Squaresville, USA

How to fix American politics, one right angle at a time

By Joe Keohane
November 22, 2009

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WATCHING THE TEABAGGERS’ march on Washington earlier this month, it was hard not to find oneself wondering exactly what kind of district could be responsible for the manufacture of Representative Todd Akin (R-Mo.). Akin, among whose signature legislative items is something called the “Pledge Protection Act,” took the dais to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Let us with boldness proclaim the fact that we are one nation under God,” he said, and then proceeded to botch his cherished pledge, notably leaving out the “indivisible” that follows the “under God.”

As it turns out, the district that Akin represents, the Missouri 2d, is a classic gerrymandered mess, consisting of two separate areas on Missouri’s eastern border connected by a narrow land bridge, with the southeastern portion practically encircling the Missouri 1st. This contorted configuration serves to swaddle him in the kind of ideological monoculture that ensures his continued reelection. The 1st, meanwhile, is solid blue, the sort of bulletproof Democratic stronghold where, presumably, residents while away their days plotting against the Pledge of Allegiance.

Staring at a map of the 2d, you wonder what things would be like if its representative were forced to consider the views of a range of left-leaning and right-leaning constituents - if every time he ran for reelection, he had to sweat a little more to find a reasonable middle round. To be specific, it is hard not to imagine what things would be like if his district were more of a square.

It goes without saying that Republicans haven’t cornered the market on shamelessness and folly. So for that matter, what if all congressional districts were square?

Much has been made of the partisan divide in this country, the name-calling, the motive-questioning, the unending legislative deadlock arising less from thoughtful disagreement than from mindless ideological disdain. Republicans vote the party line 92 percent of the time in the House and 87 percent of the time in the Senate, and Democrats vote with their own nearly as often. We take it for granted, but this is not traditional in American politics: According to Congressional Quarterly, in the 1960s, all of those numbers were in the low 60s. Voters, by the looks of it, are unhappy. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed fewer than one in three Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.

GERRYMANDERING BEARS A significant share of the blame for this state of affairs. For years politicians of both parties have been crafting increasingly absurd electoral maps, either to pack friendly voters into a single district to protect incumbents, or to disperse unfriendly voters to undercut an opponent. The result is frequently perverse. The Alabama 7th Congressional District looks like the Challenger explosion. Massachusetts’ 2d looks like a sea monster. The Texas 29th looks like a griffon that’s been run over by a lawnmower. The Arizona 2d has an umbilical cord that stretches all the way across Coconino County.

Aside from dicing up communities and all but eliminating competition (in the 2008 congressional elections, nearly 90 percent of seats were either uncontested or uncompetitive), the concentration of likeminded partisans overwhelms moderates and gives rise to a class of politicians more inclined to spend their days tossing red meat to their bases than working to solve any of the problems facing the country.

There have long been calls for redistricting reform, but the proposals tend to be complicated. Reformers generally call for districts that are both compact and competitive, usually determined by an independent or semi-independent commission. Among a small handful of states, a similar system is flourishing in Iowa, and in the works in California. (There was also a failed push in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2006 that would have used an independent commission to form districts with the aim of keeping municipalities together.) The problem is, such plans can be very complex, and voters can be soured on the idea of an unelected commission suddenly reshuffling their districts. Both of these factors helped derail earlier reform efforts in California and Ohio in 2005. Moreover, drawing electoral maps specifically to increase competition could result in districts that are as eccentric as the ones we already have.

But why look to commissions when we have geometry? A great number of our problems could be solved simply by mandating that every district have four corners, each one a right angle. Districts could be wide, or long, or square, depending on population, but they’d all have to be rectangular. Such districts would largely do away with the problem of communities being chopped up, handed off, and pitted against one another. It would prevent politicians from equipping their districts with the sorts of tentacles designed to tap a particularly ardent group of voters miles away from the core of the district. And it would in many cases result in more politically mixed districts, which would in turn create more competition and less unyieldingly (and annoyingly) ideological politicians. If Todd Akin were to lose the western chunk of his district and be forced to absorb a chunk of the Missouri 1st, which the 2d encircles, there may be no more Todd Akin as we know him (the Pledge shudders). Nor would the Democrats continue to dominate the 1st, where the same family, the Clays, has held the seat since 1969.

DISTRICTS, OF COURSE, would still be adjustable. But no longer could incumbents draw their new borders freehand. Come redistricting season, if a politician wanted to get at a pocket of voters east of his district, he would have to move his whole eastern border - absorbing not just the desired voters, but also those in the adjacent areas who may or may not break for him. This would put an end to the travesty of politicians choosing their voters instead of the other way around.

Obviously, since states aren’t perfect squares, an additional amount of flexibility would have to be built in to the system. Border areas would be held to a somewhat looser standard, as would irregularly shaped areas like Cape Cod and the eastern shore of Maryland. Steps would need to be taken to ensure minority areas aren’t split up in violation of the Voting Rights Act (as the Massachusetts House did in 2001, leading to the ultimate downfall of then-Speaker Tom Finneran). Also, obviously, the shapes need to fit together, which would require some tweaking.

How to keep that tweaking from turning into an easily exploitable loophole? Simple math. Tony Hill, a political science doctoral candidate at MIT, recently presented a paper proposing a new way to measure compactness in political districts using a square as the geometrical ideal. The “Hill Ratio” he devised involves dividing a district’s perimeter by four, and dividing that by the square root of a district’s area. The closer to 1 the result is, the more perfectly square the district. So, as districts are redrawn, they’d need to meet a standard of compactness - say, a Hill Ratio of less than 1.3. This is hardly extreme. Hill points out that in 1960, the average Hill Ratio was 1.526. It’s now 2.1. A rectangular district four times longer than it is wide would still qualify, with a Hill Ratio of 1.25.

The square plan would have to be enacted on the state level across the country via changes to respective state constitutions, which is no small undertaking. But it does have the virtue of simplicity. Voters can get their heads around it. It’s transparent. It won’t lead to every race being competitive - that ship has sailed in Massachusetts - but it will force the nation’s politicians and voters alike to get used to the idea of seeking middle ground between divergent views. Where it does foster greater competition, voter interest and participation will increase. And because politicians will ultimately retain the right to control the redistricting process, we’ll all be spared years of whining.

In the long view, the hope is that a chain reaction will play out. Just as bad districts make for bad voters, which make for worse politicians, which make for even worse voters, in a dizzying downward spiral of clownishness and ineffectuality, good districts may have the opposite effect. People of differing opinions will be forced to interact with one another in service of solving problems, and that interaction will make it harder for partisans on either side to demonize one another as un-American, or Hitler, or whatever it is they hate more than anything at that particular moment. Most importantly, the electorate will perhaps remember, after a long time out in the wilderness, how much more satisfying it is to throw the bums out than it is to call each other names. Certainly we can all agree on that.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.