May 14, 2009

Fifty Seven States

I wrote earlier today–facetiously–about California solving its budget problems by abdicating its statehood and reverting to territorial status, thereby punting the whole budget mess out to Washington. A very silly idea.


If that happened, I rather doubt that California would return to statehood in its current form. The state is extremely large but would lack political power during its territorial period. It would be up to the representatives of the other forty-nine (or fifty-four, see below) states to decide what to do with California. And it’s pretty clear to me that those people would rather see California not be such a big state, concentrate so much political and economic power in one container, and oh by the way, prove itself so utterly unable to govern itself that it had to revert to territorial status.

So there would be no second Organic Act for California. California, in its current form, would cease to exist, and instead would likely be spun off into new states. There are no rules to guide how Congress would do this, only its own political judgment. I posit that under these circumstances, California would be broken up into three states. There is no rule to say the states must be equal in population, geographic size, or anything else. The most important consideration in setting up the new borders for the new states would be the political advantage of those drawing the lines. Which means Democrats, since they have a decisive majority in Congress (a little less so without California's delegation but still more than enough to have their way).

Now, the goal to gerrymandering is to identify geographic areas and how they'll vote so as to produce a lot of districts that favor your party by comfortable but not overwhelming margins. You do that by isolating very strong majorities of the other party in just a few areas.

So let's say for simplicity's sake that you had a state that had 1,000,000 Democrats and 1,000,000 Republicans. And you have to divide up the whole state into ten districts. If you were going to play fair, you'd draw the lines so that each district had 100,000 Democrats and 100,000 Republicans. But, you can guarantee a huge majority for your side (we'll stick with Democrats drawing the lines in this example) if you can draw the district lines and get a result like this:

in District
in District

Voila! Ten districts, of 200,000 voters each. But despite exactly equal partisan distribution across the whole state, we would expect that barring very unusual circumstances, this setup will reliably produce a delegation of 8 Democrats and 2 Republicans. The Republicans will appear to be hugely popular with their districts, and the Democrats will tend to be elected with an average of 60% of the vote. But no one cares about the margins when all you need is 50% plus one to win.

The trick is to figure out how to draw the geographic lines which will produce something approximating the above result. Now, it's a challenge if you've got roughly equal partisan distribution. It gets much easier when there are actually more Democrats than there are Republicans in the state, as in:

in District
in District

This is mixed up a little bit more, but overall it represents an 8% advantage for the Democrats, which isn't very much. California Democrats currently enjoy a 13.38% registration advantage over California Republicans. But even in this 8% advantage scenario, we'll get the same result -- 8 Democrats and 2 Republicans. It might be possible to eke out a 9-1 advantage, although that runs the risk of creating a 7-3 outcome.

Almost as importantly, the presence of a registration cushion will likely enable the gerrymanderer to create boundaries that look a little more "natural" on a map -- the various districts can have some semblance of geographic cohesiveness. The rule is that the districts have to be contiguous, but that doesn't mean they have to make a ton of sense geographically. (Consider, for instance, Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, or Illinois' 4th Congressional District.) But putting together a distrist that makes sense geographically is important if you want to appear to be fair even while you're busy effectively disenfranchising the voters by eliminating the possibility of competitive elections with meaningful choices between candidates.

So if I were carving up California into three states, with the explicit goal in mind of benefit ting Democrats in this fashion -- and I had the added flexibility of not having to produce three new states of equal population, how would I do it?

Basically, the broad rule of thumb in California goes that Democrats are strong in urban areas and near the coasts. In times past, San Diego and Orange County were unassailable Republican strongholds but demographic and economic shift has rendered those areas competitive. Republicans in California are generally strong in the inland areas, but again, demographic shift and a consciousness of the importance of government in supplying water has allowed Democrats to make inroads in the vast San Joaquin Valley. So, a clever Democrat would want to make sure that a major urban area was in each state (and to site the capital in that city), and that there is enough coastal or urban population to keep the state as a whole in play during every election.

If you look at county maps, you’ll see a nearly straight east-west line made up of the northern borders of San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. That's a pretty convenient starting point -- let's say that everything below that would one of the new California Spinoff States, which for discussion purposes I’ll call California del Sur. Then, let's split up the rest of the state along the ridge of the Coastal Range, separating the coastal and Bay regions (which I'll call “Alta California” for now) from the Central Valley and Sierra regions. Let's call that third state “Sierra California” or maybe just “Sierra” with the idea that it would colloquialize as “Sierra State” much the same way Washington is called “Washington State” from time to time.

Now, from that basic skeleton, what political results would play out, and therefore how do you tweak the scenario for the favored political party's short- and medium-term advantage? The goal is increasing the Democrats' majority in the Senate and having as many governors be Democrats as possible, so as to groom good Presidential candidates and, um, you know, control stuff.

