We should know, or nearly know, the boundaries of our 100 single-member legislative delegate districts by now. And that brings to mind the words of former newscaster and political consultant Ralph Murphine, who said, “Never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate nor overestimate their interest.”
Aware of such warning, here are some difficulties in our decadal redistricting chore.
It starts with each decade’s census. That determines how many seats each state receives in the House of Representatives, as well as determines state legislative districts and how federal funds are allocated.
Who’s counted? Everyone, citizen or not. That’s under the concept that all being served should be counted, to distribute government services effectively.
How about those living out of state, like members of the military or those living abroad? College students? People in prison? We count U.S. military and federal civilian employees living outside the United States and their dependents in their home state. Others, not so much.
Prisoners are counted at their usual residence, their prison cell. College students are counted where they live most of the year, their campus.
And while residents of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have nonvoting members of Congress, they’re not included, as they’re not states. Once we know the population, we then apportion the 435 House voting members (fixed by law) to the states. Unfortunately, not all state populations are divisible by 435.
So, we use a Method of Equal Proportions, adopted in 1941 which is the fifth method we’ve utilized.
We calculate a current priority value by multiplying the population of a state by a calculated “multiplier” for each seat over one (reciprocal of the geometric mean) and then rank all, with the highest 435 being selected.
You might want to skip a few paragraphs unless you’re a math wonk.
The formula is one minus the square root of the number of representatives beginning with two (each state is guaranteed one), divided by the square root of that number minus one. That yields a multiple that is then multiplied by the population of a state. Then, the same is done for three and four and up, so each seat has a multiple assigned.
The multiple for the second seat is 0.70710678, the third is 0.40824829, and so forth.
That is then multiplied by the population of each state, to yield a priority value for each seat. Then, all priority values are ranked from highest, and the top 435 are chosen.
English, art and journalism majors may now resume reading.
Once congressional seats are defined, the legislature draws the boundaries of congressional districts, state senatorial districts and delegate districts.
There are even rules for that based on court decisions. Most notably, Reynolds v. Sims concluded that one person’s voting power ought to be roughly equal to another’s within the same state.
So, equal population with slight variances is first.
A 2012 Supreme Court ruling approved a West Virginia congressional plan with a 0.79% variance and has become standard, with more flexibility extended to state and municipal districts. A 10% variance seems acceptable there, for instance.
Minority Representation: Don’t disadvantage minorities. Assure minorities have a compact and sizable opportunity for representation. Avoid splintering minorities among various districts or, conversely, packing into a super-concentrated district.
Contiguity: Districts must be contiguous and can’t consist of two separate parts.
Political boundaries: Political boundaries must be kept intact as practical, like county, city or town boundaries.
Compactness: Districts must be compact. Measurement of compactness is often the circumference with the shortest being most compact.
Communities of interest: Keeping communities that may benefit from common interest legislation together.
Partisan outcomes: Excessive partisanship is unconstitutional, but some partisanship is OK.
Yes, it’s difficult. Which is more reason to relegate the job to a bipartisan commission, as only 13% of current House members and 29.4% of the Senate have ever done it before. After all, that’s what was done with legislative pay.