Online Redistricting Simulation

I may have blogged about this before, but it’s cool enough that I don’t mind repeating myself. USC’s Annenberg Center has a very nice on-line redistricting simulation, with multiple scenarios, including partisan gerrymanders and racial gerrymandering to comply with the Voting Rights Act. I assign this to my American Government students and I get great responses from them. To get full credit for doing it, all they have to do is demonstrate in an essay that they actually did it and that it made them think a little bit. But almost every essay shows that the students really get into it, and really do learn something from it. The responses have a pretty standard formula that begins, “After the first scenario I thought this was going to be easy, but…” then details the difficulties they had in the next two. They frequently mention that they had no idea districts had to be compact and contiguous, and that they could so easily be gerrymandered for partisan advantage. The overwhelming majority of them come away from it disliking partisan gerrymanders. As a teacher, it’s a rare moment to find an assignment that students find so innately compelling, without any prompting from me. It also has the advantage that grading takes approximately 10 seconds per paper.

If you haven’t played with the simulation, I encourage you to do so. I require my students to play missions 1, 2 and 4, and write a one page single-spaced essay on 2 &4, explain what issues made the task difficult, what they learned from the assignment, and whether they think partisan gerrymanders should be allowed? Are they fair to voters? Are they good for democracy? I encourage you all to play the simulation and record your responses here. No grades, though.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
This entry was posted in The Democratic Process. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Online Redistricting Simulation

  1. AMW says:

    That’s hard as balls. I gave up in mission 2. Let non-partisan commissions handle it already!

  2. James Hanley says:

    AMW, now when my students complete it I can tell them they bested a PhD economist. That’s going to be a boost to their egos!

  3. AMW says:

    Tell them they could also best me at water polo, barn-raising and sand grain sorting. That’ll really make them proud.

  4. James Hanley says:

    As much as I respect you, if you can’t raise a barn you’re not going to be invited into my utopian community.

  5. ppnl says:

    This just convinces me that districting as we know it must go. What do you think of my idea of randomizing districts? It seems to solve all problems with districts. I really don’t see how SCOTUS could object. What are the relevant supreme court decisions?

  6. AMW says:

    Dr. Hanley, you shamed me so deeply that I had to go back and conquer it. I have now successfully gerrymandered a new Republican district, gerrymandered a minimum of 55% majority for all sitting candidates* and introduced a new district that maintained the majority position of the sitting candidates while ensuring a 72% majority for a Cuban candidate.** But I finally called uncle when I had to redraw the districts “apolitically” while having to clear my decisions with a committee of political appointees. So I rescind my earlier advocacy for such bodies. Screw ’em. Let me draw the districts.

    *One candidate had something like 62%.
    *I only had to get 65%.

  7. AMW says:

    As for barn-raising, my greatest shame is growing up the son of a man who can do virtually anything construction related without learning a damn thing about it from him. I’m trying to make up for lost time, but one’s brain just isn’t as absorbent past a certain age.

  8. James Hanley says:

    AMW, shame is a marvelous thing.

    PPNL, the Supreme Court has ruled that districts must be contiguous, so that might count against your idea. But if I understand your idea of randomization correctly, each representative would have a district coterminous with the entire state, just not encompassing all of the state’s citizens. So each district would be contiguous; they would just all be overlapping (completely). I doubt the Court has ever imagined such a scenario, so I don’t know how they would rule. Off the cuff I would guess they’d find some way to rule against it, but I don’t know on what constitutional grounds they’d make such an argument. (Heck, I’m not even sure what their constitutional grounds are for requiring contiguous districts, since districts aren’t mentioned in the Constitution–some legal scholars are even dubious about their equal population requirement, given that the Constitution explicitly requires a U.S. Senate whose districts are unequal size.) Perhaps the Court would rule that such randomized districts are not compact enough?

    But of course politically it would be hell for candidates. It’s not just covering the whole state that would be the major problem, but having to figure out who in what areas of the state you needed to pitch your message to. “Let’s see, that guy at 322 Elm St. in Millersburg is in my district, but not the folks at 318, 320, 324, 326 or 328 Elm. St.” So I think just doing away with districts and having the top X votegetters statewide be the U.S. Reps would be more politically feasible.

    Besides, you’d still have single-member districts, which would still push toward a two-party system (especially given the resources that would be needed for targeting such a widely dispersed constituency), whereas eliminating districts would make third-party success much more likely. (E.g., in Michigan, without 15 (soon to be 14) congressional seats, surely some third parties could come in at least 9th through 14th on the ballot.)