The capital of California del Sur would be Los Angeles. California del Sur would be dominated politically by Democrats in the Los Angeles area, supported by other urbanized areas in San Bernardino/Riverside and divided urban-suburban areas like San Diego and Orange County. Democrats would have a healthy but not overpowering electoral advantage in California del Sur, which would likely elect a Democratic Governor and two Democratic Senators.

What I’m calling Alta California would be a hugely Democratic state. Its capital would be San Francisco, and it would be a very bad place to be a Republican. That much concentrated Democratic voting power in one of the three blocs would seem to be a mistake, until you remember that Democrats would be more than competitive in California del Sur.

Which leaves Sierra. Sierra’s capital would be Sacramento, I expect, although plausible cases could be made for Stockton or Fresno. (Not Bakersfield, I've deliberately gerrymandered very Republican Kern County into California del Sur where its Republican votes will be swamped by Los Angeles' more Democratic votes.) But, if I were doing this to maximize Democratic advantage, I’d be concerned about Republicans in Sierra becoming too strong and actually electing officials in numbers of consequence, so I’d push a few more Democrat-friendly areas into that state – mainly, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and probably I’d throw in Trinity County too, to make it easy. This would leave Sierra State as something of a swing state. It might split its Senate seats between a Democrat and a Republican, but would probably produce a Democratic governor, at least the first time out in 2012 or 2014.

Now, sure, there would be lots of interesting questions that would need to get worked out. Water-sharing, for instance. But these are things that would get worked out. Or we could move Inyo and Mono Counties into California del Sur, so the state with the most population would also have the eastern Sierra watershed; it would leave the much more productive western Sierra watershed in Sierra State for agriculture.

You know, if I were a master Democrat doing this, I'd probably be willing to send those mostly-Republican areas to California del Sur since they aren't populous enough to swing the state to the Republicans under currently-foreseeable political conditions.

And of course, there's no particular reason to respect county lines in the first place; it's just that existing county lines provide a convenient way to subdivide the territory. The big-time policy wonks have these things mapped out down to the precinct level on their computers.

Anyway, that's my initial take on how Democrats would carve California into three new states, if they were to be given the opportunity to do so.

Now, as long as we’re looking at breaking up states, let’s look deep in the heart of Texas. Actually, we don’t have to because Nate Silver already did this a few weeks ago. Now, I don’t like the names he picked for the new states; I’d have called the New Spinoff Texas States “Rio Grande,” “Houston,” and “Dallas” (although I kind of like his triple-entendre name of “Trinity” for that state) and I'd suggest calling the other two “East Texas” and “West Texas.”

Oh, that's not very original, you say? Well, there's lots of pride invested in the name Texas, so I doubt most Texans would part with it gladly even as they exercised their unique right to voluntarily subdivide their state. And names like "Tornado Alley South" or "The Badlands" probably wouldn't be too popular with the residents of what I'm calling "West Texas."

In Silver's scenario, East Texas would be a swing state, West Texas, Dallas, and Houston would be reliably Republican, and Rio Grande would be reliably Democratic. Again, current political circumstances being what they are, swing states are reasonably good for Democrats now. I don’t see any way to carve up Texas into five states that produces a net benefit for Democrats. Let’s call it four Democratic and six Republican Senators, and three Republican and two Democratic governors emerging from this. Republicans in Texas have been agitating in this vein for several months now, I guess because they think this would result in an advantage for them.

Within the admittedly silly boundaries of this thought experiment, Silver's scenario is not unrealistic because Texas is controlled by Republicans and they wouldn't agree to break up the state unless they could get some political advantage to themselves out of the deal.

And, since we’re redrawing the map to the Democrats’ advantage, let’s just go ahead and make the District of Columbia a full-fledged State. The Constitution does not require that the seat of government be in a district outside of a state and in fact the seat of government was in Philadelphia and New York until the late 1790’s, so we know we can have the seat of government in a state if we want it there. Obviously, the new state of Columbia would be the most densely Democratic state in the Union.

What’s the net result? Where now we have two states and one territory with two Republican governors, and evenly-split senate representation, we’d wind up with nine states, with six of those nine Governors being Democrats, and the Senate balance of power shifting from 60-40 now to 69-45. It's only a half a percentage point of increased control, but still a net gain for the Democrats. More importantly, it makes it easier for Democrats to elect Presidents, because that's how votes in the Electoral College are allocated. And the greater number of Democratic governors increases the talent pool from which those Presidential candidates can be recruited.

Notice that in this thought experiment I have not considered 1) whether better policy and government would emerge from the new, smaller states, or 2) what Republicans would have to say about any of this. Those matters are simply irrelevant to the political calculus.

If I were seriously considering a good way to subdivide California along lines that made sense geographically and economically, or to favor Republicans or even just be fair to both parties, I'd draw the lines differently than this. And while this has sure been fun, it doesn't mean I think it's a good idea at all. I like having California be such a big state -- I just wish our Legislature weren't so captured by iron triangles of corruption.

But it would make President Obama’s campaign pledge to appeal to all 57 states for political support become possible!

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