Sun Ra - Column for 9/27


Every two years, the members of the U.S. House of Representatives face re-election.

Or at least, that was the goal. The House of Representatives was supposed to be represent the current will of the people, to be the lens of our bicameral legislature that moved with the times, in contrast to the more deliberative Senate. The Senate was supposed to have the elder statesmen, the House the young firebrands and muck-rakers. The Senate was supposed to turn over slowly - elections every six years. The House was supposed to reflect the changes of the moment.

This year, according to Congressional Quarterly, only 29 of 435 House seats are listed as competitive. That's down from 50 in 2000-2002, itself down from 100 in 1992-1996. In the last election (2002), just four incumbents lost to challengers from the other party (four more lost in primaries). That's a re-election rate of 99%. Saddam Hussein would be proud.

What happened? Computers. Computers have allowed political parties to gerrymander with the precision of a laser, bundling all their opponent's supporters up into one super-majority district, and spreading their own support to 55% in all the districts around that. It has allowed incumbent politicians to divide their states into the districts that they know will re-elect them. In 2002, four out of five House races were won by more than 20 points. 200 of those races had margins of more than 40 points, and 80 of them were uncontested.

In the Senate, where statewide elections render Gerrymandering impossible, a dozen seats (out of 34 up for grabs this year) may change hands.

So much for the House of Representatives representing the will of the people.

"But what", you ask, "can be done about it?"

A fine question. And one to which I have an answer.

My father-in-law, although lamentably conservative, is a remarkably bright guy, and he observes that the way to reduce gerrymandering to an acceptable level is through the use of one simple word: "compact". If the law states that electoral districts must be "compact" as well as (the current standard) "contiguous", then gerrymandering would be curtailed.

Alas, as we all know, politicians are easily capable of overlooking any such vaguely-defined stricture. "Okay, are the districts we've just drawn 'compact', in compliance with the law? Hands up, those who think they are. Okay, we've a majority - looks like they're all 'compact'!"

But I have a good stiffener - a mathematical definition of compactness, as it pertains to electoral districts.

The square of the district's circumference, divided by the area.

You simply choose a number for that value, and then mandate that no electoral district can exceed that number. Let the crooks pick the districts they like - they shan't be able to create hoops, curlicues, or alphanumerically-shaped districts any longer.

Let's run through the math:

The most compact possible district would be a circle. As you all know, the circumference of a circle is 2(Pi)R, and the area of a circle is (Pi)R^2. Thus, the Electoral Value (EV) of a circular district is 4(Pi)^2R^2 / (Pi)R^2, which simplifies to 4(Pi), or about twelve and a half.

So, the absolute lowest EV is twelve and a half. It doesn't matter how large the circle is, the EV will always be the same.

Now, let's figure out the value for a square. The circumference is Side+Side+Side+Side or 4S, and the area is S*S or S^2. Squaring the circumference and dividing, we get 16. The EV of a perfect square is 16.

Let's try some gerrymandering. What if we created a district out of two non-contiguous squares? Well, the circumference would now be 8S, and the area would be 2(S^2), giving us a value of 32.

But if we slide those two squares together to create a rectangular district, the circumference goes down to 6S, and the EV drops dramatically - to 18.

Two non-contiguous circles? A little over 25.

More exotically, what about five squares in the shape of a 'U'? Well, the circumference (count it yourself) is now 12S, and the area is 5(r^2). The EV is 28.8.

Ten squares in a long straight line? 48.4.

So, what you do is, you pick a number somewhere between fifteen and thirty, depending on how much gerrymandering you feel like allowing, and you mandate that no electoral district can have an EV higher than that number. I'm a fan of twenty-four, myself, but some real-world simulations would be necessary to pick a truly appropriate value. (And no, don't throw out the stipulation about 'contiguous'... why step backwards?)

As my wife points out, one flaw in this system are wiggly borders, such as generally occur along bodies of water. There would need to be a coda about drawing straight lines in place of edges where a district is defined by a water feature - but such a caveat isn't too difficult to make. Mandate that the virtual district border cannot at any point be more than a certain distance from the real one along the water feature, and let them create a line there for purposes of EV calculation.

And there you have it. It may not be an ideal solution to the woes inherent in choosing electoral districts, but it's a huge step forward from the system as it stands now - and hasn't any of the hidden drawbacks in switching to a new system entirely. It's a desperately needed tuneup for the engine of our democracy.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra