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Take Note: Chris Fowler on gerrymandering and the nuance of creating fair maps

Chris Fowler
Penn State
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Chris Fowler

On this episode of Take Note, we're going to hear about how political boundary lines affect fairness, gerrymandering and election results. The guest is Chris Fowler, a Penn State professor, researcher and the director of the Peter R. Gould center for geography, education and outreach. He's also a member of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's redistricting Advisory Council.

Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed fellow, Chris Fowler.

Here's the interview:

Jenna Spinelle 

Welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Chris Fowler 

Thanks for having me.

Jenna Spinelle 

So you are the first geographer that we've ever had on this show. And I am excited to talk with you about some of your work on redistricting and the approaches that have been taken thus far to try to combat that problem of gerrymandering. But before we get to some of those details, can you just tell us a little bit about your background and your interest in redistricting? How it came onto your radar?

Chris Fowler 

Sure. And I think, first, as a geographer, the thing I have to comment on is, it has nothing to do with knowing all the state capitals, nor do I like rocks particularly well. Most people when they hear that I'm a geographer immediately assume that I'm a geologist, or that I'm a map geek. And I do actually like rocks a lot. And I am kind of a map geek. But geography is...my interest is really on when we draw boundaries around things, what are we able to see? And what aren't we able to see? Because where we place those boundaries, shapes, a lot of outcomes. And so my research actually begins with census tracts and school districts and labor markets and metropolitan areas. And how do we define rural? How do we define urban? These are the questions that have guided my research for the last 10 years. And it's actually only recently that I've gotten into redistricting, which for me, is a subset of that larger set of questions. And, you know, redistricting is one of those places where people think a lot about how drawing the boundaries matters. So my background coming into it is...I think, coming from a broader place, then sort of more the people who come here from politics arrive from a very different mindset about parties and party fairness. Whereas what I'm really beginning from is, are these units of observation, good units for capturing the kinds of things we want to capture. And for me, that that what are we trying to capture is representation of the people living in a democracy? And so it starts from a different place?

Jenna Spinelle 

Is it fair to say that people coming at it from that politics angle you were just describing are focused on the end results, or the outcome, as opposed to the process for getting there that you were just describing?

Chris Fowler 

One of the things I've noticed is a lot of the metrics coming out of Political Science start with this idea of fairness to parties. One party's representation is not proportional to its votes received. And that's a very different starting point from, "Are we capturing voter preferences using these units of observation." The big difference there is, I don't really care about fairness to parties. That parties are useful so far as they describe the preferences of voters. But increasingly, if parties don't describe the preferences of voters, and they're not that useful to me as a metric. So there is a significant difference there.

Jenna Spinelle 

Right. So, you know, one of the big reforms we've seen since the 2010 redistricting cycle has been the creation of independent or non partisan redistricting commissions, often led by sort of a grassroots type of effort through ballot initiatives or through other citizen led processes to take politicians out of the process. Or at least reduce their influence. The idea being that if there's, you know, they can't sort of change the rules in their favor or tip to their party's favor. So what do you make of that approach given your perspective about the thinking more deeply about the ways that we draw these boundaries?

Chris Fowler 

Well, I mean, I first think that anything that pulls it out of the backroom and brings it into the daylight and forces people to talk about what their criteria are for drawing things. That's always gonna be better. And so, you know, on its face, I'm absolutely in favor of these kinds of independent commissions. I think they're a big improvement. The idea that they're non-partisan, though, or bipartisan, those are really problematic. Because, you know, in a lot of these cases, the people on that commission are appointed by the parties themselves. Or they have party affiliations. Or they're involved because they're known by the parties. And, you know, you can have people who are trying, honestly to be fair arbitrators. But again, it comes back to this thing. If your effort is geared towards party fairness, then you're going to get a certain subset of the results. And one of the things I'd love to see is independent commissions that are thinking outside the box a little bit. So what can boundaries do to incentivize representation? How can we create districts that force candidates to serve their constituents. That forced them to find coalition's within the electorate who want them represent from them in office. And I think, when we fall back to party fairness, when we fall back to, I think, really rote metrics of proportionality and things like that, it can tell us something. But I think it keeps us from seeing the big picture, which is representation.

Jenna Spinelle 

Is it too late? Do you think to push for some of those types of changes or reforms in the 2020 cycle that's underway right now or it something that we're really going to have to make that the focus people are concerned about this process? That's like the next iteration between 2020 and 2030?

