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Drawing the Lines in Ohio: The Structure of the Competition

In Ohio, citizens were given the tools to draw their own congressional district maps. The exercise demonstrated that reform is possible, and also the degree of improvement that reform might achieve.

  • Justin Levitt
June 22, 2009

In an earlier post, I praised a recent Ohio project giving citizens the tools to draw their own congres­sional district maps accord­ing to a set of care­fully nego­ti­ated rules.  The exer­cise was partic­u­larly valu­able in demon­strat­ing that reform is possible - and in demon­strat­ing the degree of improve­ment that reform might achieve. 

The rules for the exer­cise were straight­for­ward.  Moreover, they reflect a set of very soph­ist­ic­ated choices, even when simpli­fied to be access­ible to the general public.   

They began with a solid threshold: a proposed plan would be tossed if it didn’t live up to the two basic redis­trict­ing require­ments of federal law.  The first is the U.S. Consti­tu­tion, which requires that each district have about the same popu­la­tion.  The second is the Voting Rights Act, which keeps district lines from frag­ment­ing substan­tial minor­ity popu­la­tions to dilute their voting power.  So far, so good. 

In addi­tion to these two basic rules, there are many other object­ives that people try to satisfy when they draw district lines, some of which are at odds with each other.  One reform strategy is to lock in rigid prior­it­ies: first, do X; then, if it does­n’t conflict with X, do Y.  Another strategy is to punt: choose trus­ted decision­makers, throw in a bunch of differ­ent goals, and let the decision­makers work out which is more import­ant.  The Ohio project chose still a differ­ent path, and it’s an intriguing way to acknow­ledge and resolve the tension of multiple object­ives.   

The organ­izers chose four second-tier goals: community preser­va­tion, compact­ness, compet­it­ive­ness, and partisan fair­ness (more about these, indi­vidu­ally, here.  They developed quant­it­at­ive scales to eval­u­ate plans based on each goal, and weighted the goals by relat­ive import­ance.  They then encour­aged members of the public to find their own optimal balance among the goals, scor­ing each plan as it came in.  Some plans, say, aimed more for compact­ness than compet­it­ive­ness, or vice versa.  But each effort to balance the compet­ing goals was aiming for a high over­all score.  And notably, each offered an improve­ment on the status quo, which didn’t satisfy any iden­ti­fied goal partic­u­larly well. 

As I explain here, I have some quibbles with some of the goals that were chosen, and with some of the partic­u­lar means to meas­ure progress toward those goals.  But the struc­ture of the enter­prise – an open compet­i­tion - is note­worthy.  This isn’t the first time that a compet­i­tion has been proposed: Sam Hirsch, among others, has sugges­ted such a thing.  But the Ohio exer­cise was a compet­i­tion with an unusual – and very thought­ful – ending. 

I find it most impress­ive, given the tempta­tion in any contest to crown an ulti­mate cham­pion, that the organ­izers in Ohio refused to auto­mate victory.  Rather than simply select­ing the highest-scor­ing plan, any plan scor­ing in the top 25% was desig­nated as a “winner.”  In the real world, a trus­ted decision­mak­ing body would then have discre­tion to choose, from among those winners, the map most bene­fi­cial for Ohio voters over­all.   

If you’re going to have a compet­i­tion, this is an extremely thought­ful approach, for two reas­ons.  First, it recog­nizes that even with clear scores, there may not be one clear “winner” (I owe a hat tip to Dan Goroff for this point).  If two redis­trict­ing goals are equally import­ant, but in conflict, it’s possible to have multiple winning plans with the same score – one sacri­fices a bit of goal 1 to improve goal 2, and another does the oppos­ite.  In the math and econom­ics worlds, this is known as the “Pareto fron­tier” – a whole set of outcomes that all repres­ent the best score in a compet­i­tion like the one that Ohio set up.  By choos­ing the top 25%, the compet­i­tion acknow­ledges that there might be a tie. 

Second, and prob­ably more import­ant, we know that the scor­ing system won’t be perfect.  Even if it were possible to get perfect consensus on all of the goals of the redis­trict­ing process and their relat­ive import­ance, trans­lat­ing that consensus to a math­em­at­ical score will involve a bit of noise.  Both the meas­ure­ments and the weights are approx­im­ate at best.  Several of the traits being scored are just easily quan­ti­fi­able prox­ies for elements of mean­ing­ful repres­ent­a­tion that are harder to meas­ure.  And there may be other intan­gible goals that don’t really have good prox­ies at all.   

In this respect, the quest for the “best” redis­trict­ing plan is like the quest for the “best” super­mar­ket produce.  We’d want to take into account size, shelf life, cost, color, taste, and prob­ably a bunch of other factors.  Size and shelf life and cost can be easily meas­ured and scored.  There’s a scale for color, but we might have differ­ent opin­ions about what “best” looks like, and it’s going to be tough to score color blends.  And our meas­ure­ments for taste are approx­im­ate at best.  If you’re going to set up a compet­i­tion for the “best” produce, you’d want the results to be flex­ible enough to account for imper­fec­tion in the meas­ure­ments, to get at the produce that’s near the quan­ti­fi­able “Pareto fron­tier,” but perhaps not precisely on it. 

So too with redis­trict­ing.  Some goals are easily meas­ured, but for others, any meas­ure we might devise is at best a near miss.  Since the score isn’t a perfect trans­la­tion of the inten­ded outcome, the highest score should­n’t auto­mat­ic­ally win.  In Ohio, the rules promote the top quart­ile of high scor­ing plans – any of which improves on the status quo.  Then a decision­mak­ing body would take a look, to see if the number 4 plan actu­ally serves Ohio voters better than the three plans with a higher numer­ical score. The decision to forego simply appoint­ing a single winner works out to be a big win for every­one.