Friday, November 15, 2013

The Case That HD 5 Was Gerrymandered - Part 2

In Part 1, I offered some background information on where things stand now and on redistricting and gerrymandering in general, including four major ways to manipulate districts.  I also included a section on "The current partisan redistricting facts in Alaska" as I see them.

In this post, Part 2, we start looking at the maps to understand in excruciating detail (yet still not enough) why the plaintiffs are challenging the plan.  This post focuses on House District (HD) 5, though the plaintiffs challenge other districts as well.

I thought I'd finish this post (Part 2), but there's definitely more left over for Part 3.  Also, I realize I started all this in an earlier post - Alaska Redistricting Board: Compactness And Fairbanks Districts 3 and 5 - Part 1.  That one looks at the concept of compactness as discussed by different students of redistricting. It's good background for this post.

Some Maps

Let's go from the theoretical to the hands-on and look at some maps.   The Board's map of HD 5 makes it hard to actually see
Note:  House Districts are numbered
and Senate Districts are lettered so on
maps 5-C means it's HD 5 in SD C.
Senate Districts have 2 House Districts.
all of HD 5.    The inset, lower right, shows the whole district, but it's much to small to understand what's really going on in this district. It doesn't show you how much of the district has no population and where there are actually people.

[All the maps except B and E should get much bigger if you click on them]

Map A - whole district in two parts

I  enlarged the inset to better see the whole district.    I've colored in the populated areas in yellow.  I don't know Fairbanks, so there may be a little more area to the left of Chena Ridge that has population along the road, but as I looked at the maps, it looked sparsely populated at best.

Map B - With populated areas in yellow

The populated parts of the district are a small part near the top left (to the west of the City of Fairbanks), a little bit southwest of Fairbanks, and then the part that has been called 'the anvil' to the east of the City of Fairbanks and more connected to North Pole.

Most of the district is what was called 'the bombing range' by the Board.  Actually, it's Tanana Flats Training Area.  The right (below) is a map of the Tanana Flats Training Area - part of Ft Wainwright and unpopulated and inaccessible to the public without a permit - and you can see an amazing resemblance to HD 5. Basically, there's a tiny populated part on top and then the Tanana Flats was tacked onto HD 5. 

Map C:  Comparing HD 5 map to map of Tanana Flats Training Area of Ft. Wainwright

But this map also helped me understand what I hadn't understood before.  On the Board's maps, there are diagonal lines going through HD 2.  They are like the lines shown in most of HD 5.  Looking at the map above I realized that the little 'turret' on top of Tanana Flats is Fort Wainright. (People who know Fairbanks would, of course, have realized this.) And it's right in the middle of HD 2.  The brown outline in the top picture (see below) was in the original.  I added it in to the bottom image to make it easier to see.

Map D: Locating Ft. Wainwright - top map from DODPIF site

Military Bases and Redistricting

Tanana Flats Training Area is technically part of Fort Wainright - a contiguous part. Early in the redistricting process the Board got a letter from the Lt. Governor asking them to keep military bases intact as much as possible. It's something they mentioned frequently when working on Anchorage. The purpose was to not have precincts that overlapped the base and off base. It would be hard for civilians if they had to get onto base to vote and they didn't want to make military have to go off base to vote. It seemed to me at the time that military go off base all the time for other things so going a little off base to vote shouldn't be that difficult, but that was the rationale. Now, in this case, as I understand it, there is no population living in the Tanana Flats other than bears and moose and other wildlife. No voters anyway. So the Lt. Governor's rationale doesn't apply here.  But the principle of keeping military districts intact is reasonable and would have been a good rationale to have the unpopulated Tanana Flats part of HD 2.   Keep this in mind for when we get into the discussion of which district Tanana Flats was put into.

Let's go back and look at the populated parts of HD 5.  I've isolated them in this image so you can see them clearly. (Again, I'm not sure how much population is to the west of the section on the left, but if there's more it doesn't affect my point.)

