The computer age offers a perfect solution to the problem of gerrymandering, an issue the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion on in January. We are betting the court will fail to use that solution.
The case before it is Gill v. Whitford, which reached the high court after an appeals court ruled Wisconsin’s 2010 redrawing of congressional districts in the state amounted to “unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.”
In this case, it was Republicans who used a convoluted method to ensure that Democrats did not gain a congressional seat in the 2012 election even though President Obama got 53 percent of the vote. It worked better than that. Before that election, the eight-member delegation was split evenly. After the gerrymandering following the 2010 census, the delegation was five Republicans to three Democrats.
The court’s previous venture into the gerrymandering morass came in 2004 when the deciding vote again was that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. He bailed on ruling against a gerrymandering case then, but suggested he might vote against the practice next time if someone could come up with workable standards.
Well, a very workable standard is sitting in a huge building in suburban Maryland, with all the information, computers and cartographers necessary to satisfy Kennedy that the bureau could easily redraw the congressional maps for each state. The overall standard to be sure there is no prejudice in the drafting would program the computer to draw the districts in squares as much as possible.
Only Wyoming is square, of course, but its population of 565,000 is nowhere near the current 711,000 per congressional district, so it only has one House representative, ergo no map to draw. Colorado is more a rectangle than a square, and most of the rest are defined by those pesky rivers at least on one side.
For our example, then, let’s take Colorado. It was just over 5 million in 2010, so it gets seven seats. Below is the map the 2011 state legislature came up with.
It is obvious from the map that Colorado legislators had a prejudice in mind—they wanted to keep from splitting counties as much as possible. Thus, district three, composed mostly of the sparsely populated Rocky Mountains is an odd shape, and district four, composed most of the mostly rural prairie area of the state, is almost a mirror image of three. The other five divide up the rest of the population, 3.5 million people jammed into about a fifth of the state.
Census data is house by house so if programmed to create squares of 711,000 people each, it probably could do exactly that. We don’t have the wherewithal to divide the census data thusly, but a computer-generated district map drawn without the prejudice of respecting county borders might cleave the third district horizontally by a straight line just above the number 3 and into the northwestern quarter of five and up along the eastern border of Park County straight up to the Wyoming border.
Don’t try this at home; let the computer do it, or you’ll either spend a year at it or go mad, even if you had all the house-by-house census data at hand. But, you get the picture. Not only would counties get sliced and diced, so could cities with fewer than 711,000, again because not dividing them is a built-in prejudice.
The court could order such a computerized system be required not only in Wisconsin, but in the rest of the country, ending noxious partisan gerrymandering forever.
Mostly like, however, Kennedy and the rest of the court will miss their big chance.