29 December 2010
How to prevent Gerrymandering
In the wake of the latest Census reports comes the usual hand-wringing about the drawing up of congressional districts within each state. Ever since the emergence of permanent political parties, the power of partisan legislative majorities to divide a state map into monstrously shaped districts -- the original "Gerrymander" was a cartoonist's anthropomorphism of one such district in Massachusetts -- has been deplored by generations of idealists who've hoped and prayed for a rational, nonpartisan way to portion out representation. It seems not to have occurred to people that the original problem is in the Constitution itself. The Framers envisioned the House of Representatives to be the "people's" house of Congress, while the Senate represented the states. Yet once the federal government determines how many representatives each states should have, it's up to the states to draw districts. But if the House is meant to represent the people, and not the states directly, why are states part of the process at all? Why does the federal government divide the magic number of 438 among the states at all? The fact that the number of Representatives is set and only rarely altered may also be part of the problem. The solution may involve giving up the idea of having the same number of Representatives in each Congress. It should also involve skipping the states, since the House isn't their branch, and basing representation on the next most local level of organization: counties or their counterparts. These counties are pre-existing units; they aren't constructed arbitrarily for partisan purposes. Assigning representatives to counties eliminates gerrymandering. Let the federal government define the minimum number of people entitled to representation. If a populous county has more than that number, they get the appropriate number of representatives. If a sparsely populated county falls short, let a rule be established for bundling together contiguous counties until the combined population reaches the minimum for representation. If that means merging a "red" and "blue" county for election purposes, so be it. This plan seems simple enough, and I can't immediately imagine objections from either major party. States-righters might complain about a loss of sovereignty, but we've established that the House of Representatives isn't supposed to represent the states in the same way the Senate was meant to, so they have no cause for complaint. In any event, it isn't as if some distant federal authority would be dividing states into districts on an arbitrary basis; that's been the states' business all along. If people are serious about ending gerrymandering, and aren't just making a show of their highmindedness, they'd get to work on drafting and promoting a constitutional amendment to correct the problem. As I've pointed out, apart from the tedium of the ratification process, this shouldn't be that hard.