display | more...

In the United States of America, each state is distributed a number of seats in the House of Representatives, based on its population. Currently, each congressional district represents about 700,000 people. The allocation of seats is based on the census, but each state is allowed to decide how to elect representatives to those seats: currently every state uses a geographic method, although that is by custom and statute, and states could use at-large districts or proportional representation if they so desired.

One of the biggest issues with states is that they often gerrymander their districts, using odd combinations of different areas to redistribute the vote for partisan reasons. Even in states where the congressional districts are not heavily gerrymandered, there are sometimes seemingly odd choices of allocation. But to explain why even these simple cases are not so simple, I will describe a theoretical state with two congressional districts.


           -------------------------------
           |                             |
           |                             | 
           |         *BIGVILLE           | 
           |                             |       
           |                             | 
           |                             | 
           -------------------------------  

Our theoretical state contains two congressional districts. Half of the people in the state live in "Bigville" and its suburbs, while the other half live in other towns around the state. So there are two ways to divide the state:
           -------------------------------
           |                        2    |
           |         __________          | 
           |        / *BIGVILLE\         | 
           |   2    \__1_______/         |       
           |                             | 
           |                         2   | 
           -------------------------------  
In the first, Bigville and its surburbs form one congressional district, and the rest of the state forms the second.
           -------------------------------
           |             /      2        |
           |     1      /                |
           |           /                 |
           | 1       */BIGVILLE          | 
           |         /                   |       
           |        /            2       | 
           |       /                     | 
           -------------------------------
In the second, the congressional district line cuts right through Bigville, cutting the city, or at least its suburbs, in half.

Both of these solutions have problems. In the first, while the big population center, a natural unit of population with similar demographics and political interests, is preserved, everyone else in the state is grouped together. The people in one corner of the state might not have much in common with people in another corner of the state, and yet they share political representation. In the second case, a natural center of population is cut in two in an artificial manner. Even in our simple, two-district example, neither solution seems to totally preserve natural communities and political units.

Having looked at a theoretical example, lets look at how states in this situation have actually divided themselves up. There are currently five states with two congressional districts: Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. None of these states is quite as simple as our big, boxy state with a single population center, but all of them still face variations on this problem.

  • Hawaii has one congressional district representing the Honolulu area, and another district representing the rest of the islands. While the first district is very compact, containing one city, the second district contains four islands over hundreds of miles.
  • Idaho represents the other side of the spectrum from Hawaii: the largest metropolitan area in Idaho, the Boise metro area, is cut in half. The first district contains all of western and Idaho, including the panhandle, while the second district contains all of Eastern Idaho. Boise lies right in the middle, and while the city itself is mostly in the second district, most of its suburbs are in the first district.
  • Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire represent an in-between condition. Rhode Island is cut in half like Idaho is, but it is much physically smaller, and all of Rhode Island constitutes a single metropolitan area. New Hampshire lacks a single large population center, with more of a gentle grade from suburban to rural communities. Maine also lacks any large cities, with the population also grading from the small cities of the southern part of the state to the large towns of the north. In these three New England states, the population and demographics are not sharply defined by physical barriers.

In all five of these examples, the controversy that can arise with allocating congressional districts is defused because all of these states are fairly politically homogenous. There are not many rearrangements of the congressional districts that would change the partisan composition of these state's congressional representation. Hawaii and Rhode Island are two of the most reliably Democratic states in the nation, while Idaho is one of the most reliably Republican. If Idaho's congressional districts were rearranged so that the (relatively liberal) Boise metro area was in one district, it might make that district possibly competitive, but even that is far-fetched.

Even though the examples might not be the best way to demonstrate the basic problem of creating congressional districts that represent population and natural demographic units, it is still an introduction to the problem. This is just a two-district example, but the same problem of whether to divide a population center in two, or to keep it together and instead join geographically and demographically disparate areas, occurs in the largest states in the union.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.