Sunday, April 11, 2004

Computers + Targeting + Redistricting = Polarization

A lot of ink (and pixels) have been spent over the past decade ruing the decline of civil discourse in society and in our institutions. To some of my collegaues on the left, the problem has been simply that the GOP took over Congress and leveraged talk radio and Fox News to create a vitriolic atmosphere in America. But that seems to be too simplistic of an explanation. And, it begs for a more nuanced view.

Let us look at Congress and Congressional elections as an illustration. The increase of technology (computers, targeting software) has provided a means for the two parties to craft ever more ideologically monolithic congressional districts. From very liberal CD's in Massachusetts to very conservative ones in Alabama, the polar extremes are more than adequately represented. Of course, each district contains a certain amount of non-homogeneous voters, but always less than enough to be a critical mass.

In terms of the break down of the non-homogeneous voters, a fairly sizable portion are quite likely moderates of one stripe or another. This view is bolstered by the closeness of presidential elections and what has been termed a 50-50 country. No presidential candidate in recent history has run either too far left or too far right as the battle is fought over the middle portion of the voting public. However, this phenomenon does not play out at the Congressional level where the incentive is to be closer to one of the polar extremes. (I should note that by Congressional I mean only the House of Representatives; I think that Senate races tend to be fought much more like Presidential contests as does legislative behavior.)

So, if what this argument posits is true, what does it all mean? If our system, with the help of technology has provided a means for the most partisan of folks to be elected then how can we expect them to become any less partisan when they set foot in the chamber? A couple of decades ago, prior to the advent of election technology, CDs were much more heterogeneous and members were therefore limited by a diffuse electorate. This heterogeneity was a check on rampant partisanship that is now absent.

There are now no more than a couple handfuls of truly competitive CDs in the country. This is not the fault of one particular party, but of both. The power over the redistricting process has always brought about its share of compromises between the parties as they try to protect certain incumbents. However, with the richness of voter data now available and the quality of computer modeling, parties are able to draw CDs that not only divide neighborhoods, but will split a street up in order to ensure a certain composition of voters. There is massive collusion between the two parties to divide America into two distinct camps.

The only solution is to strip state legislatures of the power to set electoral districts. At the Congressional level, CDs could be drawn by a special master appointed by the appropriate Federal District court(s). And for state legislative races, the special master would be named by the state's highest court. I realize that the obvious objection to this scheme is its anti-democratic nature, that allowing a special master to draw electoral maps takes that power away from the people. But, that argument rests on what is a merely theoretical proposition that the people actually control the process at this point.


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