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Let the People Gerrymander Themselves

Let the People Gerrymander Themselves

Drawing congressional district lines is a messy process in the current political system. The rise of computers has made it so that gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to be advantageous to your side, is extremely easy to accomplish. Sometimes the goal is to draw a map that allows one party to hold the most seats, other times it’s used to protect incumbent representatives. The number of competitive races has begun to dwindle, and the real battle for who represents an area increasingly falls on who can outflank the others in a primary. Voters clearly want a change as they continue to vote in favor of redistricting reform when it is placed on the ballot even if it backfires politically. Recently in blood red Utah, a measure for fair redistricting that could likely give the Democrats a safer seat narrowly passed, even though it would hurt the partisan side that most of its residents favor. The problem with this is that independent commissions fail in their missions: they are overwhelmed by the twin factors of the colossal resources of the parties and their own inability to predict the future.

While lots of new gerrymandering decisions are now made at the behest of partisan-aligned courts to even out maps, voters that want to take control can pass a balanced or independent redistricting commission, which several states have now and even more have approved for the next cycle after 2020. These have shortcomings, and the twin current examples of this are California and Arizona. In California, the dominant Democratic party posed as community groups to receive more favorable and stable districts drawn, and they coordinated without revealing their intent to the redistricting commission. This is a bipartisan tactic, as Republicans did the same in Florida after the court ordered new maps, and leaked emails show that professionally-made maps were given to citizens to submit on behalf of a fake neutral third party. They also have different priorities, though mostly the ballot measures are passed with the directive to create the most competitive districts possible.

This was the case in Arizona, and it’s the other reason that these maps can and do fail: trends that nobody could have expected years before manifesting themselves and becoming lopsided. Lots of maps, even ones that Republicans drew themselves, were based on the belief that the Democrats would continue the Obama coalition, and collapsed this last cycle because they were built on the suburbs, which nobody saw flipping. In Arizona, three competitive districts were drawn, but one of those has shifted hard left while the other maintains a popular moderate Democrat and the last flipped hard as the Pima suburbs shifted and the Republicans didn’t spend $8 million to hold on. This wasn’t a matter of poor intent, but merely the fact that it’s impossible to know what will happen this far out.

Many of the arguments about gerrymandering now fall back on complex mathematical overlays to geography and the Civil Rights Act, but the Supreme Court justices remain bewildered and unimpressed. There is, however, a much more elegant and simple solution to the problem that allows for a far fairer representative system: eliminate the district lines altogether.

I propose that instead of arbitrary lines drawn in contention, all House seats are elected at large. The election dates will be similar to what they are now, with a primary and a general. During the primary, anybody who wants to run and hits a signature or proven support threshold can get onto the ballot. Everybody has exactly one vote for a single candidate and the number of candidates who advance equals the number of seats available doubled. For example, Pennsylvania has 18 congressional districts, so the top 36 can make it to the general election. In Rhode Island which has two districts, only the Top 4 go forward. This process then repeats itself on the general election day and the top half of the vote-getters are the new representatives for that state.

This sounds crazy, but it helps to fix all the relevant problems with poor representation in the House and is the truest way to capture the intended end goal of the Lower Chamber and bypassing the whole process to even draw the seats. The major problems under the current system are poor minority or real communities of interest having fair representation and incumbents being reelected based on placement, not virtue.

First, any group can band together to elect candidates that will accurately reflect them, but also can think strategically, marshaling their votes behind a sure thing or risking it to encourage their members to split and attempt to vote for more than one. This could lead to geographical candidates, or different demographic or racial groups pushing a candidate, but that’s not different from what we have now, except the support will measure the true lines of a community and not drawn in a certain way. This not only abides by, but probably goes farther than the Voting Rights Act provisions. Here, minority districts are not packed together, but rather it is up to the groups themselves to find candidates with the ability to do more than settle for one candidate with the clear majority of support as the only option.

