Once citizens begin to take on the vital work of drawing election maps, they discover that they need to understand the key values at play in the work—and to think through the tensions that arise among them.
When you begin to map, you soon discover that you can’t have it all. If you really prize one value strongly, you might have to sacrifice a little on another. Also, some values are enshrined in law, so they can’t be dismissed altogether. You have to figure out how to reach your aim while staying within the legal guardrails.
Here’s a primer on eight values or goals that are at play when you draw a map. They are listed in alphabetical order. The discussions under each value are intended to help you prepare to do this important citizen work yourself:
Definition: I want districts that spread as little as possible from their centers, with borders that are smooth, not jagged or contorted.
Discussion: This is a goal now mandated for Pennsylvania congressional districts by a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling. It’s long been listed in the state Constitution as a goal for legislative districts (though sometimes ignored in practice).
Statisticians have come up with several ways to measure the compactness of an election district. These have wacky names like “Polsby-Popper” and “Schwartzberg.” If you’re the kind of nerd who loves this stuff, by all means click on the link to learn more from our good friends at Azavea Inc. (the creators of DistrictBuilder). For the rest of you, trust us—it’s not a topic where you need to do that deep a dive.
The basic point is: Compactness is one mapping goal that yields to the lay-person eye test. You can look at a district and tell generally whether it lives up to the goal.
As discussed below, maintaining compactness may not prove as easy as assumed if a mapper prizes other values such as “minority representation” or “communities of interest.”
2. Communities of interest
Definition: I want maps to take into account important historic identities (e.g Lehigh Valley, Main Line, “coal country”) even if those identities don’t fit neatly with county or municipal boundaries. I think maps may also take into account a region’s shared policy interests (e.g. fracking, watersheds).
Discussion: This value is where the fistfights sometimes break out. To some, it seems the plainest common sense that election maps should conform as much as possible to a community’s own sense of its common identity and interests. Just ask people in the Lehigh Valley how aggravated they got when the 2011 congressional map split the Valley into multiple districts—even though it’s almost precisely the right size to be one district.
On the other side, some note that no federal or state constitution, nor any major court ruling, cites “community of interest” as a legitimate factor in mapping. The very phrase induces rolling of eyes and grinding of teeth among these people. To them, this notion is the epitome of vagueness, an infinitely bendable concept that could provide cover for all kinds of partisan mapping mischief.
3. Competitive elections
Definition: I want maps to take into account political data (e.g. party registrations, recent election results), in order to maximize the number of “swing” districts where each party has a relatively equal chance.
Discussion: Clearly, if you hate the maps drawn by political operatives scheming to create as few competitive districts as possible, it might seem logical that you would put a high value on creating districts where party registration totals are close.
Such maps are more likely to encourage more candidates of moderate views to run for office. And they are more likely to set up meaningful choices for voters in general elections.
Still, three concerns to consider:
a) Some redistricting reformers don’t want such political data allowed into the map-making process. They believe excluding it will make it harder for partisans to execute a gerrymander.
b) Sometimes when people say they value “competition,” what they really mean is they’d like to see it applied to incumbents who belong to “the other team.” That’s not the same thing as a truly nonpartisan map that would make incumbents from both parties have to work harder for re-election.
3) Americans—and Pennsylvanians—have tended in recent decades to sort themselves into different swaths of geography based on values, politics, culture and tastes. As a result, creating 18 truly competitive congressional districts in Pennsylvania is nearly impossible. It’s hard to create even a dozen without doing violence to other values on this list.
Definition: I want districts where no one part is disconnected from the rest, and no connections strike me as minimal or absurd (e.g. the width of an interstate highway).
Discussion: The first part of this definition is in fact a legal requirement for a valid election map. But politicians have found some absurd ways to honor the letter of this law e.g. one part of the old, infamous Pennsylvania Seventh Congressional District was connected to the bulk of the district only by the width of the parking lot of Creed’s Seafood and Steaks in King of Prussia. One now-invalidated North Carolina district was at several points only slightly wider than Interstate 85. Mappers have to decide how rigorous a definition of “contiguous” they’ll use while trying to honor other goals at the same time.
