October 25, 2012
How to Avoid Gerrymandering
This is the third part in a 3-part series on fixing the electoral system in America. Part one discusses the problems that our voting system creates, and the second post proposes solutions for voting for a candidate in a single office.
In the first post, I touched on the problem of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is changing the borders of a voting district so that the voting power of the people in that district is increased or decreased.
Gerrymandering is rampant in America because the people who will be elected in a district are the ones who get to draw the boundaries. They can draw borders that will safely vote them in whenever an election comes around. If there’s a group of like-minded (like-partied?) members in an area, they can work together to divide voters who would vote for any other party into several of their own districts, which would blunt the effect of those voters. This is a form of voter suppression, and our voting system should do everything in its power to limit this.
There are a few things we can do to reduce the effects of gerrymandering. We can use an independent commission to draw the boundaries, and this can help a little bit. They might still be partisan or susceptible to bribes, so this can be dangerous.
We can also use a computer algorithm to calculate the district boundaries. The simplest algorithm that is regarded as fair is the shortest split-line method. Simply put, it finds the shortest line that splits the population of an area in two and then repeats that process with the two smaller areas until districts are created with the desired number of voters in each. However, it can split cities and neighborhoods. Since communities like that are logical voting groups with common interests, we want them to be represented together.
Fortunately, we can change our voting system to reduce the effect of gerrymandering.
First Past The Post
FPTP for a body of elected officials is the same as for a single election, just on a smaller scale. This is what we have in America. The country is divided into states, which are subdivided into districts. Each district gets one representative, and he or she is elected by a FPTP system, where each voter gets exactly one vote. We have the same problems here as with the single election FPTP system.
What if we got rid of districts altogether? This would solve the problems of gerrymandering. Each person votes for a party instead of a candidate, and each party gets a number of seats according to what percentage of the vote it received. The party decides who will fill those seats ahead of time by publishing an ordered list. This is called a multiple-winner proportional system.
We don’t have to worry about about districts that are cut up to discount people, which is great, but we lose the ability to have a representative that is directly answerable to a person in a district. If your roads are messed up, who do you call? None of the representatives you voted for are necessarily from your community, and they don’t know about the specific problems that you and your neighbors face.
A lot of parliamentarian systems are based on this pattern. You can find it in action in countries like Germany and England. If we switched to multiple-winner proportional elections in America, voters would never be punished for straying outside the two political parties, and more parties would survive. Since none of them would have a majority, they have to work together to pass bills on issues.
So we know we want districts, but we also want a way for people who have been excluded because of gerrymandering to have a voice. We need to mash these two systems up to get the best of both worlds.
The way to do that is to give everyone two votes. One vote for a representative for their district, and one vote for a party.
We take the first vote, and use it to find representatives for each district. These districts are drawn by commissions that are as independent as possible. They can be elected using any of of the ranked, approval, or even FPTP systems that I discussed in the last post. These representatives fill 50% of the seats in the chamber.
For the other 50% of the chamber, we use the second vote to give seats to the party in such a way that the final distribution of all of the seats in the chamber matches the distribution of all the party votes in the country.
For example, imagine two parties in a country, Party A and Party B. They have roughly the same number of supporters each. Even if Party A had managed to win most of the representative seats through gerrymandering, most of the remaining seats would be given to Party B, so that the total distribution is about half and half. This way nobody can be silenced through gerrymandering, but we also get the benefit of having local representatives.
This is the gold standard of representative election. New Zealand has started using this system, and they call it mixed-member proportional. The ratios of the seats don’t have to be 50% representative seats and 50% party seats, they can be adjusted for the exact effect a country needs.
I couldn’t have written this post without the excellent YouTubes that CGP Grey has made. You can see all the ones about politics here. I highly recommend watching all of them, because they’re well made, and they visually explain a lot of the concepts I’ve discussed, with cute animals to boot.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from the Ka-Ping Yee’s voting simulation that I linked to earlier. This is also very much recommended.