Second, incumbents will now have to deliver to their constituents and can no longer glide to victory. They will always be contested, both in the general and in the primary, and will need to prove why they deserve to stick around. Not only will they have to differentiate themselves back home, but because everybody only gets one vote, they will also have to break the partisan mold and differentiate themselves from people from their own party to stay in, leading to an improved quality of candidate that is able to sustain a voting bloc and not rest in a safe district able to win repeatedly because of how the district is drawn. These rules also mean that the national and state parties will have to think more strategically and cannot play as heavy of a hand in elections deciding the outcomes, but also promises a steady stream of turnover in DC and the opportunity for a chance election of a minor party candidate that can usher in the desire for more change.

Voters will have the widest, and in their opinion, best range of selections to choose from. Eliminating the lines in favor of a runoff at large system gives the most power to people to determine who they want to see represent them and encourages communities to organize and express themselves, rather than let a formula in a computer spit out what’s safest for the national organizations. The current and upcoming fixes are plagued with errors or overly complicated, but the alternative is to not waste our time with these geographical divides at all and empower those who do the voting themselves.

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62 thoughts on “Let the People Gerrymander Themselves

  1. An interesting idea, but the one issue I can think of is that people like knowing who their rep is. If I have an issue, I want a single person I can contact and say, “I voted for you, you represent me, you need to listen to me and respond.”

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  2. I like your at-large proposal very much

    But if we decide we are going with geographical representation, I would suggest that districts should basically represent people similarly situated, and face similar issues: urban communities, suburban communities, exurban communities, rural communities. Each group have similar interests, and the interests of the different groups are not aligned. It makes sense that we have -subject to quasi-equal population representation- urban, suburban, exurban, and rural districts.

    These days, its fairly easy to create an algorithm to draw these kind of districts. I would suggest to use population density by census tract

    1- Start with the most dense census tract in the state. That’s the seed tract for District 1.
    2- Add to District 1 the next most dense census tract that is contiguous to the seed tract.
    3- Repeat with the following most dense tract(s) contiguous to District 1 until you reach the population limit for a congressional district.
    4- Start District 2 with the most dense tract not already included in District 1. Repeat steps 2/3 until completing District 2.
    5- Repeat for Districts 3 through N-1.
    6- All the tracts not included up to District N-1 will be the most rural parts of the state and will become district N. It will likely be the largest district in the state
    7- If District N is geographically too dispersed, then start adding the least dense tracts of District N-1 (or N-1 and N-2) that are contiguous to District N until you reach twice the population level of a District, then allocate this enlarged District N into two (or three) Districts. Reallocate tracts among the other districts, from lest to more dense, following the contiguous least dense tract rule, until all districts have essentially the same population again.

    This method ignores political partisanship or race, and just puts together people that share the same day to day interests.

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    • Colorado’s US House districts largely follow the guidelines in your first paragraph: one district for the rural Eastern Plains, one for the rural Western Slope and San Luis Valley, one for Colorado Springs and its surroundings, one for Denver and a portion of the mostly closely linked suburbs, two for the rest of the Denver suburbs (east and west, basically), one for the northern Front Range communities and the mountain towns. Three are safe Republican seats, three are safe Democratic seats, one is competitive (the eastern Denver suburbs). The competitive district has been held by Republican Mike Coffman since it was created. Coffman has done everything possible except change his voting history — learned Spanish and runs occasional Spanish-first town hall meetings, constituent services second to none. But having a bog-standard Republican voting record finally caught up with him and the district flipped this year.

      Colorado will almost certainly get an eighth seat after the 2020 census. The two big rural districts, Denver, and Colorado Springs will stay largely the same. How the rest of the Front Range gets chopped up could change quite a bit.

      I’d have to see simulations on the algorithm. To keep people happy it might need to include something to keep city/county splitting small.

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  3. This would surely solve the problem of gerrymandering, but I suspect at a cost of causing significant other problems.

    My home town used to use at large elections for city council, and it favoured the corrupt and sleazy – the closer to their home neighborhood they got, the fewer votes they got because they were dealing with people who were onto them. But they also could afford lots of ads, so they got enough low information votes around the city to land a seat.

