Monday, April 14, 2008

Guest Post! [plus redistricting!]

..and now, A TOTAL STRANGER!!



thank you! ... thanks!

[continued applause]

...really, thanks!


So MBATR's esteemed host has done messed up and given me permission to drop a guest post or three to his excellent blog, and I'm just dangerous enough to use it. As former roommates it's clear we can't get enough of each other. Also, there are certain topics that I won't really be able to broach in broad daylight in my own blog because of certain professional affiliations that I have. As such, I'm going to have to keep the politics down over there and maybe let them play a bit over here.

Enough intros, on to content:

I was headed to lunch last Friday (...mmm, Chipotle) and heard an interesting interview on NPR with a man named Thomas L. Brunell, who has just published a book that argues a very strange idea. The book is called "Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America" and the title pretty well spells out the premise of Brunell's argument.

In a nutshell, Brunell argues the following:

-in competitive districts a large number of voters end up dissatisfied with the representation that gets elected. If a congressional seat elects a republican by a margin of 52% to 48%, then generally some 40% or so of the electorate ends up pretty darn dissatisfied with the representation that they see in office for that term.

-re-drawing districts along party lines (as we have them down here in Texas)actually minimizes the marginalizatoin the voters who suddenly have no candidate to support. In other words, if the a district were drawn so that 90% of the voters were republican, then the 10% non-republican populace that will eventually be discontented with its elected representation is in fact a much smaller number than to 45% or so that the number would otherwise have been.

-campaigns should be fought in the primaries instead of the general elections. Brunell argues that there is no evidence that two Republicans campaigning hard against one another tends to bend both candidates to the right. I disagree with that out of personal experience, but I'll get to that in a moment.

-if larger numbers of the populace are satisfied with their elected representatives then better laws end up being made because there is more participation encouraged between govt and populace.

So that's what he laid out there. For what it's worth, I think that Krys Boyd did a fair job of poking at the various weaknesses in Brunell's arguments and generally forcing him to defend his positions. Despite that, I still found myself stewing while eating my righteous veggie burrito.

Here are the specific things that I really have problems with in Brunell's arguments:

-Brunell's plan ignores the concept that people of one party can be dissatisfied with representatives of their own party. Lieberman supporters certainly can testify here, as can any homophobes who put Larry Craig in office. Boyd pressed him on this fact, but his answer did not satisfy.

-Brunell's plan locks the two party system even further into place. I consider this to be a very bad thing for the US population, as party gateways to elected offices guarantee even further elitism and exclusivity for people that seek public service. In the current setup you need more that a great resumé, loads of cash, and a network of public backers and financiers to get elected to anything, you also need party affiliation. In my opinion that is one of the elements of the system that keeps the people most suited to run this place out of office.

-Brunell's plan leaves to partisans the process of divvying up prospective voters, which is just asking for corruption and deceit. I mean c'mon, who's supposed to draw these maps anyway? Delay did one here in Texas, and [as maps go] it's flat out malicious.

so enough bashing of the poor man. What are the solutions?

I've long held that the ideal electoral maps would be based purely on population. This means that electoral maps would essentially mirror population density maps. Political affiliations, race and income demographics, and historical voting trends would [and should] be ignored. On further reflection though, it seems that I'd be in danger of creating a sort of de-facto version of Brunell's plan, by creating a number of small, dense urban districts to compete against a number of sparse, sprawling rural districts, with a kind of suburban "fade" in-between. This would also intrinsically give democrats [historically well supported by urbanites] a big advantage, since many would be able to hold town-hall meetings at some urban school within 3 miles of every member of their voting districts, whereas rural candidates [who are traditionally republican] would be left campaigning in districts that are geographically orders of magnitude larger, forcing expenditures either in travel or television advertising to reach the voters.

The only other possibility that I can think of off the top of my head would be to randomly assign registered votes a voting district when they register. This district would be unassociated with any geographical, political, or otherwise sliceable demographic, and would be purely statistical randomness. This would purely level the playing field for all candidates since their respective constituencies would be scattered throughout the state. Direct mail and the internet would be the primary campaigning mechanisms, since radio and television buys wouldn't penetrate enough of the electorate to be worth the expense. Of course, election technology would have to catch up to the freakin' modern age in order for this to be feasible, but that's not unattainable. Also, the tradeoff would be that town hall meetings and other personal interfaces with the officials would be effectively discouraged.

I still haven't come up with a perfect solution. any thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Um...single party state?

But seriously, the latter solution would be particularly unpalatable, as it's not just the lack of interface with elected officials that would run it aground. In poorer urban environments, direct mail is no substitute for on-foot organizing, and internet works well only with those who have reliable access. There's no better way to get people to disengage with politics than to sever local organizational ties.

Yeah, I have no solutions. No surprises there.

el ranchero said...

Hey, a guest post! Sweet!

Brunell's system also makes it virtually impossible to dislodge a corrupt/incompetent incumbent. As the netroots crowd can say from experience, it's significantly more difficult to wage an effective insurgency in a primary because of money advantages and the incumbent's place in the party machine. Plus, as we've seen in most "safe" districts, when there isn't significant opposition from the other party, people just stop paying attention and the incumbent gains an almost de facto tenure. Other elected officials think that person is entitled to their job and will mobilize to keep him/her there, usually with the understanding that they're also buying reciprocal entitlement. Take the example of Lincoln Chafee, who had long ago become a Democrat in all but name, yet when the Rhode Island GOP (and the Club for Growth) raised a primary challenger, the national party bailed him out and a number of other Republicans came in and campaigned for the incumbent, with whom they shared nothing and for whom they often felt contempt, against the challenger who talked and acted like a modern Republican.

Remember, the Lieberman episode was all over the news because it was highly unusual: when was the last time a sitting senator lost his own primary?

Rene said...

something that I meant to get to in the OP but forgot, was that contested primaries ARE held (at least on the Republican side) they tend to push both candidates to the extremes as they try to differentiate from each other.

So, pure population maps is the best answer so far?

el ranchero said...

I think so. I think if you're looking for a metric by which to group voters together, then locale is probably the best one. City voters have different priorities than rural ones, and individual regions/cities of a state may have their own issues and peccadilloes.

Could this issue be largely solved by keeping the process the same, but putting it into the hands of an nonpartisan panel of judges or census bureau wonks or something?

tom said...

Rene - This is Tom B. I saw your comments on my book and the interview. Thanks for the mention. The problem with competitive elections is that they lead to terrible representation, while homogeneous districts do not. There is no reason that primary elections cannot be used to get rid of bad politicians. It would be nice to get more people involved at the primary stage.

There is no evidence that safe districts (with or without a contested primary) push candidates to the extreme. Candidates will reflect the median voter in the district.

Thanks again for the comments.