Reading Ezra’s site on the new California Ballot measure, and the endorsements he linked to, there seems to be this idea that there could be ideal voting districts. We want multiple things from voting for Representatives, but mainly competition and representation. As a democracy we recognize huge rates of incumbency are bad and in order to have a responsive government we need one that throws out the trash every once in a while. We also feel that when it comes to representing our interests we’d like to be in a group with people who have the same cultural identities, local concerns, and political leanings as us.
What a lot of pundits seem to be forgetting is this: these are not the same thing and may even be competing goals.
Though Experiment: Let’s say there’s a state with a million people (two representatives) and a large city. Half of the population lives in the city, which is 80% Democratic, and half live in its suburbs, which is 80% Republican. The other 20% of the state is independent. It’s a pretty likely (although exaggerated) scenario.
The intuitive solution is to have the city elect one representative, and the suburbs elect another. This is a very fair and representative solution. It is not the only solution, but there are a lot of reasons to like it. The California ballot measure would probably lead to solutions like this. Once the Democrat was elected in the city and the Republican was elected in the suburbs, they would almost certainly never leave office.
Another solution would simply be to divide the state exactly in half, with half the city and half the suburbs in one district, and the other halves in the other. This would be un-representational, but would produce great swings. When Democratic ideas were unpopular, the independents would elect a Republican in both districts, and vice versa. This sort of competition is great, as it makes the party in power accountable, makes it less likely individual politicians will live forever and build power-bases, and means popular or unpopular policies to the middle-of-the-road voter would be reflected. Also another worthy solution.
Do you see how in this situation the goals are really incompatible? One of the things that has really bothered me about the Democratic talking points on the ballot measure has been the idea that anyone who likes actual representation is simply a Republican lackey who is not paying attention. There are real non-partisan goals to be achieved in making districts objectively representative.
It’s not all their fault really. Gerrymandering has become connotationally linked with “incumbency”, even though making competitive districts is the only way to fight incumbency on the party level.
I believe at the moment, that cities are horribly under-represented in our federal government, and by making our Constitutional rules simpler and fairer it will bring that into balance. That does not mean I oppose a fair rule just because it might disperse the voting power of cities.
This country does have a disturbingly high incumbency rate but it's not because of gerrymandering. On a party level in fact, there should be a pretty high-incumbency rate - after all, do you think San Francisco or Dubuque really switch their party allegiance every two years? It's the primary level, combined with a strongly individualistic legislature, where you get the incumbency problems of electing the exact same person over and over again no matter what they do.