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Florida's oddly shaped 23rd Congressional District. Courtesy of the National Atlas of the United States.
News and Opinion

Redistricting Reform
Florida's ballot initiatives would actually make things worse.

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

Having done research on the mathematics of voting, I was at first glad to see Fair Districts Florida striving to put redistricting reform on the ballot. After all, Florida is a poster child for Redistricting Reform. Rep. Alcee Hasting's district (FL 23), for example, has odd tentacles reaching into Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miramar.

Unfortunately, although redistricting is a serious national problem, Fair District Florida’s proposed amendments to the Florida State Constitution not only fail to address the current situation, they will make matters worse. Here are the key elements of Referendums 5 and 6:

  1. No apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent; and districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice; and districts shall consist of contiguous territory.
  2. Unless compliance with the standards in this subsection conflicts with the standards in subsection (1) or with federal law, districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.>

The first clause judges redistricting plans not on their effect but by their alleged motivation, turning redistricting into a “thought crime.” A redistricting plan requires input from scores of legislators, staff, and consultants familiar with statistics and demographic data. One could allege any of these participants of being motivated by political bias, and the redistricting plan would be rejected as a result. Inevitably, all discussion of the redistricting plan would have to be done off the record.

Moreover, a redistricting plan inherently has serious political consequences which if ignored will lead to elections which are not competitive, and whose results do not reflect the will of most voters.

Hypothetical state redistricting with compact congressional districts respecting city boundaries.

Here is a simple illustrative example: Consider a typical state with 5,000,000 residents to be divided amongst five Congressional Districts. One million live in a densely populated city in the Southwest corner of the state, and the remaining four million are spread out in four rural counties. Suppose the city is 95% Democratic while the rural counties are 60% Republican, as illustrated in the figure to the left. (Red dots represent 10,000 Republican voters while blue dots represent 10,000 Democratic voters.) Overall, the state has slightly more Democrats than Republicans (2,550,000 vs. 2,450,000). Suppose political voting patterns were truly ignored in drafting a redistricting plan of a hypothetical state, and borders were based only on existing geographical boundaries and compact districts. The most compact districts would arise by making the city its own district and making each county its own district. The four rural counties would not be competitive since the Republican candidate starts with a 20% advantage in registration over his Democratic rival. The sole urban district would be even less competitive: with 95% of the voters registered as Democrats, the Republicans may not even bother to field a candidate. As a result, the state's congressional delegation would be dominated 4:1 by Republicans even though the state has a Democrat majority. Moreover, because the districts are all so imbalanced, the Congressmen representing the districts will be virtually guaranteed reelection (just as 98% of House incumbents seeking reelection succeeding in doing in 1988). Without any doubt about their political future, politicians can ignore the needs and desires of their constituents

Alternate redistricting plan for the same hypothetical state with more competitive congressional districts.

On the other hand, if the state was divided into sectors as shown here, the districts would be five less-compact wedges which do not respect existing city/county boundaries, but are each extremely competitive (with 510,000 Democrats and 490,000 Republicans in each district). In such well-balanced districts, all candidates would have to campaign aggressively and be extremely responsive to his or her electorate once elected.

This example is not at all contrived; rather, it is typical of the situation in most states. Democrats tend to dominate in densely concentrated urban areas to a far greater extent than Republicans do in suburban and rural areas.

A sensible redistricting plan should take voting patterns into account. The State Constitution can then mandate competitive districts which in their aggregate reflect the political and ethnic makeup of the state. Iowa, for example, has adopted meaningful redistricting reform by taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and empowering a non-partisan redistricting commission. As a result, there are more competitive Congressional districts in Iowa than in Pennsylvania, New York and California combined! My own state, Pennsylvania, is considering adopting a similar plan.

Unfortunately, Fair District Florida’s proposed amendments do not achieve the goal of creating balance, competitive Congressional districts . I fear that passing well-intentioned but poorly-designed referendums will delay any serious attempts at meaningful redistricting reform.

Dr. Daniel Elliott Loeb has a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT. His research interests include the mathematics of voting, mathematical finance, statistics and game theory. He was the recipient of a NATO Collaborative Research Grant, a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship and a tenured research position in Computer Science with the French CNRS.

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