Algorithms Cure Gerrymanders, But Politics Remains
With the midterm elections just a few weeks away, across California politicians have had to scramble more than usual to compete in redrawn districts. The new district boundaries were the product of the “2020 California Citizens Redistricting Commission,” which was formed to eliminate partisan politics from being a factor.
Partisan politics is not really the issue in California, however, since Democrats have wielded nearly absolute political power in the state for nearly 30 years. So why is it that the final district maps are so contorted?
Have a look at California’s new U.S. Congressional Districts, using an image taken from the final maps page on the California Redistricting Commission’s website and presented below. Sadly, because the contortions are so intricate, the image only shows those districts in the Los Angeles area. Do these districts follow logical lines of geography, or are they a bit twisted?
Congressional District 42 is a prime example of a district drawn in defiance of logic. Its southern end is down in Long Beach, but as it stretches to the northeast it thins to a sliver to take in a slice of Lakewood and Bellflower, then widens a bit to incorporate parts of Downey, then bends northwest to take in Huntington Park at its northern end. What machinations went into defining CD 42? It wasn’t logic.
CD 45 is similarly bent, but in a reverse arc. It starts in the south in Fountain Valley, then moves northwest to take in Westminster, then turns back to the northeast to accommodate Buena Park, then continues moving east to grab parts of Yorba Linda. Across Los Angeles, and across the state, examples of pretzel shaped districts are plentiful.
There is another way to shape the districts our politicians represent. The capacity to use algorithms that manipulate geographic units at the precinct level to shape districts with equal numbers of residents and logical boundaries is well established. Several resources immediately available online document this: A 2021 math thesis “Repairing Redistricting: Using an Integer Linear Programming Model to Optimize Fairness in Congressional Districts” is one example that deigns to explain its concepts in plain English. Further good references can be found here, and here.
A 2022 study posted on ScienceDirect titled “An algorithmic approach to legislative apportionment bases and redistricting” is also readable and discusses some of the challenges, as well as how software developed just in the last few years can solve them.
For example, when directing an algorithm to iterate a set of district boundaries while maintaining equal populations and solving for convex edges and minimizing the cumulative length of the polygons formed by the districts, the user must specify the initial geographic centers of each district. With multiple solutions possible, this placement affects the results. While the latest software copes well with this challenge, moving the centers automatically as it iterates towards a solution, one would think defining centers is a subjective choice that could be left to a nonpartisan commission. After all, geographic district “centers” ought to mean downtowns of the larger cities.
At every level, geographic logic eluded California’s redistricting commission, as evidenced by this map of California’s new State Senate districts.
In the Los Angeles area, SD 34 is a prime example of illogical boundaries. It starts in Santa Ana, moves north into Anaheim, the marches northwest through Fullerton, then northeast to top out in La Habra, while adding, through an isthmus barely 500 feet wide, a peninsula of constituents in the neighborhoods of Colima and Leffingwell.
These gyrations – have a look at SD 30 and SD 22 before turning from the above map, bearing in mind the entire state is just as weird – are not necessary. In a 2019 paper “Automated Congressional Redistricting,” the authors describe “swapping algorithms” that exchange voters by swapping boundaries to rationalize the shape of districts while retaining the same populations in both districts. This can be part of the iterative process. Why, for example, wouldn’t SD 30 absorb the Colima and Leffingwell neighborhoods from SD 34, while SD 34 picked up the preposterously contrived peninsula of SD 37 in northern Fullerton, while SD 37 grabbed portions of Rancho Santa Margarita from SD 38, and so on?
The answer is not blowing in the wind. It’s special interests, even in this one-party state, demanding districts in which they believe they can control the elections. Have a look at the champion for mangled district boundaries, the California State Assembly:
When it comes to California’s new State Assembly districts, almost every one of them has ridiculous boundaries. Not only are they all so crazy you can hardly tell where one begins and another ends – ref. AD 54, 62, 64, 65, 67, 73 – there are an abundance of inexplicable micro shifts of district boundaries, where just one street juts into another district.
For example, AD 67 shoots a finger west into AD 70 on Pacific Avenue, and only Pacific Avenue. For some reason, 16 homes on the south side of Pacific Avenue are in AD 67. The homes on the north side of that street are in AD 70, as is the Union Pacific property just south of their backyard fences. Why?
This is found all over the place. Just a few blocks north, six properties on the west side of Magnolia Avenue are part of AD 70, poking into AD 67. Moving east, five properties on Gylah Lane are part of AD 73, poking into AD 59. Across town to the northwest, six properties on the south side of Slauson Avenue are part of AD 64 which pokes into AD 56.
These microscopic, down to a half-street, shifts in boundaries are not by accident. They are evidence of retail political horse trading that is the obsessive, antithetical opposite of relying on algorithms. Or to be more accurate, algorithms were used aplenty in this down-to-the atoms exercise in what was purported to be a disinterested redistricting process, just not the right algorithms.
The home page of the California Redistricting Commission provides a clue as to what really went on as these boundaries were hashed out. There are 11 photographs, all in a row, each of them with a portrait of someone who is part of a different identity group. It is a diverse and inclusive home page montage, which is a fine and laudable ideal. Why not? Get everybody into the picture. But how that translates into district boundaries is not so pretty.
What the California Redistricting Commission wanted to ensure, and hopefully it was done with more decorum than was recently displayed by a suddenly infamous trio down in Los Angeles, was to make sure there was proportional representation, primarily by ethnicities. Getting proportional representation for the GOP was not a priority, because the GOP has no power.
Ethnic voting blocs, on the other hand, have a great deal of power, at least until they don’t. Democrats want to ensure they create districts that award seats to their designated power brokers in the Hispanic, Black and Asian communities. Because these communities are still reliable Democratic voters, this is a sound political strategy.
The day may come, however, when ethnic voters are as fragmented politically as white voters are. That will be a very good day for California, because it will mean issues that transcend race, affecting everyone, will be more important to voters than the Democratic litany about how they are disadvantaged and require Democrat politicians to protect them.
If that happens, there should be nothing standing in the way of partitioning California’s congressional, state senate, and state assembly districts into something resembling a checkerboard, instead of a jigsaw puzzle.
This article originally appeared in the California Globe.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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