Redistricting by municipality?

A friend sends along the following modest proposal for reforming the redistricting process.

  1. Take all 95 counties and the five “cities” that used to be counties. All remaining cities would fold their representation into their logically respective counties (i.e. Fredericksburg into Spotsylvania, Charlottesville into Albemarle, Richmond into Henrico, Falls Church et al. into Fairfax). This would constitute the House of Delegates.
  2. Take the remaining 40 State Senate seats and ask our parties to run a slate of candidates, up or down, for a European-style party slate (no listing on multiple slates). A percentage of the vote will correspond with the number of members from the slate to represent that party in the Virginia Senate. So if the Democrats get 45%, the Republicans get 45%, and four minor parties each gain 2.5% of the popular vote, that’s 16 Democrats, 16 Republicans, one Libertarian, one Green, one Fairfax First Party (completely guessing here), and one Mickey Mouse.

Advantages would be that you would have a HOD much more responsive to county and city boards. The Senate would be much more responsive to party slates, which is bad if internal party cronyism is a concern, but good if platforms and ideas are a concern as well (ideally, it would force parties to stand on their own two feet and compare and contrast ideas). While the major parties would still dominate the House, smaller parties would now officially find their “voice” in the Senate while forcing a tendency towards a two-party system by nature of the HOD makeup.

Disadvantages? Not sure… itty-bitty counties would be disproportionately represented in the House. Larger localities like Northern Virginia would undoubtedly dominate the Senate. I also have zero idea as to how this would affect the House or Senate in terms of party representation, which is probably good for objectivity’s sake.

Redistricting for U.S. House seats would have to be done the old-fashioned way… but with a much more diverse Senate and an ideologically defused House, this may prove to be the best check-and-balance on the gerrymandering process… as the “human element” can never really be excised.

I love rethinking the fundamentals of government, even if it’s just to prove that we’re currently employing the least-bad method. On the matter of redistricting, though, I’m entirely convinced that our current process is about as bad as it could possibly be. As best as I can tell, even the supposed next step up — “bipartisan redistricting” — is just a euphemism for legislators designing their own districts to ensure their reelection, with the majority party getting a better deal than the minority party. You know, the same bloody thing we’re doing right now.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

24 replies on “Redistricting by municipality?”

  1. We hardly have any representation in the rural areas now, so I suppose anything would be an improvement. I do know that a district the size of the 59th (or the Congressional 5th) is nearly too large in land area for effective representation. I would like to see districts that not only address population disparities but also sheer size.

    I realize that technology has made distances less due to communications improvements, but in the area where I live, the ability to use those technologies is not as widespread. For instance, very few people where I live use the internet, and there is very spotty broadband coverage, if at all. I have had satellite internet for years as a result.

    Maybe I am thinking of better representation, rather than better districts. A better representative could make a poorly drawn district work.

  2. Virginia’s Congressional districts don’t have size problems compared to Alaska’s, Montana’s, North and South Dakota’s, Wyoming’s…all of which have a single Congressional district for the entire (large!) state!

  3. I know it’s fashionable these days to bemoan the dominance of the 2 major parties and look for ways to make room at the table for smaller parties (Libertarian, Green, etc), but I rather like the 2-party system. Among its attributes:

    1. There’s never a question of forming coalitions among multiple parties to ensure a majority in the House and Senate.

    2. Relative stability.

    3. It forces each party to moderate its views and stay close to the center lest it seem too radical. The difference between Rs and Ds in Virginia is therefore miniscule compared to the difference between far-left and far-right parties in Europe and elsewhere.

  4. Salary caps are fundamental to the NFL but it doesn’t stop me from stacking my fantasy football team with as many big named players as I can.

    But is the Supreme Court decision fundamental or fundamental for its time? You’re looking at a decision passed down during the civil rights movement and one that may be viewed as dated. If a viable and even handed solution were presented, wouldn’t it be worth speculating on and perhaps fighting for, all the way to the Supreme Court?

  5. The ruling is fascinating… it seems as if any sort of redistricting that violates the “one man, one vote” principle is the culprit — even if it is just one house.

    True, the decision came down during the height of the Civil Rights Era (and no doubt was fresh in the minds of any justice of the court).

    Still, the SCOTUS was very thourough in its reasoning, right down to an analogy between the Federal system vs. the State system — the States surrendered a portion of their sovereignity when they formed the United States, and therefore the compact of the Constitution and the compromise of the bicameral legislature is on an entirely different plane than state apportionment, which is under the Constitutional provisions of the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, and even the Guarenty Clause (a “republican form of government” does not take precedence over Equal Protection).

    Of course, the ruling does smack Alabama for bringing this exception to the fore as an afterthought rather than a matter of first things… so perhaps there is a ray of light.

    Nonetheless, an interesting ruling and a slice of history that does cast a pall over this particular idea. Ah well…

  6. The notion that political representation be based upon population is “dated”?

    Though this decision was handed down in the early 1960s, it was not a “civil rights movement” decision per se. It was also based upon some fundamental principles:

    . Legislators represent people, not areas.

    . Weighting votes differently according to where citizens happen to reside is discriminatory.

    Good luck finding judicial approval for a scheme that seeks to deviate from those two principles.

    (Many windmills are best just left alone.)

  7. Folks, “one-man, one-vote” is by now seen as fundamental. It is not changing. The only issues around Reynolds v. Sims are picky things like, “Does it apply to school boards? Does it apply to soil and water conservation boards? Does it apply to entities that are advisory but not policy-making or taxing?” There is no question, and there will not become any question under any current of legal or constitutional thought of which I am aware, that it applies with full force to legislative bodies.

