Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Schwarzenegger Redistricting Plan

Hi Everyone,

Recently we got into a heated debate about redistricting that centered on the possibility, feasibility, and advisability of non-partisan solutions to the apparent absurdity that is the American electoral districting process. I almost hesitate to bring this all up again but its becoming a major issue in California politics right now so in interests of keeping the blog current I'll bring it up again. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (hereafter "A.S.") is proposing to overhaul the method we currently use to draw electoral districts in California. Right now, it is done by the majority vote of the State Legislature. A.S. proposes turning the process over to a non-partisan committee of "retired judges." This is very similar to some of the alternatives mentioned by Dr. Strangelove in the aforementioned debate.

A.S. does not specify how the committee will be selected or why "retired judges" should be less partisan than anyone else. That's key because LTG has told me that there is a significant conservative bias in the judiciary - especially at the local level - because so many judges are former prosecutors. But forget all that for a moment. Assume for now that they will draw districts in a completely non-partisan way. That districts will not be tortured shapes designed to preserve partisan or racial majorities. Rather they will draw "rational" boundaries that look more "reasonable" on a map. Perhaps corresponding to township or zip code boundaries something that ignore partisan concerns entirely.

The L.A. Timesis reporting that the Republicans in the California Congressional delegation are opposed to the A.S. plan because they see it as a partisan attack on conservatives. See, if the new "non-partisan" redistricting process goes through, the tortured boundaries that ensure safe seats for Republicans (and Democrats) will be replaced by boundaries that include broader and presumably more random cross sections of the ideological landscape. Since ideology is closely associated with class, occupation and - this is key - geography, redrawing the boundaries could create more districts where neither party is really at an advantage. That would tend to favor centrist candidates of both parties. So the conservative dominated Republican leadership in California fears that A.S. is proposing this new plan in an effort to take over the party and change its ideology rather than out of any true spirit of non-partisanship. Given the uneasy relationship between A.S. and the conservative wing of his party, this fear is probably justified.

I'm just to the left of being centrist so I don't mind such a plan all that much (I'd be willing, reluctantly, to trade away the left of wing of the Democratic party if it meant being saved from the scourge of the far right). But there are many on the left wing of the Democratic party and the right wing of the Republican party who would scream bloody murder over such a plan - and are warming up for it already. And who is to say that they don't have a right to call this a partisan plan? It's a centrist partisan plan but centrists can be partisan too - they just tend to riot less.

The reason I bring this up is because this example shows that even if you assume honestly non-partisan boundary selection, the boundaries can have partisan implications. Partisan politics is unavoidable when it comes to institutional design.

8 comments:

Koala Boy said...

Absolutely right. You start from a partisan position, and hence there will be partisan implications to any change of the current system. But as you point out, that may not be a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

If the change is just to judicial selection of boundaries, then there is always an opening for criticism. We know what the "what" is, and this is just a change of "who" without any mention of "how". The "how" has to not only manage the future selection process but also the transition between systems. So how is this going to work, apart from the implicit changes of "who" is making the decision? Is there going to be any guidance given on the process to be followed? Your assumption hides what is to me the interesting question.

Raised By Republicans said...

Unfortunately, Arnold has not elaborated on his proposed reform. He hasn't told us how the "retired judges" will be selected (presumably retired judges are ones that are too old to be "activist" anymore), what criteria they will use to draw districts and he hasn't told us how he plans to enact the reform (through the legislature or via referendum).

The biggest point I thought the story made was that it doesn't matter how one draws up the districts or who does it. All district boundaries have partisan implications. Even if we just took every zip code in the state and randomly assigned them all to electoral districts using a random number generator or something, that would have partisan implications (it would probably favor centrist candidates).

Dr. Strangelove said...

