Is a Fair Congressional District Possible?

By Mike Koetting April 10, 2022

Blog before last I was focused on gerrymandering. I am returning to the topic, but this time thinking about whether there is a fair solution to creating districts for the U.S.House.


Let’s imagine a state, let’s call it Pontiac. Pontiac has a population of 5 million, about 70% White and 30% Black. Population is split evenly among some reasonable size cities and rural areas.

These days, a population of 5 million will get Pontiac seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, a little more than 700,000 in population per seat. How should those seats be distributed to be fair?

If one looked solely at the urban-rural distribution, it would give 3.5 seats to each. Given that in reality urban areas bleed into the surrounding rural areas, let’s say 4 urban and 3 rural.

But how to think about race? Since Blacks are 30% of the population, all things being equal, that would suggest two seats. But it’s not that simple. Historically, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act looked at the creation of majority-minority districts. While this approach presents both theoretical and legal difficulties, it makes some sense. At least up until the 2020 election, well over 80% of the Black representatives came from majority-minority districts. Creating such districts can be geographically challenging.

If the Blacks were distributed perfectly equally across the state, there would be no majority Black districts because every possible configuration would only have 30% Black population. On the other hand, if every Black in Pontiac lived adjacent to another Black, it would be relatively easy to assure two majority-minority districts, since the 1.5 million Blacks would nicely fit into two districts.

Of course, neither situation is particularly likely. Blacks, like Whites, are likely to be spread around and some are likely rural while others are urban. So let’s pretend the distribution of population in Pontiac looks something like this.

You can play with these numbers yourself, or you can take my word for it: there is no obvious way to create a majority-minority district of the required 700,000 or so voters. Maybe in the Middle North—depending on a lot of factors—it might be possible to cobble together such a district with only modest gerrymandering. Likewise, depending on how actual geography broke, it might be possible to come up with such a district if one or both of the Middle South cities could be stitched together with City 7 in the Far South and the rural Black Belt. That would probably require a greater degree of gerrymandering and would also complicate the rural-urban balance.

There are probably several conclusions to be drawn from this exercise, but I think the clearest is that the idea of single member, geographically based districts is never going to do a particularly good job of reflecting minority opinions or situations.

In some sense, this is fine. Democracy is supposed to reflect majority opinion. Part of my bill of particulars against the current practice of gerrymandering is that it used to achieve minority control. On the other hand, systematic under-representation of minorities is also undemocratic and demonstrably bad for the body politic. A system that makes it less likely that the Black citizens of Pontiac will have an opportunity to elect a Black representative is problematic as well. That issue is true of any other difference: if 40% of the citizens of Pontiac favor one issue—say restricting easy access to guns—their ability to have representation would depend entirely on the geographic concentration of people with those views. If they were spread through the state, it is unlikely they would get much of a hearing.

Of course, since no Representative is ever elected unanimously, there will always be an underlying question about how they represent those who didn’t vote for them. However, these tensions become greater the sharper the political differences between candidates—a situation which generally characterizes the current zeitgeist.

What Would Be Better?

What about multiple-member districts?

Illinois had such a system for state representatives until 1980 when voters, riding a post-Watergate wave of anti-politician sentiment, voted to get rid of it as a way of reducing the size of the General Assembly.

In this system, each district had three seats and no more than two could be filled by any one party. Voters could cast one vote for each of three candidates, split their three votes among two candidates, or “bullet” all three votes for a single candidate. The result was a much more moderate and more representative Illinois House. In no district did members of the minority party get shut out and it was possible for organized candidates of whatever persuasion to “bullet” a candidate into office without necessarily having majority support. (While in theory this could allow for some extreme candidates to get elected, in reality it didn’t because truly fringe groups still weren’t large enough to win a seat.)

How this might apply to the issue of dividing up U.S. House seats in any given state is not entirely obvious. Return to the hypothetical Pontiac. Seven seats is an awkward number. Too many for 2 three-person districts, and not enough for 3 three person districts. That leaves options of a 3-4 split, or two 2’s and a 3 person district.

There are other problems. While there is no theoretical reason why districts should be geographically contiguous, as a practical matter it is hard to get away from this constraint. Therefore, how the population is actually distributed would be relevant to what makes sense. If the population were heavily tilted to one end of the state or the other—or still more complicated, plunked in the middle—that would create additional constraints.

Issues notwithstanding, the approach is worth considering.

Enlarge the House

This would be useful in making it easier to have multi-member districts, but it is also useful in its own right. The size of today’s House has been fixed since 1911, at which point each member represented about 200,000. (In the original House, each member represented 30,000 people.) The US is now more than three times larger than 1911 and each member now represents more than 700,000.

The New York Times has noted that the U.S. House has a materially higher representative-to-population ratio than other comparable democracies. Increasing the size of the House by about one third would bring this ratio in line with other comparable legislatures. The Times also support the idea of multi representative districts for the same reasons outlined above. But with or without multi-member districts, a larger House would make it easier to develop districts with better minority representation. Note the problem of minority representation is not limited to racial issues. As it now stands, New York City has no Republican representatives—which surely is not an accurate representation of the amount of Republican sentiment in the city.

Ranked-choice Voting

Another possibility—also supported by the Times—is to use ranked-choice voting. While this does not directly address the issue of minority representation, it would be a step in moderating some of the partisan warfare because this makes it harder for extreme viewpoints.

Alaska has recently adopted such a system. There is no partisan primary. Instead, there is a general primary and the top four voter getters, regardless of party, go into the run-off. In the run-off, voters rank their choices from one to four. If no one gets a majority, the smallest vote-getter is dropped and their votes go to their second choice. The process continues until someone gets a majority. Maine uses a similar system.

This obviously puts a premium on appealing to voters who, even if you’re not their first choice, are willing to make you their second choice—reducing the attractiveness of extreme candidates.

Final Note

The hypothetical state of Pontiac was not, in fact, all that hypothetical. It’s actually an only-slightly simplified model of Alabama. (Extra credit for any of you political junkies who recognized this.) While I reserve the right to be suspicious of the motives of the actual Alabama map-makers, I have to say working with the Alabama data made me much more sympathetic to the real-world difficulties involved in trying to get to minority representations.

And this is my overall conclusion: Any system that makes it really hard to get to the right answer is most likely a system that is fundamentally flawed. This is almost certainly the case with our single-member, winner-take-all approach to districting for US Congressional seats.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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