A recent bill introduced by Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, should be called what it is. Whether he intends it or not, it’s a license to gerrymander.
Politicians of all major parties nationwide have made an art of gerrymandering since the nation’s founding. The term itself is a mashup of the words “Gerry” — after Elbridge Gerry, a Democratic governor of Massachusetts in the early 1800s — and “salamander” — a reference to the snaking, irregular districts that sometimes mark the practice.
The goal of gerrymandering is to give one party an advantage over the other by drawing up districts that assure the party will do well even if they lose voters. The two main methods of achieving this outcome are “cracking” and “packing.”
In cracking, a significant block of voters with common political alignment are split between two or more districts. Those districts then extend to include larger groups opposed to their interests, making it unlikely for that group to win any representation.
Packing works in the opposite way. If there’s a large community with a common political alignment, they can all be packed into a single district where they’ll win overwhelmingly instead of spreading their votes between two or more districts, where their party would have a fighting chance but wouldn’t be assured victory.
In the early ‘90s, Idaho voters decided to do away with such practices using the best method then available: establishing a commission evenly divided along partisan lines, assuring that any approved plan would require at least one member of the commission to cross party lines to endorse a map they thought was fair.
Harris’ bill would introduce an amendment altering the commission to give the dominant party one extra seat. True that would end deadlock. It would also assure one-party control over the process.
Harris is right to point out that the two redistricting efforts that have taken place since then have been riddled with contention, often leading to plans that the courts reject, requiring the process to start over. There’s a better, more fair way to solve that problem.
If the state wishes to stay out of court, it should bring in new computer programs to draw up the districts. A variety of software packages are available, and they do what humans are generally unable to — solve the redistricting puzzle with true objectivity.
The state is so complicated, both in terms of population and geography, that it’s very difficult for humans to ever design intricate district maps that are truly fair. And without an objective measure of how fair a district is, there are no solid facts to resolve disagreements.
But for a computer, it’s just a math problem like any other. Computers have no political persuasion, they simply draw up maps designed to produce as a level playing field as possible. Computers can spit out possible maps by the dozens, and then the commission can select among them based on nonpartisan factors such as keeping counties intact and maintaining communities of interest. If the commission members draw up proposed maps themselves, the computer can quickly measure how fair they are.
Idaho’s current district map already gives a fairly sizable structural advantage to Republicans. Last year, about 761,000 Idaho voters cast ballots for Republican House candidates, compared to about 317,000 Democrats — or 71 percent for Republicans, 29 percent for Democrats. There are 56 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the House — 80 percent Republican and 20 percent Democratic.
In other words, for the Idaho House’s partisan make-up to match the will of the electorate, about six or seven House seats would have to flip to the Democrats. Republicans would still have a safe supermajority, but it would be a little smaller.
This would hardly be a catastrophe for Republican control of the Idaho Legislature. They’ll win overwhelmingly under fair rules, so why try to rig the game?