Chris Fowler 

I would say the latter. I mean, the timeline on these things right now is so tight, particularly with the census data being delivered late. These kinds of things would have to be set up long in advance. Some of them require changes to state law or federal law. You know, I think the best we can hope for, for 2020, is a bright spotlight, and maps drawn in public. And people gaining sophistication about what these maps mean for them. That I think 10 years ago, only a small subset of people thought that much could be gained by drawing the maps one way or another. And I think the realization that this is actually a huge source of power. I think that's out in the open now, and that genies not going back in the bottle. And, you know, I've been on calls with Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines Pa and groups like that. And their members a year ago, or two years ago, had really crude ideas about it. Not all of them, obviously, but a lot of them had really crude...let's draw a fair map. Let's fix this. And if you talk to them now, they're really getting into the nuance and starting to think about, "oh, this is related to, you know, election day being a federal holiday", or the motor voter registration act. Like all these things are tied together in their minds now. And so an educated electorate is a powerful electorate. And so that's this round. It's going to be a spotlight. How do new ideas, you know, all of these ideas depend on the legislature taking action of some sort. And they can't take action on anything. So it's hard to imagine that they could take sophisticated action around something that's not in their personal or party best interests. That's asking for a lot. So you know, is this long, long term? Yes. Do I see progress even in the last few years? Absolutely. But I don't want people to sort of go back to thinking, "Well, you know, we got a fair map this time. We're done." Because we're not gonna get a fair map. We don't even know what a fair map...I don't know what a fair map is.

Jenna Spinelle 

Yeah, I was actually just going to ask about that. I mean, to the extent that you can, I guess, discern a fair map. What are some of the things you would look at to try to make sense of that?

Chris Fowler 

Yeah. I mean, that's a great question. And I think the most important thing to recognize is that my fair map is not your fair map. Is not, you know, anyone else's fair map. There isn't. I shudder at the idea of people who want a computer algorithm to draw us a map. That is a horrible idea. And I say that as someone who uses computer algorithms to draw maps. Like this is what I do. And I will tell you straight out that is the worst idea you can imagine.

Jenna Spinelle 

Why?

Chris Fowler 

Well, because computers suck. And the nuance that we require is way beyond what a computer can undertake. I'll put my finger specifically at the kinds of computer programs we're currently using to draw. You may be familiar with the ensemble programs that drop 25,000 Random maps, and use those to identify what a fair map looks like. And then you can compare it to the actual map. This ensemble technology. One of the things that's sort of hardwired into it is a preference for compact districts. Compactness is in the Pennsylvania constitution, like that should be a good. A lot of Pennsylvanians value that. But compactness tends to penalize populations that are clustered. So there's two populations that are clustered in Pennsylvania, African Americans and Democrats. So a random or fair map drawn with one of these things begins with a baked-in bias against African Americans and Democrats. And we can call that a natural map or a fair map, because it is compact. But for me, that's not a fair map. Now, it may be for many other people, and I can accept that our preferences will be different. But for me, to the extent that proportionality captures representation, proportionality matters to me. And so something that bakes in something that's anti-proportion, anti-majoritarian, anti-proportional, that's not great for me. Um, you know, other people see that as sort of a handicap that Democrats and African Americans have to bear because they cluster in cities. But for one thing, African Americans aren't clustered in cities because of some natural process. You know, we've got a whole history of housing segregation, and, you know, go back to redlining and the GI Bill and every other dang thing. And so that settlement pattern isn't neutral. It isn't natural, it isn't fair. And we don't think of it as fair when we talk about segregation. So why would we think of it as fair when we talk about drawing districts? I would much rather have people state their preferences and come up with a map, that meets those preferences. And say, "this is a subjective map made by human brains", which are really, you know, prone to error and also really good at nuance.

Emily Reddy 

If you're just joining us you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. Today's guest is Chris Fowler, a Penn State professor and a member of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's Redistricting Advisory Council. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Interviewer Jenna Spinelli talked to Fowler about drawing fair political boundary lines.

Jenna Spinelle 

So one of the things that I've seen and you bringing up compactness made me think of this. A lot of the sort of anti-gerrymandering groups have, you know, they'll come out with ads or things on social media that, you know, show these really funnily...districts that have funny shape to them. I know the most famous one in Pennsylvania was like Donald Duck kicking Goofy, or maybe the other way around. I always get confused. But they sort of make an example of like, look at these weird horribly shaped districts. That's like why gerrymandering is so bad, because it's the, you know, politicians choosing their voters, not the other way around. I wonder if some of that might end up ultimately hindering some of the arguments you're making? Because people are sort of wired to think that like districts...it's bad if they look this like odd, misshapen way, when really from what you're saying, that might be according to some other values, the best way to do things?