Koala Boy points out that the details of any non-partisan redistricting process are crucial to understanding how it will really work, and I agree completely. I don't know what they have in mind, but I ran across this fascinating little tidbit that might be of interest: a specific proposal for a non-partisan redistricting process. Among its provisions:

1. An automated congressional redistricting process executed by open-source software.

2. An algorithm with unambiguous definitions of compactness, connectivity, some weighting with respect for county boundaries, and other parameters.

3. A software database that would contain only that information which is required for the algorithm.

4. Supervision provided by a randomly-chosen grand jury from a randomly-chosen county.

5. Allowance for human intervention. The software produces twice as many candidate maps as there are jurors, and each juror may reject one for any reason. The final map is drawn randomly from the remaining pool.

Now before the other Citizens bite my head off for mentioning a technocratic solution to a political problem, let me be clear that my point is only that randomness and computerized algorithms are always available as tools to minimize unintentional political bias in governance. Yes, there would be some debate over what exactly the algorithm should be, but experience shows that most non-partisan electoral committes use pretty much the same rules; even among those who prefer a partisan process, there's general agreement on what a fair non-partisan process would look like.

To me, the question is: if in your heart you believe that a non-partisan process along these lines would be better for our democracy in the long run, and yet moving to such a system now would be against your short-term political interests, what is the right thing to do? A compromise might be to adopt a plan that will come into effect in--oh--20 years.

Raised By Republicans said...

That is an interesting proposal for a "non-partisan" districting plan. But what do we mean by "non-partisan?"

On the one hand, if we mean that we are trying to establish an electoral districting system that has no biases pro- or anti- any particular ideology then that is imposible. All boundary configurations will have partisan implications.

On the other hand, if we are talking about setting up a system that is stable over time and resists changes in partisan majority, that is possible. But in setting up such a system we will be locking a particular partisan bias in place more or less permanently (at least until we change the districting rules again which is very hard to do).

As for the particular proposal mentioned I have two comments:

First, I would not be happy about any committee, however selected, overseeing redistricting from some counties. Randomly selected partisans is not a non-partisan solution. I would be much more comfortable with the idea that people that represent my political preferences would be gauranteed a voice on the oversight committee.

Second, this must have been drawn up by an engineer or related occupation because only an engineer would think that publishing the source code makes a redistricting process run by Diebold machines on steroids "transparent." ;-)

Dr. Strangelove said...

A quick note: the source code for the Diebold machines is not open and we cannot inspect it. If we could, we could be assured that it works properly and doesn't give extra votes to Republicans.

If we had a committee made up of half randomly chosen people (as in the modest proposal) and half partisan hacks, would that help assuage your fears, RxR? I'd be OK with that, because I'm comfortable that the algorithm would work regardless--and this way if there were some map candidates that a party just hated, they could nix them.

Re RxR's favorite whipping boy, the term "non-partisan," I will certainly agree that any redistricting process will have partisan implications--but in and of itself, that does not make a process "partisan." (At least, not in the way that I believe most people use the term.) But even if you still disagree with that, at least let us agree that there exists a coherent philosophy or mindset of "non-partisanism" out there--however naive it may be.

Without trying to come up with an exact definition or anything, "non-partisanism" is the belief that there is an ideal, fair way to do things (and there may be more than one of these "best" ways) that we ought to try to approximate, as best we can, in our political institutions and processes. Even if this happens run counter to our short-term political interests, the belief is that by getting away from petty politics now, our sacrifice will make our democracy better-off in the long run. Doing things by lottery and algorithm is certainly part of this way of thinking, whether you think it's sensible or not.

I can hear RxR bringing out his Plato now :-)

Raised By Republicans said...

"A quick note: the source code for the Diebold machines is not open and we cannot inspect it. If we could, we could be assured that it works properly and doesn't give extra votes to Republicans."

My point/joke was that posting the source code online is only a useful form of communication to people who know how to program computers. So it's not really transparent, is it? At some point you'll ask me to trust some computer engineer.

"But even if you still disagree with that, at least let us agree that there exists a coherent philosophy or mindset of 'non-partisanism' out there--however naive it may be."