Map E:  Populated Parts of HD 5 isolated

One of the constitutional requirements for redistricting is contiguity.  That means that all parts of the district are connected to all other parts.  If you live in the small part of HD 5 on the right/east (above), you are among 800 people in HD 5 who are separated from the other 16,900 people of HD 5 who live on the left/west side. The City of Fairbanks is between the two parts - including Ft. Wainwright and HD 1 and HD 2.   But you're in bed with folks in North Pole to the right.  (see maps above) 

Technically, these two parts of HD 5 are connected by the Tanana Flats Training Area.  But, from what I can tell online and asking folks, you need permission from the military to go on that land and there aren't any roads to take you from what I'm calling "East Pakistan" to "West Pakistan" through the Flats.  Instead you have to go through at least HD 2 and possibly HD 1 too.  Or maybe kayak along the river.

I've been told that the Alaska Courts have allowed districts to have isolated communities that are not connected to other communities by road.  But I'd wager that those decisions were made about roadless rural districts, not about urban districts.  If I were arguing this case, I'd be pointing out that this district, for all practical purposes, is NOT contiguous.  Not in any way that is meaningful to the people in it and that this lack of contiguity is not required by geography or lack of population or roadless wilderness.  This is an urban area where the population is dense enough and the census blocks numerous enough, that a few computer clicks could put these 800 people into HD 2 or HD 3 (or half in one and half in the other.)  Then a few more clicks could add 800 more people back into HD 5 and a few more clicks could get HD 2 and 3 within reasonable deviations from the ideal sized district of 17,755.  A few more clicks and all the impacted districts would be fine.  Maybe 30 minutes for someone who's been using the software a while.

The folks at the Board will talk to you about census blocks and ripple effects, but if you sat down with someone who knows the computer program, you'd see it can be done.  That same argument was made in the last trial.  They swore that changing a protrusion from one downtown Fairbanks district into the other would cause endless ripple effects.  A little later, the plaintiff's GIS expert showed the judge just how easy it was to do without causing any ripple effects. These are excuses, not reasons. 

The Anvil and Compactness

The plaintiffs didn't make a contiguity argument in their motions to the court.  Instead they talked about compactness.  And they pointed to what they called 'the anvil' sitting there on the east side jutting into the community just above North Pole.

Let's look at this 'anvil.'  As you'll see, when I tried to find a visual for it, I found another visual that seemed to fit the shape a little better than the anvil.

Map F:  The Anvil in Context

Now, back to compactness with the anvil in mind.  I posted about compactness in relationship to HDs 3 and 5 in October.  That was the conceptual post and there was supposed to be a second one that looked at maps.  I guess that's this one, except I added one more in between.   You can look at that October post to learn a bit about compactness.  Or you can read this explanation which I'm borrowing from All About Redistricting.
  • Compactness Almost as often as state law asks districts to follow political boundaries, it asks that districts be "compact." 37 states require their legislative districts to be reasonably compact; 18 states require congressional districts to be compact as well.
    Few states define precisely what "compactness" means, but a district in which people generally live near each other is usually more compact than one in which they do not. Most observers look to measures of a district's geometric shape. In California, districts are compact when they do not bypass nearby population for people farther away. In the Voting Rights Act context, the Supreme Court seems to have construed compactness to indicate that residents have some sort of cultural cohesion in common.
    Scholars have proposed more than 30 measures of compactness, each of which can be applied in different ways to individual districts or to a plan as a whole. These generally fit into three categories. In the first category, contorted boundaries are most important: a district with smoother boundaries will be more compact, and one with more squiggly boundaries will be less compact. In the second category, the degree to which the district spreads from a central core (called "disperson") is most important: a district with few pieces sticking out from the center will be more compact, and one with pieces sticking out farther from the district's center will be less compact. In the third category, the relationship of housing patterns to the district's boundaries is most important: district tendrils, for example, are less meaningful in sparsely populated areas but more meaningful where the population is densely packed."
Using the standards from All About Redistricting (above), we can see that each one raises
Map A - whole district in two parts
a red flag for the HD 5.
  • Contorted Boundaries - There's no question that HD 5 has contorted boundaries.  If you just look at the whole district (Map A inset) without knowing where the population is, it doesn't look bad.  But when you know that a tiny percent of the land in the district has any population (Map B) and that population is separated into two non-contiguous parts (Map E), it's clear there is something fishy here. 
  • Dispersion - The central core is west of the City of Fairbanks and then you have is 'East Pakistan" ('the anvil") not only sticking out from the center, but for all practical purposes, it's not even connected to "West Pakistan."
  • Housing Patterns -  The anvil is clearly a district tendril which the description above says is more problematic in urban areas than rural areas.  Fairbanks is the second biggest urban area in the State.  There's no need for HD 5 to have an 800 person orphan neighborhood separated from the rest of the 16,900 people by two other districts. They could easily pick up 800 people from neighborhoods current split into HD 4 or HD 1. 
Also, this district does not pass the California test mentioned, because it passes up nearby folks to get the anvil people off by North Pole.  