Chris Fowler 

Yeah, I mean, one of the things to think about is, if you look historically at Pennsylvania, we didn't settle in circles and move outward. That's what a compact...compactness assumes you've got a dense core, and it moves outward from that. That's not how we did it in Pennsylvania. We went down the valleys. And we went along the rivers. And the small settlements in eastern Pennsylvania merged into the giant eastern seaboard megalopolis. And so this idea that a circle is, you know, our basis for judging quality, that works great in Iowa. It's not so awesome in Pennsylvania, though. So people aren't wrong, the Goofy kicking Donald Duck or whatever it was, you're right. I can't remember which order it is either was done so politicians could pick their voters. It was done to gain political advantage. And yes, that is a gerrymander, and it's bad. Districts in Pennsylvania curve with the Appalachians because that's how the valleys go. Because that's how the municipalities go, because that's how the rivers go. That's a good thing. And that's going to elongate districts away from away from circles. It's going to make them bent. And that's appropriate. And I've been looking at some of the good maps coming out of the mapping contests statewide. And without taking that as a value, people who are drawing good maps or coming up with those districts that you can see the topography of Pennsylvania inside. You can see the canals, you can see, you know, all these things that are based on historical development show up if you're starting from a set of principles that try and keep communities of interest together. Because there's communities of interest are exactly based on socioeconomic, historical, geographic things that look a particularly on the landscape that isn't circular. To get a map that's proportional, so the share vote roughly equates to share seats. In Pennsylvania, you need to gerrymander. You need to...mean this is a thing. Is gerrymander, always a pejorative term? I don't know. A lot of people treat it as such. But to me, it's drawing weird shaped things to achieve a particular goal. And if that goal is net positive for representation, I think it's...I think it's fine. But others would see it as solely pejorative. And, and I think, I agree with the people who say that let's not confuse folks by saying there's good gerrymanders. So maybe we need a new term for good, weirdly shaped districts.

Jenna Spinelle 

(Laughter) And you've mentioned this a couple times, it's worth just having you define it a little bit more. So you've been saying "representation" a lot, but you don't mean, I don't take it to mean, like the person who is representing the district. Right? You think of representation in a more in a broader sense? Is that right?

Chris Fowler 

Yeah, when I'm talking about representation, I'm talking about someone in office whose actions, legislative actions, line up with the electorate's preferences. And I use the word 'representation' because they're all these partisan divides. But when I teach my population geography class at Penn State, I have students from across the political spectrum. And instead of saying, "What do you think we should do about immigration?" Where instantly they drop into their camps. We say, "What are the things you could value around immigration?...Well, I value lessening suffering, I value national security, I value bringing people in new who have skills we need." You know, a whole set of values. Then I have my students put an "X" on a line between 0 and 100. Where do you value this thing? And they don't differ that much. Their policy conclusion is shaped by their party alignment and some political thing. And it's, it's diametrically opposed. But if you look at what they value, it's things in the center. It's mostly indistinguishable. And so I'm a big believer that there's a whole range of things where we have broad policy preferences that are in alignment. And you know, they might adjust a little bit there or there. But most of the things that our legislators need to be doing are in that category. And unfortunately, we focus on the other things where we are diametrically opposed. And all we can do is talk about those things. We're really at each other's throats. And so when I talk about representation, I'm talking about someone who's finding coalition's within their electorate, and finding out what the policy preferences of those coalition's are. And going to the statehouse or going to the capitol and saying, "These are the things my constituents want, who's with me to try and get this done." And so that's representation. And, you know, if I'm a Republican, I can get representation from a Democrat. If I'm a Democrat, I can get representation of a Republican. They may be off the charts horrible on some other thing for me, but there are...there should be areas where they're seeking to represent my views. And as long as they're doing that, I think we have a democracy. And when they're not, we don't.

Jenna Spinelle 

Right. And I know one of the arguments that the journalist and author David Daly made when he was on the show, was that if this map making processes is not changed...basically the more extreme, the partisan gerrymandering, the more extreme the candidate, the more polarization. It's just this death spiral, vicious cycle, whatever you want to say. It just sort of goes, you know, down and down and down from there. It sounds like you're articulating the other side of that vision and what could happen or maybe a more utopian version of that. Where, you know, what happens if things go the other direction? And we take some of these things out of the picture.