  8. One man one vote is a requirment-the house plan is off the table. Single member districts are not-the senate plan might work. VA House had multi-member districts until the early 80’s.

    Even if the House plan was allowable there is another problem. The five cities that used to be counties are Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Chesapeak and Suffolk. What do we do with Norfolk and Portsmouth? The counties from which they were created are gone. (Norfolk may have also been created from a county-there were at one time North Norfolk and South Norfolk counties) Guessing that North Norfolk County became the City of Norfolk and South Norfolk COunty then renamed itself Norfolk County. The City of South Norfolk later split off from Norfolk County and the two later merged to form the Cty of Chesapeake. (the last part is a fact, that South Norfolk city split off from Norfolk County is an educated guess). Portsmouth on the other hand was probably split off from a county at some point

  9. “One man, one vote” isn’t respected at the federal level… and while the SCOTUS case makes the argument as to why this is, this is really a discussion over which principle takes precedence — the right to a “republican form of government” or the Equal Protection Clause?

    It’s worthwhile to hash out the pros and cons without necessarily taking sides. Jeff makes the worthwhile point that we have to keep the conversation within the realm of possibility… but there is no harm in rethinking the fundamentals, especially in this case.

  10. I guess I’m approaching this from the point of view that I don’t really consider Reynolds v. Sims a rethinkable fundamental; rather, I consider it (and other relevant Constitutional mandates and SCOTUS decisions) the framework within which other fundamentals may be revisited.

    The real problems to be addressed are:

    – Redistricting is often excessively partisan.
    – Redistricting is often a tool used by incumbents to protect their own seats.

    In contrast, “one man, one vote” isn’t a problem–it’s a bedrock principle of democracy. I assert that to abandon it in an attempt to reign in gerrymandering abuses is a) logically flawed; and b) nigh impossible, from a legal standpoint.

  11. Which is not to say that I think the HoD plan presented is a good one.

    Note that Maryland has three-member districts for its lower chamber (in fact the districts are the same as the senate districts, though some are subdivided if they’re geographically large).

  12. Not sure I follow the logic that ‘rethinking the fundamentals’ leads to giving Highland County (pop. 2,500) and Fairfax County + Fairfax City + Falls Church City (combined pop. 1,050,000) the same representation. (And under this scheme, Richmond would likely be split into Henrico north of the James and Chesterfield south of the river, as much of that was Chesterfield until as recently as the 1970s… I’m sure Chesterfield would love that plan)

    On the other hand, I think all levels of US government would benefit more from a diversity of ideas that I think are missing in America’s two-party dichotomy but would be present with greater 3rd party representation. It’s hard to be as polarizing as George Bush has been when there are more than two sides.

    And, I would agree in that bipartisan redistricting, still subject to parties’ instincts to protect incumbents, is only a half-hearted change compared to what Virginia really needs: non-partisan redistricting.

  13. KCinDC: The US Senate was not conceived of as a democratic body, or even one representative of the people. It was conceived of as a body representing the legislatures of the states.

  14. The US Senate was not conceived of as a democratic body, or even one representative of the people. It was conceived of as a body representing the legislatures of the states.

    True enough, as respects its conception, and certainly true for as long as state legislatures selected their Senators. But, we’ve now moved to direct election of Senators and that change sure seems to me to violate the “one man, one vote” principle.

  15. More specifically, the U.S. Senate wasn’t conceived as representing the state legislatures. It was designed to represent the states. The legislatures simply chose the delegation.

    Also, it should be pointed out that it’s impossible for the Senate’s two members per state composition to be unconstitutional as a violation of Equal Protection. It’s constitutional, per se, because it was created that way by the Constitution.

    And while it’s conceivable, though extremely unlikely, that Reynolds v. Sims could be reversed, it is virtually impossible that the U.S. Senate would ever switch to proportional representation. Doing so would require a super-majority of the states to voluntarily reduce their voting strength in that chamber.

  16. Offhand, your friend’s plan doesn’t sit very well with me, for some of the reasons cited, and others. With respect to the proposal for the State Senate, I tend to notice with a frequency that occassionally alarms me that some people who find their government and political process unsatisfactory (and nowadays that’s pretty much everyone) will have this natural inclination towards thinking that everything would be better if only our political process was more like Europe’s.

    Frankly, I consider that to be a cop-out, an easy answer to a difficult question. Things work differently in Europe, sure, but I wouldn’t say they work better. If it does anything successfully, it succeeds in making the system more-efficiently partisan during the legislative process by diffusing people into a wider spectrum of parties, and then frontloading the deal-brokering of a legislative session within the context of parliamentary coalition building to construct a ruling government.

    Which works fine for them, but I wouldn’t go along with it. As someone who doesn’t agree with any one party on every issue (even though I self-identify as a Democrat), I don’t want to elect a party to find common ground for me. Rather, I think it’s in the spirit of American politics and American leadership to build concensus for ourselves, which is part and parcel of our defined legislative-district, “winner-take-all” style. I *like* the fact that in almost all instances, a politician needs to win more than 50% of the vote to win an election; it means he is best served by trying to represent the views and values of as many of his constituents as possible, and all things being equal, this is the sort of political value that allows a moderate, centrist leader like Mark Warner to flourish.

    Unfortunately, because of partisan redistricting, all things are not equal, and by creating polarized districts, we create a polarized legislature. But while our redistricting process is mangled, eliminating the legislative district is an overly-simplistic answer to a very complicated question. Rather than abdicating our reponsibility to fix the problem at hand, let’s tackle it head on and define what a district should be, and how we should arrive at drawing one.

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