    But that’s not to say I’m not intrigued by your idea.

  9. ppnl says:

    PPNL, the Supreme Court has ruled that districts must be contiguous, so that might count against your idea.

    I did some quick and dirty googling and can’t find the actual supreme court case. If it was long ago then I presume that compact and contiguous is intended to make gerrymandering more difficult. OTOH if it is intended to enfranchise well defined communities then it is both misguided and beyond the scope of what the federal or supreme court should be doing.

    But of course politically it would be hell for candidates.

    Well yes but that is kind of the point. A candidate cannot cater his message to some tiny set of voters in some tiny geographical region. They will have to depend on general principles rather than tell some tiny sub-population what they want to hear.

    It will also limit the effects of massive money. Cheap methods of reaching large numbers of people will trump massive resources expended on tiny sub-populations. Special interest voters take a step down.

    Besides, you’d still have single-member districts, which would still push toward a two-party system…

    Actually I have no big problem with the two party system as long as it is natural. The problem is that the two parties achieve power by creating a pattern of disenfranchised voters. That very system of disenfranchising voters make it impossible for a third party to gain power. But by far the worst thing it does is make the existing two parties stupid. Take away their power to create patterned disenfranchisement and you do both them and the nation a favor.

    …whereas eliminating districts would make third-party success much more likely. (E.g., in Michigan, without 15 (soon to be 14) congressional seats, surely some third parties could come in at least 9th through 14th on the ballot.)

    I’m not sure I like the idea of electing the top 15 vote getters. You would get third parties elected. You might also get more kooks than we get now. The beauty of random districts is that all districts are statistically equal and representative of the entire state. The results should be just like having 15 different state wide elections. This allows the state as a whole to speak to the nation instead of having the state divided against itself.

  10. lukas says:

    The beauty of random districts is that all districts are statistically equal and representative of the entire state. The results should be just like having 15 different state wide elections.

    In a partisan political environment, wouldn’t all of those elections be very likely won by candidates from the same party?

  11. James K says:

    Possibly, but it seems unlikely (or at least less likely) that there aren’t enough differently-minded voters in a given state to get 1 or 2 people from another party, especially with the bigger states after all New York, California and Texas do have enclaves that lean toward the other party.

  12. lukas says:

    Those enclaves would not be represented by random districts, where the law of large numbers guarantees a near-equal partisan makeup of the districts.

  13. ppnl says:

    In a partisan political environment, wouldn’t all of those elections be very likely won by candidates from the same party?

    Maybe but so what? The point is to increase the quality of candidates by freeing them from gerrymandered districts and identity politics. If the state is largely republican or democrat then that party should dominate. We don’t need to gerrymander charity for minority parties.

    Anyway in a large state a party would need to find a large number of quality candidates. It is very likely that some of their candidates will be duds giving an opposing party an opening. Also voters will be able to punish both the party and a candidate easily.

    Add in instant runoff elections and do away with primaries and you will kill identity politics. I think parties themselves will go away eventually but even if they don’t they will be very different.

  14. lukas says:

    The point is to increase the quality of candidates by freeing them from gerrymandered districts and identity politics.

    At the same time, candidates would become much more dependent on their party machines, and I am not sure that party politics makes for a net gain in quality over identity politics.

  15. ppnl says:

    At the same time, candidates would become much more dependent on their party machines,…

    How so? Do away with gerrymandered districts and you do away with the ability of parties to create powerful machines. What does the party have to offer a state wide candidate? And national money is diluted by the larger districts.

    I don’t think random districts would have any immediate effect on party dependance. But on the longer term it would reduce the effects of single issue voters. This would tend to reduce voter loyalty over time.

  16. lukas says:

    What does the party have to offer a state wide candidate?

    First of all, coordination. The party will want to run exactly one candidate per district, and it will throw its considerable weight (endorsements, money etc.) behind their chosen candidates.

    Next, fundraising: if districts are no longer local, more people will want to support the party itself rather than “their” candidate. The party can claim more credibly to support a community’s interest, so it will attract funds.

    The American system of districting, for all its flaws, has produced relatively impotent party organizations. Compare that with the experience of most other modern democracies, where party discipline is much stricter, and parties are much more important in funneling campaign money.