    Also the ballot was so full of names it was hard to be informed. You just can’t research that many people.

    I’d go with dual member proportional rep instead.

    Each district is doubled in size, each party can field at most two candidates per district, limiting the research burden and distant sleazebag advantage.

    One seat in each district, the ‘local’ seat, goes to the candidate with the most votes. Then all votes across districts are added up per party, and additional ‘proportional’ seats awarded to make the seat totals match the popular vote as closely as possible.

    Those seats are awarded by ranking each party’s candidates who didn’t win a local seat according to how many votes they did get, and running down the list until all that party’s proportional seats are awarded.

    That way you get PR and also a guarantee that only candidates who have a good degree of popularity with voters in their home district, who have a better chance of knowing them for who they are, get seats.

    Gerrymandering could still serve a purpose in setting up safe seats for an influential incumbent party hack, but to the extent that they got a lower turnout than a younger and more inspiring candidate would have, they risk costing the party a proportional seat – so really taking advantage of gerrymandering would be a losing tactic.

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          • I mean, with PR, the DSA could run a slate of their own and so on and so forth. If anything, with PR, there’d be far more AOC’s. Also, it seems like AOC and her are getting along fine. It’s the moderates who are whining.

            Also, with PR, there are a myraid of ways to let people choose who will actually be elected, respective of who the party puts at #1 and more importantly, the DCCC Chair Ben Ray Luján would likely be picking the slate, not Pelosi, even if she is still the Wicked Witch of the Left to most of the right.

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            • Yeah, “Screw you guys we’re not voting for you!” has a lot more teeth as an effective threat in a proportional system.

              There are still flaws and catches and drawbacks, but it doesn’t just transfer ultimate power to party leaders.

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            • True, if DSA wants to go all in and leave the Democratic party… sure, I’m all for the fragmentation.

              Still, I can’t see, given the blue sky of options, why we wouldn’t prefer to elect representatives directly plus allow for voting at the party level to smooth out the differences, split the vote, and or allow for secondary parties to gain traction at a lower risk to the electorate.

              Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to fragment the parties to save the parties, and I’m in favor of various things that would do that. But, pure PR has some significant drawbacks of making the parties more rigid and rewarding hacks/loyalty over other things.

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              • MMPR which you’re asking for is much better than what we currently have and like I said, I’ll happily take it to appease people who have a weird need to say “x person is their Congressperson.”

                But, 90% of any group of politicians are going to be hacks driven by loyalty and need to help out their local area, for the most part.

                Which is actually a good thing – we need more party hacks who will vote for whatever the smarter policy people have drawn up instead of 30 different people pulling a party 9 different ways because of petty personal feuds or weird policy differences.

                When everybody thinks they’re the true leader of the party, you get…well, the modern Republican House Caucus.

                If you really care that much about an immigration or tax bill, instead of torpedoing a whole party, cross the floor, or change your party label for the next election.

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      • We might need to change somethings to make straight Proportional Representation work for the House. There are states with very few Representatives, so its going to get weird results. Some states only have one representative. The House needs to be increased in size or we need to get rid of the idea of representation based on state populations.

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  4. I still think that they should base representation on some number of people who deserve some amount of representation.

    Like, we say “No representative can reasonably represent more than X people!” and then figure out what X ought to be.

    Gerrymandering that results in fractal districts offends me. I imagine that gerrymandering will still happen if we moved Maryland from 8 districts to 23 districts, but it’d be tougher to gerrymander and, more importantly, the number of gerrymandered people would be smaller and this smaller number of people would have more proportional access to their representative.

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    • Baby steps… take your Wyoming proposal as the new baseline number (555k +/-). But, all the additional reps get added as “at large” … So… All the existing incumbents are still incumbents in their districts, big states get more reps, and we add a second vote for “Party” to smooth out the allocation.

      1. Districts are algorithmically determined by one of these methods
      2. One vote for rep in district.
      3. One vote for a party
      4. Approx 135 new “at large” seats are distributed by population.

      Minimal disruption, maximal opportunity for rebalancing.