Chris Fowler 

And so it's complicated. But I think there are ways we can do this. And I want to if it's if it's okay, I want to interject here. And to say, this isn't just a wouldn't it be nice. When you come to districting as a geographic problem, rather than a political problem. Gerrymandering is about borders, but districting there's two factors. One is borders, and one is scale. So not only where do we put the boundaries between things, but how many things do we have? And so one of the things that I would suggest, that's possible. Okay, it's been done before. It's currently outlawed for congressional districts...is multi-member districts, and not just any multi-member, but three member districts. And the idea here is two-fold. One, if we increase the size of districts, then the clustering of populations becomes less salient. That by the time you get to 2.1 million people in a district, you're going to have a big geographic area, even if you're Pittsburgh. Philadelphia, okay, maybe a special case here. But for most of Pennsylvania, you're gonna have these really big districts. Within those, the clustering of Democrats or African Americans largely washes out because there's enough area there that you're getting a population that looks like the population of the Commonwealth as a whole. So once you have these big districts, they're electing three representatives. And the reason for three is because if one party says, "Hey, we're the party of the far left or far right, that's our ship. That's what we're on. That's our platform, we're doing that." the other party is going to crush them two to one. The thing we've learned in geography is that the way to win market share is to move to the center. And so if one party wants to stake its life on the left or the right, great. But the other party is going to have a two to one advantage. And if neither party can figure this out, if both parties because of their national platforms, because of polarization in both parties, sit there on their ends, then there's room for a party in the middle. A party that says, "hey, we think a lot of you have shared values on climate change, or gun control, or prayer in schools." like these are things with massive bipartisan support. Like stuff could get done here. And that party is going to be pretty darn attractive. So the reason I talk about this, and it's just one of many things we could do. But what it does is it incentivizes representation. It says, I'm not just going to rely on getting out to vote, I have to...to win. I have to actually incentivize people to get away from me. Gerrymandering isn't going to work with districts that are that big. I'm going to have to take the population of Pennsylvania and try and convince them that I'm doing something for them. And if I can't, then it's not fairness to parties. There's room for a third party, but it's an idea.

Jenna Spinelle 

So every time I hear about multi member districts, it is in conjunction with ranked choice voting. Do you see that you have to have one to have the other?

Chris Fowler 

Yeah, I mean, if you don't, if you have a at large districts. This is something that states in the South used for many years to exclude blacks from elections. So I don't like to say rank choice voting, because then you get into this, like horrible minutiae about the 74 different algorithms that can be used to determine it. Honestly, there's dozens of them that are good enough. There's a trade off between the really complex ones that are the best, and the ones that are easiest to explain, and the ones that can be done most simply on election night. And the thing to know is in a rank choice voting system, if you have three districts...all it takes us 33% of the population to get a representative. Excuse me, I think actually it's 25% of the population in a three district system. Okay, that means that sizable minorities whether they're coalition's of moms or LGBTQ or Hispanic or people who you know oppose the color purple. It doesn't matter. Coalition's of a certain size will have a voice. And the role of coalition's within this rank choice voting thing becomes really critical. And that's yet another incentive towards representation. It's like, "oh, I'm mostly this person, but I do you believe in the color purple." Or, "I'm mostly this person, but I'm a mom too." And those kinds of things will increase representation. And so with rank choice voting, you really get to push those coalition's to the front. And that's really, you know, that's powerful.

Jenna Spinelle 

Well, yeah. And speaking of power and incentives, I mean, some states that have citizen led initiatives might be able to do things similar to what the Independent Redistricting Commission folks did over the past 10 years and use the next 10 years to make a push for passing multi member districts and rank choice voting through ballot measures. But that's not the case in Pennsylvania, for example. Where we don't have those processes. So how might you position these types of reforms in a way that would be appealing to legislators or take some of their incentives into account?

Chris Fowler 

So I mean, I think it has to be a pathway, a long pathway. And so you start by transparency and openness and legislators having to answer for their action. Probably from there, maybe you go to an open primary system, which sort of takes the legs out from the most extreme candidates having room to elect, someone who's less extreme. So for example, in Ohio, they just had a special election. And there's a guy there who got 18,000 votes in the Republican primary who was in a field of 11. So we got 36%, or something of Republican primary voters. That district always sends a Republican. So those 18,000 people are the only people who chose this person who's going to go represent 750,000. Yeah, no. I don't, I don't think that's democratic. What you have to do is figure out okay, what are the small steps that don't immediately threaten the legislatures. That get us towards better legislators who might, you know, ultimately, be forward thinking enough to do this kind of stuff. And you know, I guess the one thing I want to put out there is we can't be dogmatic about what our preferences are. Because compactness, competitiveness, majority, minority districts, all of these things that we believe in as signs of a good map are complicated. They can be signs of a good map. They can also be abused. What we need is nuance, subjectivity, stakeholder engagement, those kinds of things are going to get us where we need to go. And so you know, to the degree we can educate ourselves on these subtleties. I think it's I think it's all to the benefit.

Jenna Spinelle 

Well, thank you for the work that you're doing to help bring some of that nuance and subtlety to our processes here in Pennsylvania. And thank you for joining us today.

Chris Fowler 

It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Emily Reddy 

Chris Fowler is a Penn State professor, researcher and a member of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf redistricting Advisory Council. Today's interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Jenna Spinelle was the interviewer. You can hear more Take Note and Democracy Works interviews at wpsu.org/radio. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.