Monday, July 11, 2011

Redistricting ridiculousness

The silliness of modern, computer-age redistricting battles is pointed out in an article in today's News & Observer. The ridiculous convolutions of new congressional districts are illustrated in the article: One person in Sampson County is in the Third District while everyone else is in the Second District; three residents of Wendell are the 13th District while all of the other 5,842 town residents are in the First District.

The slicing and dicing of electoral districts are a product of the computer age (mere humans would find such distinctions difficult to carve) and a Supreme Court decision that requires "zero deviation" from the standard derived by dividing the total state population by the number of congressional districts. This year, that number is 733,499. Seven of the 13 proposed districts hit that number exactly (the N&O article has a typo in the next paragraph in referring to five other districts that are one person short). Computers make such preciseness possible, but there are a couple of fallacies here.

1. The population totals (and the 733,499 figure) are based on the 2010 census, which was taken a year ago. Think no one moved during that time? Think no one died? Think no one was born? An instantaneous census is not possible, so redistricting is always going to be based on outdated data.

2. When these new districts are approved, they will be in effect for 10 years (unless court challenges change them). Do you think the population will remain fixed for 10 years? Dream on. Congressional districts are inherently unequal because regions of the state do not grow (or shrink) at equal rates. As soon as districts are implemented, they are unequal. The Constitution demands equal representation, but equal representation based on decennial censuses is a myth.

Congress, state legislatures and the courts should aim for something less than perfect, knowing that perfection is impossible. Districts should be approximately equal, say within 2 to 5 percent, an acceptable deviation knowing that census data is already outdated. Districts should also be contiguous, compact and cohesive and should follow natural or political-interest boundaries.

The districts proposed by Republican legislators who now control the General Assembly fail to meet a compact, cohesive standard, just as the maps drawn 10 years ago by Democratic legislators failed. They sprawl all over the map, trying to achieve political advantage. The anomalies the N&O points out today merely emphasize the silliness of this exercise.

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