ZUBRIN: ‘Fiscal cliff’ drama reveals flawed system

Gerrymandering threatens democracy

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Gerrymandering is, by definition, a practice “that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan or incumbent-protected districts.”

As the nation breathes a sigh of relief, having barely escaped economic disaster delivered by various factions in Washington playing recklessly on the edge of the “fiscal cliff,” with ample promise of more havoc to come, it is essential that we ask how it is that our political system has become so dysfunctional. Where has reason gone? Why is no one willing to compromise? The public screamed for weeks for timely action to solve the crisis, yet the politicians were heedless and nearly sent us plunging into recession. Why?

Many reasons could be offered, but one of the principal contributing factors is gerrymandering. With the boundaries of their districts wildly contrived to favor their own political party, there is no reason for lawmakers to pay attention to the concerns of those outside the circuit of primary activist groups and PACs or to govern from the center to appeal for support among independents.

The practice of gerrymandering is legal technically, and it recently celebrated its 200th anniversary in this country. However, it has come to dominate the American political system as never before. According to The New York Times, in 2012, just 35 congressmen, or 8 percent, were elected from competitive districts whose votes were within 5 percent of the national average, while 242, a majority of the House, were chosen from districts engineered to be so uncompetitive that they diverged from the national average by more than 20 percent.

These results are shocking. The American people are being disenfranchised, with disastrous consequences. Regardless of precedent, gerrymandering remains a method of rigging elections to secure officeholders against the judgment of the voters. It is a crime against democracy and a license for political dementia — and it is time to end it.

How can this be done? While it is apparent that weird district shapes are contrived by politicians conspiring to disenfranchise the electorate, what objective standard is there for assigning fair boundaries?

In fact, there is a standard. The degree of contrivance behind the design of a set of districts is directly related to the oddness of the shapes employed to reach the election-rigging objective. There is a precise mathematical way to measure such malformation. That is, if you take the square of the perimeter of any shape and divide it by the shape’s area, you arrive at a number, which can be called its irregularity. For example, the irregularity of any square, regardless of its size, equals 16 (because (4s) 2/s2 = 16). On the other hand, the irregularity of a rectangle whose long side is 10 times the length of its short side is 48.4 (because (22s) 2/10s2 = 48.4). The odder and more contrived the shape, the higher its irregularity.

Congressional districts need to have equal population sizes, so the task of dividing a state fairly is more complicated than simply slicing it up into low-irregularity shapes. Still, there is a solution that can be ascertained objectively and accomplishes the goal of creating equal population districts with the minimum total irregularity. This can be found either by humans or computers.

I suggest it be done as follows: Let’s let the majority party in the state legislature take the first shot at proposing a redistricting plan. The sum of the irregularities of all the proposed districts can then be added up to create a score for the majority plan. The minority party can then be given 30 days to come up with an alternative plan. If it can come up with a design whose irregularity score is 1 percent lower than the majority plan, the minority plan will be adopted. If not, the majority plan will remain in place.

Creating districting boundaries in this way will not prevent the creation of safe districts for one party or another in all cases. Still, it will leave the matter to fair chance and geography rather than the arbitrary actions of political cabals.

Under the current system, redistricting plans are subject to endless litigation, for example under the Voting Rights Act, wherein various minority groups assert that certain redistricting plans have been contrived to deny them representation. Alternatively, those facing such suits have made the counterargument that their proponents are attempting to create racially determined set-aside congressional seats, which clearly would be unconstitutional. However, if the system recommended here were adopted, both of these forms of improper activity would be impossible, and suits based upon their allegation thus rendered preposterous.

Many politicians will resist such reform, as it will cost them their ability to fix elections in their own favor. Yet state lawmakers should consider the following: The practice of gerrymandering is a national disgrace that has disenfranchised the majority of American voters from an effective voice in choosing their congressional representation for nearly two centuries.

By taking the high road, legislators can set an example that will hold their counterparts in other states accountable as well, and it will set this outrageous activity on the road to extinction. Instead of perpetuating corruption and facilitating political and economic breakdown, they can use their time in office to accomplish something truly grand toward restoring democracy in America.

Robert Zubrin is a fellow with the Center for Security Policy and author of “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism” (Encounter Books, 2012).

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