  17. ppnl says:

    Sorry, been traveling and have not had time to comment.

    First of all, coordination. The party will want to run exactly one candidate per district, and it will throw its considerable weight (endorsements, money etc.) behind their chosen candidates.

    Yes that is as it should be. Still, if you do away with primaries parties may find it difficult to coordinate that much. If they can work up the party discipline to do it then more power to them. They cannot do it if they regularly nominate freaks and morons.

    Next, fundraising: if districts are no longer local, more people will want to support the party itself rather than “their” candidate. The party can claim more credibly to support a community’s interest, so it will attract funds.

    Again if they succeed then more power to them. But if they raise power on the backs of extremely divisive issues that function more as a declaration of in group loyalty than as sane policies then they may raise huge amounts of money only to find that most people are laughing at them. Think O’Donnell and her anti-masturbation stance in Delaware. She managed to lose by a good margin an election that republicans should have walked away with. With random districts and no primaries she would have never even been seen.

    The American system of districting, for all its flaws, has produced relatively impotent party organizations. Compare that with the experience of most other modern democracies, where party discipline is much stricter, and parties are much more important in funneling campaign money.

    There are two issues here. The first is that a party should be able to impose discipline and have power within themselves. That is what the American districting system takes away from parties. The result is that the republican party cannot protect itself the O’Donnells and Bachmanns.

    The second is the power that the parties have outside of themselves. The power to Gerrymander and create patterns of disenfranchised voters. This external power is exactly what destroys their ability to maintain internal discipline. They create perverse incentives that force them to support people like O’Donnell.

    You must reduce the external power of the parties in order to give them the internal power to do the things they need to be doing.

    In one sense it reduces the power of parties. In another sense it frees them from the power rat race and they can focus on principles. If they succeed and get voters to buy their principles then more power to them. If they fail and voters decide that parties have no purpose then so be it. Its all good. I suspect that people will in the long run turn away from parties entirely.

  18. lukas says:

    Think O’Donnell and her anti-masturbation stance in Delaware. She managed to lose by a good margin an election that republicans should have walked away with. With random districts and no primaries she would have never even been seen.

    I’d put the blame for that one squarely on the primaries. But remember why primaries came about in the US: they were intended by progressives as a way to limit the power of corrupt established politicos. These things are the way they are for a reason.

    There are two issues here. The first is that a party should be able to impose discipline and have power within themselves. That is what the American districting system takes away from parties. The result is that the republican party cannot protect itself the O’Donnells and Bachmanns.

    And it shouldn’t, IMO, just like the Democratic Party shouldn’t be able to protect itself from the Feingolds and Kucinichs. The alternative is not a waning away of party structures, here: it is two (if you are lucky) indistinguishable parties full of centrist corrupt career politicians — straight out of the Gilded Age.

  19. ppnl says:

    I’d put the blame for that one squarely on the primaries.

    I agree and I think the primaries must go. Actually she was a bad example because her district was already state wide. It was all the fault of the primary.

    But remember why primaries came about in the US: they were intended by progressives as a way to limit the power of corrupt established politicos. These things are the way they are for a reason.

    What it did instead was lock out anyone except the two dominant parties. That is where it went wrong.

    And it shouldn’t, IMO, just like the Democratic Party shouldn’t be able to protect itself from the Feingolds and Kucinichs. The alternative is not a waning away of party structures, here: it is two (if you are lucky) indistinguishable parties full of centrist corrupt career politicians — straight out of the Gilded Age.

    So we must elect morons in order to keep corrupt career politicians in check? I think I prefer the corrupt career politicians.

    Anyway this is only a problem if there is a high barrier to third party entry. Without a primary it will be incredibly hard to maintain party discipline. Once you have three or more parties a candidate can shop around for a party if his party will not support him. Using instant runoff further reduces that barrier. If parties can maintain the discipline to keep power then more power to them as long as they do not use external power like public spending or gerrymandering to maintain that discipline.

  20. James Hanley says:

    Anyway this is only a problem if there is a high barrier to third party entry.

    Agreed, which is why the single-member district is an even bigger problem than the primaries.

  21. lukas says:

    Anyway this is only a problem if there is a high barrier to third party entry.

    Which exists in pretty much every system of representation that is not strictly proportional (like, say, Israel’s). There is no way around that, I’m afraid.

  22. James Hanley says:

    Lukas,

    I disagree. In any state with a sizable congressional delegation, having the whole state be a multi-member district for representation in the House would promote the existence of third parties.

