Wednesday, February 29, 2012

proportional representation

The gerrymandering of U.S. congressional districts is a problem. First, it is simply at odds with democratic principles to have our representative choose us. Gerrymandering can lead to extraordinarily safe districts and can slightly tilt the balance of the whole state delegation. We get less turnover (fewer competitive races) AND skewed results. (Vox has a great series on gerrymandering.)

Second, there's the appearance of corruption, unless the redistricting process is handled transparently by a nonpartisan committee (and these are few and far between). Even when a nonpartisan committee does try to do the redistricting fairly, it's hard to do: districts are supposed to be geographically compact (a smaller perimeter/sqrt[area] is better); minorities are supposed to be given a voice (so create some minority-majority districts); and some districts are supposed to be competitive (so, near 50-50 splits). But here's the key problem: a district can be represented (a representative speaks for the overwhelming majority in that district) OR competitive but not BOTH at the same time. I have a simple solution: Elect U.S. congresspeople in at-large races in each state, like senators. (Article here.)

There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution to prohibit it: it's up to states how to elect their representatives: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof..." (Art. 1, Section 4)

This change would allow states to use a proportional allocation method. There are all sorts of methods, but the simplest one to imagine starts with each party putting forward a list, in order, of its potential delegation. If the Democratic party wins 4 seats, the first four people on the list become U.S. representatives. (Obviously, being toward the end of the list is an honorary thing, since it's very unlikely one party would win all the seats in a state.)

Again, there are all sorts of ways to let people vote in these kinds of elections. One way is that a voter could receive a ballot that gave him one of two options in voting: a straight party line vote, and picking and choosing from the various parties. Say John is voting in Colorado's election (7 representatives). He could vote down the Democratic line, for their 7 candidates, or he could vote for any 7 candidates he liked, regardless of party. I think for simplicity and to avoid strategic voting, it's best to make the voting unranked; this would be approval voting. (The mathematics of proportional representation tallying are fascinating.)

Proportional representation gives third parties a better chance to win at least one seat. It allows ideologically unified but geographically spread minorities to build a voting block. And there are no districts to draw.

Well, not quite.

While it would be reasonable for Colorado to treat the state as one delegation, it's hard to imagine California (53), Texas (36), Florida (27), New York (27), Illinois (18), Pennsylvania (18), or Ohio (16) doing it. I think electing no more than a dozen at-large representatives is best: it gives third/minority parties a good chance, but isn't overwhelming to the candidates and voters. These large states would need to be subdivided. The key criteria would be creating geographically and economically cohesive units, transparency, and stability (with luck, the zones could exist without modifications for two or three census cycles).

Perhaps the most obvious way is to divide along county lines. Here's a possible zoning map for California:

Zone 1 is the Bay area counties: population 6.1 million, 9 representatives. Zone 2 is L.A. county: pop. 9.8 m, 14 reps. Zone 3 is San Diego/Empire: pop. 8.4 m, 12 reps. Zone 4 is N. California: pop. 7 m, 10 reps. Zone 5 is S. California: pop. 5.6 m, 8 reps.

It's possible to imagine other ways to partition it (FairVote recommends 3-5 seat districts), but the voters/reps ratios are fairly consistent across the different zones. How did I do on geographic compactness? (One random note: apparently U.S. courts do not have an agreed-upon formula for measuring compactness! Follow the link to a very informative website.) Using my own formula perimeter/sqrt[area], most of the zones are decent:

Zone 1 is the most compact, with about 4000 sq. miles in 260 miles of perimeter. I calculated a compactness factor of about 4.2. To put it in perspective, that's only 1.2 times worse than a circle. Zone 5 is the worst, about 58,000 sq. miles in 1400 miles of perimeter (it has to go around L.A. and Fresno counties). I calculated a compactness factor of about 5.7. That's about 1.6 times worse than a circle. That's worse than an equilateral triangle. In the grand scheme of things, it's not terrible. Certainly, not as bad as this:

or this:

It's hard to know which is my most favorite ridiculous district. Districts 3, 10, 11, 15, and 18 are misshapen lumps. Districts 27, 29, 32, 39, and 40 are odd. Is it just me, or does 42 look like Italy? But the most bizarre must surely be 38.

Texas might divide itself into three zones (western; central: Dallas, FW, Austin; and coastal, including Houston). New York: upstate and city, perhaps. Illinois: Chicago and the rest. Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, middle, and Philadelphia. Ohio: perhaps northern and southern.

For those who think computer programs can repair the problems, think again. And I reviewed critically a different possible solution, hands-off redistricting, here.

Perhaps a side benefit of allowing third parties a shot at national elections (breaking the national duopoly) is that it would encourage more competitive state elections (breaking the state-level monopoly). Here is an argument to that effect.


  1. If you want to get rid of gerrymandering then the best way to do that is by using a PR system. Scholars Douglas Amy and David Farrell suggest using at-large districts with five members for this. This lowers the election threshold to about 16.7%, which is hard to break up by design.

    This can only be done at the state or local level though, not federally. This is forbidden for the House and staggered Senate elections make this impossible for the Senate.

    Another way to address this is by using computers for redistricting. One algorithm that addresses this is the split-line algorithm. Its function decreases the total dividing line length to its smallest possible point.

    Here are some resources you might find useful:

  2. An added benefit of some kind of proportional representation system is that it will help diversify those elected--more women, blacks/African Americans, and Hispanics.

  3. If we merged the state senate and state represntative districts so there was a 3:1 ratio between representatives and senators then it would be easy to implement PR. For a 3-seat election, I'd recommend a 3-seat LR Hare. It lets a 3rd party win the third seat if their percent of the votes is less than 33.3% of the top-candidate's percent. So one could win with 10% of the vote if the top vote-getter got less than 43.3%.

    Then, one could enable things to get done by using a plurality vote to decide which party is in power in the state assembly. The pre-selected leaders of that party would be given more procedural controls to get things done. But it'd always be up to the 3rd party reps to decide which of the two major parties is in power at the state house of reps.