Redrawing the lines outlines two ways to measure compactness - visually and mathematically.  The first is just to look and see if there are any odd shapes or protrusions.
  • "If the districts drawn are too irregular-looking, it may become a signal to the courts that the lines may have been motivated by a desire to engage in race-based redistricting, which may be held unlawful."
This was what I meant when I said in Part 1 that compactness (or contiguity) can be a proxy for, in our case,  political gerrymandering.  And the "too irregular-looking" anvil is one reason this plan is in court.
  • "a mathematical formula may be the best way to measure compactness. There are various methods for calculating the compactness of a district including looking at how the population is distributed within the district, measuring the borders of the district, or evaluating the area of the district."
The Board did give the court a list of statistical tests for compactness with scores for each to show that the district  (and district 3) is compact.  But I looked up the tests and what the scores mean.  (The Board just gave raw numbers without interpretation.)  For some tests, the districts in questions scored ok.  For others they were on the suspicious end of the scale.  Which is one of the problems with the tests - different tests tell you different things.

The other problem I have with the Board offering statistics to the court is that I never heard any mention at the Board meetings of using the statistical tests as a criterion to see if their districts were compact.  This is an after-the-fact justification by the Board which wasn't considered by the board while making the maps (at least not in public meetings) and doesn't really tell us whether the districts are compact or not. 

Is the anvil necessary to keep Fairbanks deviations low?

The Board tells us that they needed the anvil so the deviations would work out - that is, so that the populations of all the Fairbanks districts would be the lowest deviation possible from the ideal district size of 17,755.  I would point out that in the previous plans, urban deviations of 1% and even 2% existed.  

But this time around, low deviation became their new mantra and they got Fairbanks deviations down to below a 1/2 %.  Without the demands of the Voting Rights Act (a significant portion of which the US Supreme Court struck down last June), the Board says they can make the deviations much lower.  But why?  One or two percent is already well within legal and common sense range.  In my mind they've gone extreme at the cost of other important values.  Or they are just using the low deviations to justify creating anvils. 

I'd also note that when the Plaintiffs argue that they could configure Fairbanks Senate districts so that their deviations are even lower, the Board thinks the difference is too minor to matter.  I tend to agree with them on that, but I also think the increased deviation that cutting this whole eastern annex out of HD 5 might cause is no big deal either as long as it's still under two percent.  

But the deviation is just one of a cascade of factors, all of which fall the wrong way for the Board.  It's the totality of all these factors that should cause eyebrows to arch when looking at the Fairbanks districts.  And that's where I'll go in Part 3. 