  23. lukas says:

    James, the barrier might be lower, but it would still be considerable.

    Multi-member districts might still be a good idea, the House is too small anyway. Let each district send 3 people.

  24. James Hanley says:

    Lukas,

    3 member districts wouldn’t be sufficient. I mean make Michigan a single 15 member House district, Ohio a single 18 member district, Georgia a 13 member district, Louisiana a 7 member district, California a 53 member district, and so on.

    In short, eliminate actual congressional districts themselves. The Constitution makes no mention of them, so they clearly are not constitutionally required, and eliminating them poses only political, not constitutional, problems.

  25. ppnl says:

    In short, eliminate actual congressional districts themselves. The Constitution makes no mention of them, so they clearly are not constitutionally required, and eliminating them poses only political, not constitutional, problems.

    I am drawn to the idea of just doing away with districts but here is the problem. If you are trying to get 15 elected all at once on a 15 top vote getter basis then anyone who can get 6.7% of the vote is guaranteed a seat. If Glen Beck is running there may be 6.7% of the people willing to vote for him just for the lolz. Donald Trump would walk away with a win on the strength of birtherism alone. More generally you may have a small group of very loyal single issue voters get their candidate elected. That candidate can then leverage his loyalty to gain even more power for his tiny constituency.

    If I understand Israel correctly we see this mechanism play out there. A tiny local religious based party gets a seat. They then can leverage that seat to gain a vastly disproportional amount of power.

    You are in danger of giving excess power to the intransigently belligerent.

    This is the problem that random districts are intended to address. You can elect 15 people at the same time and yet each of the winners can claim to represent the majority. Now add instant runoff voting to encourage diversity.

  26. James Hanley says:

    ppnl,

    Yep, that’s the tradeoff all democracies face. Do you push toward the center to encourage stability and a (cheap) sense of consensus, or do you make things more representative of the disparate elements of a heterogeneous people. All choices of solution are normative and depend on which of those values one favors. I go back and forth between them (because I do share your concern) and am not settled in my own mind on what is best.

  27. ppnl says:

    But the whole point of doing away with districts is because it imposes a too fine grained division in representation. Those divisions can then be gerrymandered.

    In a large state your system may make the division even more fine grained. And by focusing on tiny but loyal groups the effects of gerrymandering is reproduced.

    Another perverse effect is that the more unanimous the state is in who it votes for the more fine grained the division is. For example with 15 seats you only need 6.7% of the vote. But if the top vote getter gets 50% of the vote then the remaining 14 seats only need like 3.5% of the vote. This mechanism can lead to truly tiny groups getting representation.

    If we take federalism seriously then the state is the proper level of granularity.

  28. James Hanley says:

    If the state is the proper level of granularity, then doing away with districts hits that proper level perfectly.

    But I should clarify something that I didn’t above, which is leading to misunderstanding–it’s entirely my fault here. In a multi-member district you are not relegated to a single vote, but have as many votes as there are candidates. So theoretically every one of the 15 winners in Michigan could have a majority. But in reality, since it would probably still be a simple plurality, many of them would have well below 50%, but 3.5% or even 6.7% would be unlikely to pass the threshold (of course that ultimately depends on how many candidates actually run in a given election).

    My apologies for the lack of clarity, and I blame it on this being finals week.

  29. ppnl says:

    As many votes as there are candidates? I’m not sure how that would work out. There could be hundreds of candidates in a large state.

    A better way is to have 15 simultaneous elections. One for each seat. Everyone can vote in every election. But you are still asking voters to keep track of a huge number of candidates. That will encourage party loyalty.

  30. James Hanley says:

    Ah, fuck, I screw up again. I meant as many votes as there are representatives for the district–i.e, 15 votes in Michigan, 53 in California, etc.

    Jeez, just imagine the potential implications of the scheme I inadvertently proposed. You could have a scenario where you had as many votes as there are candidates, and every single voter casts one vote for each candidate, so that all candidates tie.

    Moral of the story: don’t let me write any electoral rules for your organization during finals week.

  31. ppnl says:

    Ok I can live with that. But the motivation for random districts is that it is kind of cumbersome to vote for 53 people. I still think it is a cleaner solution. Anyway we seem to be in general agreement on how to fix things. Unfortunately we are also in general agreement on how likely it is to happen.

Comments are closed.