5. Equal population
Definition: I want all election districts to be as close as possible in population, to uphold the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”
Discussion: Equal population is not just about keeping things neat and tidy. This principle is the constitutional bedrock of redistricting, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that court rulings made it so. Before then, districts could vary widely in population. The effect was that votes of individuals in the highest population districts didn’t have the same impact in congressional or legislative elections as votes from less-populated districts. The legal term for this is “vote dilution.” (It does not come into play in a statewide election like one for governor.)
The people who had the power of their vote reduced in this way were often minorities, so this became a civil rights issue. Nowadays, congressional districts are held to a strict standard—where even the smallest variation in population between districts must have a compelling reason. Pennsylvania state legislative districts have a little more leeway; they need only be “substantially” equal in population.
On our DistrictBuilder tool, we decided it would be too complicated for beginning mappers to meet the exacting congressional standard, so for now the tool is set up with the more forgiving standard. You can’t just ignore this goal, since it’s mandated, but you can judge whether you think the strict or loose standard makes more sense.
6. Minority representation
Definition: I want maps that ensure communities of color have regular and meaningful opportunities to elect a candidate who shares their identity.
Discussion: This one gets complicated fast. In rulings interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that, to ensure minority candidates a chance at getting elected, it’s OK to draw districts where a given minority population (most often African-Americans) constitutes a majority. In practice, though, clever Republican mapmakers have been able to exploit those rulings to concoct highly pro-GOP gerrymanders that meet the letter of those rulings by packing black voters into one or two districts almost guaranteed to elect a black candidate.
The real-world effect of the court rulings has been to provide cover for gerrymanders that enable a lot of white politicians to win easily while never having to worry about what their tiny sprinkling of African-American constituents might want.
This goal can also clash with Compactness and Contiguity. Some election districts whose unusual shapes seem to scream “Gerrymander!” actually were the result of a desire to craft a majority-minority district.
So, if minority representation is one of your top goals, you have a tricky choice to think through. Is the goal best served by creating a couple of districts that are easy wins for minority candidates, or by creating multiple districts where minorities are voting blocs that might lift some minority candidates to victory, but which no candidate, no matter their color, can afford to ignore? There’s no perfect solution. Best to think through it on DistrictBuilder, mouse in hand.
7. Jurisdictional splits
Definition: I want maps to limit to the greatest degree possible the number of times that either counties or municipalities are split among multiple districts.
Discussion: This is the highest value, the prime directive, if you will, for Amanda Holt, the citizen mapper who made history in 2011 by challenging the state legislative maps and who serves as an inspiration for Draw the Lines. Holt maintains laser focus on the state Constitution’s language about avoiding jurisdictional splits as often “as practicable.” This places her in the eye-rolling camp when it comes to “Communities of Interest.” Others, however, object that a singular focus on this goal leads to maps that do nothing to enhance minority communities’ clout at the polls.
8. Party advantage
Definition: I want maps that enable my political party to win as many seats as its vote tallies can justify.
Discussion: We leave this goal on the list as a matter of realism. Let us not fool ourselves. For many people, this is the whole point of paying attention to redistricting. They are reacting to the seismic shocks of the 2016 election.
And most of these are liberals, not conservatives. Why? The thorough and stunning success of the GOP’s Project REDMAP initiative, which switched state legislatures into Republican hands just in time for the 2011 maps to be drawn, means that the United States now contains more Republican gerrymanders than Democratic ones.
This, in true Newtonian fashion, has produced the equal and opposite reaction of heavy Democratic agitation about redistricting reform. You have to peel several layers off an activist on this issue to suss out whether the person is primarily interested in fair process and fair maps—or just wants to change the rules to prepare the ground for Project BLUEMAP in 2021.
To be sure, a whole lot of registered Democrats and Republicans are sincere reformers, including most of the ranks of Fair Districts PA. But another nice-sized group can’t keep their party bias out of their thinking on this issue. Their definition of a “fair” map is tinged either red or blue.