Nothing's Wrong With Ugly Political Districts

No, you shouldn't care if yours is bounded by straight lines or a bunch of squiggles.

This one is kind of cute.

Image: United States Department of the Interior

There's no consensus answer to the question of the best way to draw congressional districts and what to do about gerrymandering. But the discussion -- and in many places, the actual process of drawing the lines -- is much worse than it should be because of the fetish for regular shapes.

See for example David Wasserman, whose team at FiveThirtyEight put together a wonderful redistricting project:

If I had a magic wand, I’d develop an algorithm that: a) draws the shortest possible line(s) necessary to split a state into equally populous districts and b) requires that only as many pre-existing jurisdictions be split as necessary to achieve equally populous districts. The result might look something like our earlier map that used county borders to promote compactness.

This is probably the most popular answer among good-government advocates. It's also a deeply weird preference. 

The basic condition about drawing maps for single-member districts is that there are several competing values to potentially consider. Among them are:

  • Equal population: A condition the courts have ruled is required by the constitution.
  • Partisan composition: Several possible goals here, whether it's to maximize one party's seats, or to attempt to match the seat ratio to voter partisanship.
  • Maximizing competition: Having as many closely contested seats as possible.
  • Protecting incumbents: Not a popular value with reformers, but legislators tend to like it.
  • Respecting political lines: Wasserman's team includes maps which respect county lines, but there are also cities and many other political borders.
  • Respecting communities of interest: Political jurisdictions have reason to share representatives, but shared interests often do not respect city or county lines.
  • Majority-minority districts: The Voting Rights Act has required these, but not without controversy from all groups including those protected.
  • Compactness: How regular the geographical shape of the districts might be. 

Everyone seems to agree about equal population. 1 Most reformers argue in favor of party proportionality, and against partisan gerrymandering. They also tend to favor competitive districts. 2

But the truth is a lot of reformers really, really, like regularly-shaped districts. Anti-gerrymandering pieces tend to focus on mocking the odd shapes of districts, as if that alone was sufficient to prove them evil.

What's usually lacking is any justification for this position. What exactly is wrong with ugly districts? Why should I, as a voter, care whether my congressional district is bounded by straight lines or a bunch of squiggles? Whether I'm as physically close to everyone else in my district as possible or not? 

I fully understand why I might want an agricultural district if I were a farmer, or a coastal district if I lived on the beach, or a district that fit my ethnicity or some other important political identifier. If my district was split between two cities, a representative may not push for my city as unambiguously as it deserves. But the shape? 

The real problem isn't that reformers love compact districts for the compactness. It's that they want to avoid politics when drawing district lines. They want some neutral criteria that can solve the problem. As Wasserman says: "What if we could move to a system that didn’t consider race or partisanship at all -- one that had no pre-assigned winners and losers, costly litigation or drag-out fights in state capitals?" 

Perhaps that's a worthwhile goal in the abstract, but it's flat-out impossible to reach, and certainly not by prioritizing compact districts. That's because, as the FiveThirtyEight maps show, compact districts themselves create maps which favor Republicans. They project two different compact-district maps -- one which respects county lines and one which doesn't. The results were similar: Republicans have about thirty more safe seats than Democrats, with about 100 competitive seats. That's nothing new; both political scientists and practitioners have known for decades that straight lines happen to favor Republicans. 3

Given that everyone involved knows that compactness helps Republicans, it's not really a neutral at all. Republicans will advocate for it and Democrats will oppose it because they know very well the political effects of adopting it as a guideline. And that's true for any other criteria anyone can dream up. Both parties will run any seemingly neutral standard through their mapping software, and support or oppose it based on whether it gains them more seats. 

If there was some other good reason for compact districts, then it would be reasonable to advocate for them even with the knowledge that they helped one party. Otherwise, I'll oppose any districting criteria that's good for one party but has nothing else going for it. And besides, on pure aesthetic grounds, I think odd-looking districts are kind of cute.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Of course, the United States Senate violates this one, and in practice there's considerable controversy about exactly how equal populations must be. 

  2. It's worth noting the other side of competitive districts: They give about half the voters a representative they opposed, whereas lopsided partisan districts usually give most voters representatives they like. 

  3. More accurately: Tend to favor Republicans. It's possible there are some jurisdictions where compactness helps Democrats, and of course the argument is the same in those places. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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