But, before ending this post I do want to point out that there are some legitimate reasons for there to be some odd shapes. 
  • Geography - there might be mountains or rivers or other natural features that the district line follows and that make sense on the ground, but look suspicious on the map. 
  • Population - to get the right number of people into a district, the mappers might have to stretch out to capture a small distant community.
  • Odd Census Block shapes - The smallest unit the Board can deal with is a census block.  As I understand it, this is because they have to use the census data for population.  The smallest unit the census data has is the block.  So if a census block  has a weird shape - most likely for the above reasons - the map maker can claim her weirdly shaped district is a result of the census block.
  • Governmental Units -  a district line might follow an irregular city border.  
But the first thee are all more likely to occur in rural areas than in urban areas.  And when they do occur in urban areas, there's enough population so that you can usually adjust some adjoining census blocks to smooth out any bad bumps.  The last one doesn't apply to HD 5.  It's not the city borders that are irregular, it's the district borders.

I'm going to end this post here.  It's already way too long for most readers.  There's more to be discussed.  I hope readers remember that I'm only focusing on one House district here (and that will spillover a bit into HD 5's Senate pairing in the next post).  There are so many little details here that it's easy for either side to say what it wants and most observers won't be in a position to know who's blowing smoke.  (They could both be.)  I'm hoping this post might help some people understand the what's happening here. 

Coming up in the next redistricting post(s) are things like:  
  • Why put the Tanana Flats in HD 5?  
  • The plaintiff's offer to drop the case if the the Board changed the Fairbanks senate district pairings and why the Board said no. 
  • Reviewing all the factors that are wrong about HD 5.
  • A peek at the other districts challenged in the court case.  
[UPDATE 4:47pm:  I forgot to include this in the post.  It's the legal description of HD 5 that was part of the Board's Proclamation Plan.  It doesn't mean a whole lot to me since I don't know Fairbanks at all, but it might mean something to people in Fairbanks.  Note that in some places it's a bit vague like "north along the boundary to a levee near the Tanana River, east along a non-visible line to the end of Rozak Road."

House District 5–Senate District C–Chena Ridge/Airport

House District 5 is bounded by a line beginning at the intersection of the Mitchell Expressway and the boundary of the City of Fairbanks, south then east then north along the boundary to a levee near the Tanana River, east along a non-visible line to the end of Rozak Road, north along Rozak Road to the Old Richardson Highway, northwest to Durango Trail, north along a non-visible line to Lakloey Drive, north to Bradway Road, east to Benn Lane, south to Ownby Road, east to Woll Road, north to Marigold Road, east to Badger Loop Road, to the intersection of Badger Loop Road and Repp Road, southwest along a non-visible line to the end of Willeda Street,southwest along a non-visible line to the northwestern-most corner of the boundary of the City of North Pole, southwest along the boundary to the eastern bank of the Tanana River,southeast along the eastern bank to the intersection of the Tanana River and the boundary of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, south across the Tanana River to the boundary of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, west then north along the boundary to a jeep trail near the Old Nenana Highway, east along the jeep trail to the Parks Highway, northeast the GVEA Powerlines near Rosie Creek Road, north then northeast to the Parks Highway, north to Townsend Lane, north to Goldhill Road, northeast to Ester Road, east to Tanana Drive, south to an unnamed road near Noatak Drive, northwest to Koyukuk Drive, east to Sheenlek Drive, north to a non-visible line extending west from Kuskokwim Way, east to Kuskokwim Way, east to Tanana Drive, north to the intersection of Tanana Drive and Farmers Loop Road, east along a non-visible line to the headwaters of Pearl Creek, east along a non-visible line to College Road, east to the boundary of the City of Fairbanks, southwest then southeast to the point of beginning.]

1 comment:

  1. Gerrymandered districts are not all bad, it just depends on how one looks at the results (not The Onion; sadly, not a spoof).

    Author Tells Redistricting Committee: Competitive Districts Are Bad Because They Make Voters Sad

    In 2011 the Ohio Republican Party controlled redistricting in Ohio. For months they met in a secret hotel room they called “the bunker”, redrawing district lines to give Republicans an edge in both votes and in fundraising.

    Today the Constitutional Modernization Commission held hearings in the committee tasked with redistricting reform.

    Their guest speaker? Thomas Brunell, the author of a book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad.“


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