ethnic). Partisan bickering seems par for the course, that’s maybe less demanding of federal intervention. Pro-incumbent gerrymandering is an interesting case, because it can cut both ways. In game theory, that’s an interesting dynamic, when the party in power has to think about the day when they’re no longer in power, and balance the tradeoffs of setting up institutions (like district lines) in a way that screws over the other guy, keeping in mind that one day they’ll be out of power and have to feel the brunt of those same institutions from the other side. I may need to think about the strategic dynamics of gerrymandering, and look at what the game-theory literature has to say about that….

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