      Don’t complain to me when the parties change their messaging in unforeseen ways.

      {edit, I should add that I didn’t calculate where all the seats should go, assuming – perhaps naively – that some number would go to just about every state… but not Wyoming. Fuck Wyoming.}

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        • Sure, and I think devolving more power to regional and state level governing bodies is better than 3200 centralized congressional members trying to govern the nation.

          But I’d take 570 centralized congressional members with some PR as an incremental improvement that, if you squint just right, seems almost plausible and sellable.

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            • As long as Federalism for Real involves abortion banning, the ripping away of LGBT rights, massive cuts to the social welfare state, restrictive voter ID laws and other lowering of civil rights, and such being passed on a local and state level, nah. States lines shouldn’t determine what basic rights and what basic parts of the welfare state you have access too.

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                • The only thing worse than national level Republicans are state level Republican’s in red states. Also, Trump will be horrible for a maximum of four to eight years. Oklahoma or Wyoming will be voting 65% for the right leaning party when I’m on my death bed.

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                    • The other 35% also have rights under the (federal) Constitution, so you can’t just write them off.

                      And it not like it doesn’t cut multiple ways. Does federalism mean that it’s OK for states to ban guns entirely? The Supreme Court didn’t think so. For that matter, it’s not even clear whether federalism is going to allow Colorado to compel cake-bakeage.

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                        • That may work in a campaign ad but will do little to convince people who live in the rest of the country to ignore them, nor will it do much to convince them not petition the federal government for redress of their grievances.

                          And even in heavily monochromatic states they may have a congresscritter of the opposite party.

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                                • Jaybird,

                                  Except “bake the cake!” has come from a couple states, not the Feds, so “Federalism yay!”

                                  And the nuns weren’t even being asked to pay for birth control (at least not after they complained), just to submit a form saying they wouldn’t because “sincere religious belief” so someone else could.

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                                    • Much better example. Of course these same people are generally ok with telling the insurance companies that they have to sell you an affordable policy and cover the hugely expensive condition you just discovered you have…

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                                      • I was asked for an example! I gave one! What do you want from me?

                                        Edit: I admit, I do see “well, yes, technically that was making people do something but it was for their own good” as an argument that I’ll have to deal with tomorrow.

                                        As if that’s what we were arguing about when I was originally asked to provide an example.

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                                        • Oh, no! I totally agree that it’s a fine example. And I’m not trying to minimize it on the grounds of being for their own good or anything. Just pointing out that everyone does it.

                                          I mean… everyone, whether they really consciously contemplate it or not, has a personal conception of the “good life” that they wish to live. And a prerequisite for living that life is inhabiting a society that, at minimum allows, and ideally supports your preferences. And that is going to entail telling other people what they must or must not do. It’s inescapable; even libertarians do it by insisting on a kind of free-for-all society that many people find repugnant.

                                          So yeah, liberals do it. Conservatives do it. Everybody does it. Even above-it-all libertarians.

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                                          • If you’re going to go with the argument that preventing people from coercing others is itself coercion, then OK — there’s a sense in which it’s true. But then you need to be consistent with it and not just selectively deploy it against libertarians. Under this view it doesn’t make sense to make freedom-based arguments for anything — e.g. the debate about the availability of birth control would just be a competition between those who want to coerce women into not using it vs those want to coerce religious conservatives into not coercing women into not using it, and this outlook suggests that there’s no natural reason to prefer one sort of coercion over the other. Are you ready to bite that bullet?

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                                            • Yeah but in the case of federalism, a lot of what people are demanding as “federalism” is exactly the ability/power/right to coerce others. Leaving libertarians aside [1], a huge number of federalist demands boil down to, “We don’t want the federal government to interfere or prohibit laws that we pass to constrain and coerce other members of our local administrative unit.”

                                              [1] Though libertarians often have conceptions of property and contract rights which IMO go far beyond “leaving other people alone”.

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                                              • This is where y’all go unhinged when any talk of federalism comes up… how is all this coercion talk different for being regional rather than central? If I take your concerns to heart, it seems twice as logical to prevent excessive centralization.