I believe it is not only naive it is fundamentally anti-democratic. I believe that because it is based on the normative assertion that individual interest should be subjegated to some as yet undefined "national interest" (I contend that no such interest actually exists).

"Without trying to come up with an exact definition or anything, 'non-partisanism' is the belief that there is an ideal, fair way to do things (and there may be more than one of these 'best' ways) that we ought to try to approximate, as best we can, in our political institutions and processes."

If there are several "best ways" and they have different implications for the representation of competing interests then there will be no agreement on the existance of an "ideal, fair way to do things." At some point the "non-partisans" will have to impose a solution on the rest of us.

As for the oversight board. It is the randomness that bothers me. One might be of the opinion that random = absence of bias. In statistics that may be true. But from the point of view of political institutions random = unpredictable. Consider a random selection of electoral district overseers from Orange County, CA. Now consider an equally random selection from San Francisco County. Will either selection be "fair?" What if the random selection were state wide? Would that be "fair?"

I hear from Bell Curve that there is a field of mathematics that exams these kinds of issues. I'm curious what he has to say about all of this.

Dr. Strangelove said...

1. Re source code, I certainly understand what you are saying, RxR, but hasn't the law has always been written in highly technical language? I could just as easily say, "As written, most laws are only a useful form of communication to people who know how to read legalese. So it's not really transparent, is it? At some point you'll ask me to trust some lawyer." (Incidentally, modern object-oriented code is a lot easier to follow than the old "spaghetti" code used to be.) I think the right question for the layman is, would you trust a programmer to tell you accurately how a program works to a similar degree that you trust a legislative analyst to tell you accurately what a ballot measure says? My point is that we could make this work.

2. Re selecting citizens to sit on a redistricting panel, I agree that a sample of people living in San Francisco are more likely to have liberal leanings than a sample chosen from Orange County, and the same could be said of California vs. Mississippi. But this is really no different than the problem our court system must tackle every day when selecting juries. We understand that a jury in San Francisco county might be more inclined to be lenient than one in Orange county. But we do the best we can. That's all one can ask of a system. Maybe we need a "change of venue": e.g., citizens from Colorado draw California's districts. My point is that the system is not perfectly free of bias, but it could be made much more free of bias than it is right now, if one believed that were desirable.

3. Re randomness and unpredicatability, randomness does not mean unpredictable--actually, quite the opposite. I would be much more confident giving you odds on whether a random sample of 80 people from California would vote for a certain initiative than I would be confident saying how the 80 California Assembly members would vote.

4. Re the democratic-ness of non-partisanship, I agree that an unelected body is by definition undemocratic--but all democracies employ many unelected government officials, boards, etc. As I've argued in the past, while there is no way to eliminate all risk of partisanship, one can minimize the risk with a thoughtfully designed process.

5. Re "the normative assertion that individual interest should be subjegated to some as yet undefined 'national interest' (I contend that no such interest actually exists)," I believe that RxR has illuminated a deep difference between us. Let me emphasize that I do not believe that an ideal political system can be derived in a vacuum. But if one is permitted to start with some principles or assumptions about what is desirable in a good society, then one can develop ways to measure how well a system is achieving those desires.

The key, then, is coming up with these principles. Many are controversial--that's politics. For example, some believe that a providing equal opportunity to all children is more important than respecting absolute parental authority. But still, the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution suggest a few basic principles that I'd wager most Americans would accept --things like voting rights for non-felons over 18, a belief that advancement by merit is preferable to entrenched nepotism. And even if you don't agree with that, my fallback position is this: I cannot speak for all of The Citizens, but I suspect strongly that there are many principles we agree upon. I assert that if we add up the principles we all agree upon and ask what kind of redistricting process best fits them, we would end up concluding that a non-partisan redistricting process somewhat along these lines is preferable, in the long run, to our current process.

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