When Pigs Fly… Part 2: Let’s Break Congress

Bold ideas that will probably never happen.
Did you miss the part where congress was actually functioning?

No. You did not.

What you may have missed in the When Pigs Fly saga…
I’ve been thinking about ways to improve American democracy to make it more reflective of the nation as a whole and more responsive to the will of the people. In the first edition I contemplated the idea of letting the people as a whole vote on laws through the modern telecommunication technology, smart phones, social media, that kind of thing. In essence turning congress into a law producing group and not one that votes on them. I know it won’t happen at any time in the near future, but I think it is a fascinating idea that would make Congress less vulnerable to the whims of special interests and lobbying groups by returning power to the people. One thing that I missed is that the current technological infrastructure can already be used by congress to vote from outside of D.C. so all of these nice absurd recesses that congress takes are already things that we could work around, so that congress could get things done, and that would be a nice change of pace.

This second big idea would be easier to implement than the first, it doesn’t require an increase in the availability of technology or a more educated populace, all it requires is the willingness of the government to give up a little power that it is abusing for the good of the people. Which is precisely why I expect it to happen shortly after pigs evolve wings.

Big Idea 2: Using modern technology to abolish the practice of gerrymandering and change congressional districts on a two to four year cycle.

I don’t approve of gerrymandering and believe that most people that do only approve of it because the other side does it. So lets get rid of it shall we? We have the technology. There are a few simple rules that need to be adhered to when creating congressional districts that the area covered is contiguous and the population within the districts are roughly equal across the state. To create a more objective redistricting standard you could throw in a few more guidelines.

  • Contiguous and equal in population(the current ones)
  • Districts should have as few sides as possible(borders with other states/Mexico/Canada/coastlines would count as one ‘side’ for these purposes)
  • Districts should contain as few counties as possible

Then just slap those requirements into a relatively simple program with access to the requisite census info and ‘poof’ objectively redrawn congressional districts that can’t possibly look as ridiculous as the ones we have now. Given the government’s track record with sourcing technology I suspect it would take roughly five years to even get the program, aka the redistrictotron, and cost a truly preposterous amount of money.

Unfortunately this will never happen because it is one of the few ways state governments have to affect the Federal government and whoever gives it up first is probably going to lose a seat or two from the previously gerrymandered status quo. I can already see the objections forming.

Problem 1: What about minority populations? We’ve just had multiple redistricting plans thrown out because they disproportionately disenfranchised minorities.

Add it to the list, it’d probably make for some seriously ugly districts to require the districts to also have a racial component commensurate with that of the state at large. Remember that the reasons those plans were getting thrown out was the intent to disenfranchise. This hypothetical redistrictotron is a program and has no intent. Demographics are not constant across states, cities, or nations, forcing legislation to pretend otherwise is a fool’s errand. The situations that were objected to were because of generally absurd looking districts, which the redistrictotron is designed to eliminate.

Problem 2: You mentioned a 2–4 year cycle, but we only do a census once a decade, so you can’t redistrict any more frequently than that.

I beg to differ. Depressing though it may be the process of a census in the US is largely an exercise in telling the government what it already knows. The USPS knows when we move through change of address requests. Our addresses are on our driver’s licences, they’re used on our tax returns, last but not least we also do something called registering to vote.

I grant that all of these are imperfect reflections of a changing population and that as a democrat opposed to voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise people I shouldn’t really be using driver’s licences as an example, especially when the census covers everybody, not just those registered to vote, but for the most part it is that simple, isn’t it? The government keeps track of us through tax returns, the postal service, and driver’s licences. Getting a new licence generally signals our intent to sign up and vote in new local elections. Smash all of these things together and what you get is a fairly accurate representation of population movement into and out of states, counties, and yes congressional districts.