                                                Build the California/Portland liberaltopia… I’m all for it, good luck and godspeed. I look forward to the lessons learned.

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                                                • Well, to be fair, federalism got a bad rap due to the causes for which it was originally deployed. You know, slavery and then later, the Jim Crow stuff. And now you see liberals championing it for stuff like legal weed. Which is why I said earlier that practically nobody really holds it as a bedrock principle, but rather deploys it as an argument when convenient and tosses it aside when it’s not. It’s much like cries of “judicial activism” that are raised whenever a SCOTUS decision goes the “wrong” way.

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                                                  • Sure, that’s why its unhinged… we all know we’ve evolved to prefer our slavery to be global, neo-liberally economic, and invisibly distant. A return to 1850 would be wildly inefficient, by comparison.

                                                    Kidding aside, this is precisely the weird sort of liberal constitutional fundamentalism I don’t quite understand… it doesn’t have to be Articles of Confederation or Bust. Every discussion of decentralization doesn’t put us in 1850 any more than any discussion of democratic voting reforms puts us in 1789 (or worse, 1793).

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                                                    • States’ rights was being invoked to defend Jim Crow within my parents lifetime, and is still being used as a way of expressing resentment over its demise to this day.

                                                      As for voting rights, federalism the pretext for the awful Shelby County decision. This doesn’t put is back in 1789. but it puts us uncomfortably close to 1963.

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                                                • It’s not different, so there’s no particular reason to support one over the other, except as an ad hoc strategy to gain procedural advantage.

                                                  Which is fine so far as it goes, I suppose, but there really isn’t any compelling reason to believe that federalism is somehow pro-freedom or anti-coercion.

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                                            • Under this view it doesn’t make sense to make freedom-based arguments for anything…

                                              Oh, you can make the argument. Just don’t stand there with a dumb look on your face or get all pissed off when jumping up and down about “coercion” doesn’t win the debate. Libertarians hold Freedom as the highest political value and often act as if it were the only valid political value. But there are others: safety, economic security, equality, maintenance of established hierarchy, compliance with community/religious norms. We all hold some combination of these values to various degrees and orderings of priority.

                                              So, am I ready to bite that bullet? Well I’m ready to acknowledge the reality that there is no objective moral framework apart from a pragmatic liberal reasoning of constructing a society that most members can endorse most of the time.

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                                              • It is either freedom or perpetual war. I would ask that liberals not have that same dumb look on there face after being gut shot on the front lines because they couldn’t give other people freedom or opt out of their ‘social norms’.

                                                Liberals haven’t figured out that they have no more of a claim on social objectivity than anyone else.

                                                ‘Constructing’ a society means someone is picking winners and losers. That is the flaw in ‘ pragmatic moral reasoning’. War begins on attempted ‘construction’. So liberalism in this premise is a vial, violent type of ideology.

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                                                • It is either freedom or perpetual war. I would ask that liberals not have that same dumb look on there face after being gut shot on the front lines because they couldn’t give other people freedom or opt out of their ‘social norms’.

                                                  Shooting people when you don’t get your way sounds mighty coercive to me.

                                                  Liberals haven’t figured out that they have no more of a claim on social objectivity than anyone else.

                                                  I’m actually disputing the existence of social objectivity. At this point I might stake a claim on superior reading comprehension though.

                                                  ‘Constructing’ a society means someone is picking winners and losers.

                                                  No. Constructing a society is an organic process that we all participate in individually and collectively. Ultimately we’re all going to be both winners and losers in some regard. Accepting that is the difference between being a decent human being or some asshole that starts shooting people when he doesn’t get his way.

                                                  That is the flaw in ‘ pragmatic moral reasoning’. War begins on attempted ‘construction’. So liberalism in this premise is a vial, violent type of ideology.

                                                  Dude, you’re the one threatening war…

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                                                  • Yeah, reading comprehension. I didn’t say I would shoot, and didn’t threaten war. War is what happens when one faction attempts to ‘construct’ society.

