Friday, October 25, 2013

Alaska Redistricting Board: Compactness And Fairbanks Districts 3 and 5 - Part 1

[Note:  The Board is Scheduled to meet in executive session today - see details at the bottom of this post.]

There's a legal challenge in the Superior Court in Fairbanks to the Alaska Redistricting Board's most recent Proclamation Plan which sets the boundaries for all the legislative districts in Alaska.  (These are State House and Senate seats only, because Alaska has only one representative in the US House.)

These challenges have been filed and the various parties have responded to each other and I've written some posts on these.  But I really haven't scratched the surface.  I've been trying to
  1. understand all the various documents themselves (When I started working on this, new documents kept coming in and I was traveling and while I read them, I had trouble taking notes and comparing in detail what everyone said about everyone else's filings.)
  2. organize the material so that readers can make sense of it
I've written up notes.  I've looked at maps, tried to make sense of them, and cut and pasted new maps so they were easier to see.

I even considered chucking the whole project and just waiting for the judge to outline those points he can make a summary judgment on and those that need court time to clarify enough to judge.  I think for much of this that may end up happening, but I'm going to make a stab at discussing the issue of compactness in two districts in Fairbanks - 3 and 5 - that the plaintiffs have challenged.

And while I don't know as much as I'd like to know on this, I probably still know enough to make people's eyes glaze over.

So, in this post, I'll talk about compactness and its importance in determining fair districts.


The Alaska Constitution offers several criteria the Redistricting Board needs to meet:
  • Compactness
  • Contiguity
  • Socio-economic integration
Contiguity is probably the easiest - all parts of the district have to be connected.  Even that seemingly simple definition gets ambiguous when you deal with a state that has the coastline of Alaska and so many islands.  Contiguity over water has been accepted by the Supreme Court, but it helps if there are regular ferry and/or flights between those parts separated by water.  Land transportation (roads) is also not required in areas where villages are scattered and no roads connect them.

Socio-economic integration is probably the hardest to test for and in some ways the Courts have simplified this in urban areas (or given up?) by saying that any district within a borough boundary is socio-economically integrated.

Another important federal and state criterion is one-person-one-vote which gets boiled down to deviation.  That means every district should have as close as possible to the same number of people.  That way, each representative and each Senator have very close to the same number of constituents.  The term deviation will come up in relation to House Districts 3 and 5.  

The fight over the Fairbanks districts is focused on compactness.  (This is also an issue for some other districts in Mat-su and Kenai, but that's more than I'm ready to write about.)

ESRI, the company that makes the software that the Board uses to do its mapping defines compactness this way:
Compactness is having the minimum distance between all the parts of a constituency. The most compact districts form either a circle, square, or a hexagon.
There are a number of data quality checks contained in Esri Redistricting Online that allows you to measure whether a district plan adheres to certain standards.
 Basically, they are saying the most compact area is a circle.  The more you deviate from a circle, the less compact you'll be.  But, of course, geography - mountains, lakes, rivers, etc. - means that people don't live in perfect circles, but that's the ideal.

Redistricting The Nation offers this diagram:

There are lots of ways to calculate Compactness that go beyond just eyeballing. The ESRI site lists different mathematical techniques:
  • Polygon Area Test compares the areas of each district. The area is reported in square miles.
  • Perimeter calculates the perimeter of the district, including inner holes. The perimeter is reported in miles.
  • Reock Test calculates the ratio of district area to the smallest circle containing the district.
  • Area / Convex Hull Test determines the ratio of the area of the district to the convex hull area of the district.
  • Grofman Test calculates the ratio of the district perimeter to the square root of the area.
  • Schwartzberg Test is the ratio of the perimeter of the district to the perimeter of a circle of an equal area to that of the district.
  • Polsby Popper Test calculates the ratio of the same area of the district to the area of a circle with the same perimeter.
  • Holes determines the number of holes (geography clusters that are fully enclosed) within each district.
The Redistricting The Nation site points out that these different techniques yield inconsistent results and suggests we ask:
"Should compactness be a requirement in the redistricting process?"
They immediately respond:  
While geometric compactness measures may appear to be neutral, combined with geography and real-life patterns of population distribution they may produce reliable political outcomes. One study* concluded that a compactness requirement reduces the representation of racial minorities. Other scholarly work** identifies a variety of biases inherent in automated redistricting and compactness standards, including favoring the majority political party. Clearly, other important components of the redistricting process, such as aggregation of "communities of interest" [this would be Alaska's socio-'economic integration]  are not necessarily well served by examining only compactness.
A number of scholars have suggested that compactness measures are best used not as absolute standards against which a single district’s shape is judged, but rather as a way to assess the relative merits of various proposed plans. Above all, compactness is most meaningful within the framework of an institutional redistricting process.
I think that means you have to consider compactness as one of a set of criteria.  And here's an example of what the Board says when they are challenged on compactness.
"Such narrow-sighted redistricting that fails to consider the map as a whole is unworkable."
But the plaintiffs also made arguments that one factor.  They most often seem to focus on the Board's emphasis on very low deviations, and say low deviations are the only factor to consider.   You have to balance different factors.

These criteria are important because, as hard as determining compactness is, it's easier than knowing the intent of the people drawing the lines.  So if districts look peculiar and there isn't a reasonable explanation for it, then lack of complexity can be a proxy for gerrymandering.  Said another way by Redistricting The Nation:
One of the "traditional" redistricting principles, low compactness is considered to be a sign of potential gerrymandering by courts, state law and the academic literature.

So, instead of arguing about gerrymandering, the plaintiffs and the Board are arguing about compactness.  But really it's about gerrymandering.  In the next post on this, I'll look specifically at what the plaintiff's and the Board have both said about House Districts 3 and 5 regarding compactness.

And by the way, today at 11 am, the Board is meeting.  Mostly, judging from the agenda, it will be in executive session and they aren't likely to talk for the record afterward.  I think I'll just call in.  From the Board's website: 

  • Alaska Redistricting Board Meeting October 25, 2013 at 11 AM. View Agenda
The meeting will be teleconferenced at 1-855-463-5009 and streamed at AKL.TV.  Here's the Agenda.
  1. Call to Order
  2. Roll Call
  3. Approval of the Agenda
  4. Executive session to discuss litigation issues
    The board will disconnect from the teleconference net work and call back in for the executive session.
  5. Reconnect to the teleconference network.
  6. Board action if necessary
  7. Adjourn
In addition to the actual legal issues they need to discuss for the upcoming trial (if they have one it's scheduled for early December in Fairbanks), they also have an attorney who's recently had surgery for serious skin cancer inside his mouth.  It's not certain when he'll be able to talk again.  The chemo, according to his letter to the court, should be done by around Thanksgiving.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.