That makes for constantly available information that could be used for redistricting every other year for congressional elections. It would require somebody, possibly the state board of elections or state comptroller(what exactly does a comptroller do anyway?) but the point is it requires somebody or some agency to keep track of this information so it can be fed into the redistrictotron. Then the redistrictotron pops out the new districts and we can get ready for a new round of elections.

Using that method we get a new set of districts every election cycle and hopefully the new batch of districts are more competitive than the old one so party primaries aren’t more important than general elections.

My preferred method would be to use the voting patterns in statewide elections(senate, governor, presidential) so that instead of getting congressional districts with X eligible voters the districts would be based on people that actually had voted and hence wind up with districts based on Y proven voters and whatever amount of voters have moved into/out of the area. I’m not talking about anything predictive, just working from the already available data.

The point isn’t to break the system it’s to make it more reflective of the realities of politics, if you don’t vote in statewide elections you aren’t counting for redistricting purposes, if you don’t like it then vote.

Problem 3: All this redistricting talk has gotten me thinking about the electoral college, any thoughts about that?

I live in a state that is so reliably democratic that when we vote in a republican governor it’s usually because we get cocky and don’t get out the vote. Generally speaking my vote doesn’t count in presidential elections because Maryland just about always goes democrat. I’d rather save my complaining about the electoral college for a future When Pigs Fly edition. Suffice it to say that I’m of a mind to make it less predictable.

What I will say is that because the state’s contributions to the electoral college are based on state representatives in congress you could also use this to recount state representation in congress on the same basis. I discussed in the first When Pigs Fly a complicated system for reallocation votes in the House based on the participation of the people in the direct voting system. You could do the same thing with the House population at large. We have a census as a baseline, we have all of this information, we can recalculate the amount of representatives a sate gets every other year.

It sounds complicated but isn’t. You’d take those 50 votes accounted for by the one delegate each state gets automatically, remove them from the 435 overall and allocate the remaining 385 to each state accounting for at least 1/385 of the population, I assume that’s basically how we determine how many representatives a given state gets anyway. I’m probably wrong about that, but you get the picture. Frankly I’m not sure why we aren’t recalculating on the fly based on voting numbers right now. Maybe that’s just because the process of redistricting is so annoying, but with the redistrictotron it becomes so much simpler. Get numbers, then run them straight through the redistrictotron.

Problem 4: Let me get this straight, you want to use state IDs and tax returns to redistrict, won’t that disenfranchise a lot of people?

That’s not the plan. Using driver’s licences would under report city dwellers, the elderly and minorities. Tax returns would probably under report students among other people. The plan is that using the totality of all the nifty information the government keeps track of about us should be able to produce a fairly accurate representation of the population in a given state and good information for the redistrictotron.

Problem 5: Isn’t this all just sour grapes because democrats can get more votes for congressmen and still have way less congressmen because of gerrymandering?

I don’t think it’s just gerrymandering, it’s also about democrats coalescing in and around urban centers. Sure there’s some sour grapes, going on, but the inherently undemocratic nature of gerrymandering has always bothered me. Heck I’ve voted republican for the house in my last two elections just because I don’t approve of being used as a tool to disenfranchise republicans.

Until the early twenty-first century baseball schedules were still made by hand (I believe they were done by a couple in Delaware) because they did a better job in reducing the amount of long road trips on short rest and because the Cubs playing more games during the day makes things unnecessarily complicated.

It’s the same with congressional districts, they were the purview of the states because the states are assumed to know what’s going on in their own backyard and we assume that they know how they should be represented. It has become apparent that they aren’t really that good at it. I’m just saying that a not particularly complicated program(which we certainly have the technology for) provided with the right information(which we can certainly put together from all the sources I’ve mentioned and probably a few that I haven’t) can do the job better and cheaper than a state legislature. Better and cheaper is something we should be able to get behind.

This is hardly a perfect way to reform an imperfect system, but what it does is provide more objective congressional districts and through that give a larger percentage of the American people a say in the election of their congressman.

A nice idea, but even I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon.

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