                                                    There is a problem in the assumption that a society should rise (organically or inorganically) above the sovereignty of any individual.

                                                    Individuals should be able to negotiate how they win and lose, not be forced by ‘social constructs’ of any particular faction.

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                                • Sure, that counts as liberals forcing conservatives to do something they prefer not to.

                                  It just seems to me that once we actually start drawing up a list of:
                                  Things They Force Us To Do, and;
                                  Things They Prevent Us From Doing;

                                  a few things will become clear.

                                  That is, the stuff liberals are forced to do/ prevented from doing by conservatives, and things conservatives are forced to do/ prevented from doing by liberals will be remarkably different in terms of importance to liberty.

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                                  • It just seems to me that once we actually start drawing up a list of:
                                    Things They Force Us To Do, and;
                                    Things They Prevent Us From Doing;

                                    a few things will become clear.

                                    I admit. I put a lot of things under the umbrella of “telling other people how to live”.

                                    Prohibition of Alcohol? “Telling other people how to live.”

                                    You might say “that wasn’t telling people that they had to do something! That was telling people that they couldn’t do something! Completely different!”

                                    And then I’d bring up marijuana or something and we’d get into the weeds.

                                    Hey, throwing people in jail for marijuana isn’t telling people how to live. It’s telling them that they can do stuff but *NOT* smoke weed. Completely different!

                                    It is known.

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                        • Neither is anything like a principled position, just a rhetorical argument to deploy when convenient. To be fair, liberals deploy federalism selectively as well but we don’t yell about it being a sacred principle.

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                  • Not likely to help. Much of opportunistic federalism involves pure pocketbook issues. Many a big business prefers to deal with a single bureaucracy and a single set of regulations than with fifty, so we see such intrusions on traditional state authority as the Class Action Fairness Act and federal laws preventing states from applying their product liability laws to firearms. Almost everyone cares far more about the substance of the laws than about the “appropriate” level of government to make them, and will push for what they want at whatever level of government is most likely to give it to them. Principle be damned. When anyone outside of the ivory tower talks federalism, he could be sincere, but that’s not the way to bet.

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  5. I really don’t have a problem with G’mandering. It is a political issue and whoever had the last whip hand is going to move the lines around to please themselves. And yes, some of those lines are going to look a little snakey. But, in my eyes at least, that reflects the reality of politics in the US: it is very snakey. Underhanded. The ProPublica article on California confirmed what I remember from being a resident. And I firmly believe that judges should have zero say in this, as it is firmly the purview of the legislative branches. So, I feel the current system, Texas and Maryland included, is the best overall.

    If one did try to change this, it should be done more on known physical boundaries or recognized legal lines such as counties or cities or boroughs. And to do that you would need to remove all other g’mandering, such as minority-majority districts. The exact number of peeps in a district wouldn’t matter so much as a pre-existing, and thus politically immovable, line.

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    • “I really don’t have a problem with G’mandering. It is a political issue and whoever had the last whip hand is going to move the lines around to please themselves. ”

      Person has ingrown distrust that government can never work and accurately represent the people is OK with system that continues cycle that allows politicians to ignore the populace and stop the government from working because of lack of trust in system.

      Totally surprising that we have a nihilistic political culture in the US that we do, as opposed to other countries, that unshockingly go, “actually no, we shouldn’t let politicians choose their constituents.”

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  6. I’m more of a radical.

    Party-preference representation for the state’s net House membership.

    California has 53 members. You vote for a party, not a candidate, and the party gets a proportionate share of the total seats, with a required minimal representation percentage to get any seat at all.

    This would:

    a) Entirely eliminate House gerrymandering
    b0) Provide an avenue for minor parties to gain officeholders but
    b1) Also strengthen individual parties’ coalitions and
    b2) Bend minor parties towards governance rather than ideology, because legislative prowess now matters more
    c) Remove the incentive for the federal government to favor individual congressional districts as horse-trading chips (lower the incentive for pork)

    while

    d) avoiding the populism weakness in pure parliamentary models since you still have the Senate

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