Virtual Districts: A Radical Idea to End Gerrymandering

If we can’t create fair maps, then let’s ditch the maps.

Photo by Timo Wielink on Unsplash

Gerrymandering is simultaneously one of the most maligned and most abused tactics in US government. It allows parties to secure power. It often suppresses minority influence. It frustrates voters who see their towns sliced up with surgical precision, diluting their vote and forcing their preferred candidate into an uphill battle. Everyone hates it. So why can’t we seem to fix it?

The problem is that any set of rules can be manipulated, and the people who win or lose by those rules have plenty of incentive to bend them to their benefit. As much as we may hate gerrymandering, we can’t deny that it arose specifically because of how we’ve structured the political process. If American politics were a board game, the political players would be doing exactly what we’d expect: working the rules to maximize their chances of winning. Representatives want to keep their jobs. They want to further the cause of their own parties. It’s inevitable that they would use the redrawing of districts to their advantage.

There have been many suggested solutions to gerrymandering, like handing the redistricting over to independent commissions or computer programs. Those ideas do take redistricting power away from politicians who benefit from gerrymandering most directly, which seems like a step in the right direction. But in our highly partisan era, it’s hard to have faith that a commission isn’t itself biased towards one party, or that a computer program is designed to properly balance the field. And even if a map can be drawn that is as fair as possible, it still leaves open the possibility that many voters will feel cheated by something they have no input into.

But I believe there is a way to end gerrymandering, while also giving voters more power in the process. I call it “Virtual Districts,” and the concept is really pretty simple: you can’t unfairly divide the map, if there’s no map to divide.

Why wouldn’t we use maps?

We’ve been using maps to divide up voters for so long, it’s hard to imagine another way of doing it. But using an entirely different system is the kind of radical change we need, because dividing voters by physical location creates more problems than gerrymandering:

  1. It’s outdated. It comes from a time before we used cars to commute to work, and way before we had electronic devices for connecting to school, work, and social circles. We are not as bound, nor as connected, to the place where we live than were past generations.
    Let’s say I live in a suburb, and I commute into a major city for work. I make my money in the city, and spend a lot of my time there. I use its roads. I’m protected by its police. I rely on its infrastructure. Take out the time I’m sleeping, and probably spend way more time in the city than I do at my house. So why can’t I vote for its representative? Why do I instead vote for the representative who happens to cover where my house is? Why can’t I vote in the place I feel most connected to?
  2. It takes away choice. I get no say in how the maps are drawn, no matter who draws them, and based on that I get lumped in with a group of people around me. And why should I? Maybe I feel more connected to my cultural identity than to where I live, and want to represent their interests. Or what if I grew up in a more rural area, and want to use my vote in service of the people I know there? Why don’t voters get to choose who they vote with?

We can resolve both of those problems, and take redistricting out of the hands of politicians, by getting rid of the maps entirely. Voters would no longer be forced into a district based on location. Instead, they would get to choose their own districts.

How . . . how would that work, exactly?

Let’s say that a state has enough population for ten districts. When the citizens of that state register to vote, they also choose a district, which are simply numbered 1–10 on the form. They also choose a second and third choice district, in case their top one is full. Once you choose, you continue vote in that numbered district in every election until the next census, when you get to choose a new one, if you like. Anyone from the state can choose any of the ten districts, no matter where they live.

So the Virtual Districts are just random assortments of citizens?

No, because people would never let them be. Think about what would happen if we switched to using Virtual Districts. It would be new ground, and different groups would start trying to claim it. Political parties would naturally start strategizing to snap up as many Virtual Districts as possible. They wouldn’t be able to slice up the voting population with a scalpel anymore, so they’ll have to try and spread their contingency to get as many Virtual District majorities as possible. They’d take out ads claiming certain districts for their party, and try to outmaneuver one another to gain an advantage.

But they won’t be the only ones.

The state teacher’s union might claim district 2, condensing their voting power behind a single representative they can have a greater influence on. An advocacy group for minority interests might try to spread their demographic across districts 3–5, so they can maximize their voting power across a few representatives. Some districts might even come to be location based, as city governments try to get locals to rally around a particular number.

That’s the key to Virtual Districts. Right now politicians are the only ones who can game the system. This would let everyone game it.

More importantly, it would give people choice. Do I want my voting power to be with my local government? Or with my demographic group? Or with others in my profession? Or with others that share my religion? I would get to decide, instead of someone else deciding for me.

How do you know it would happen that way?

I don’t know that it would play out exactly that way, and in fact the battle lines would probably vary greatly between states. But people know what’s important to them. And they know where their identity and interests lie. If we’re trusting the people to choose their leaders, we should trust them to decide where their vote will best serve their interests. It’s better to let them choose where their vote goes, and to let them organize themselves into meaningful groups, than to let someone else do it for them — especially someone who stands to benefit from rigging the system.

I believe that Virtual Districts would also have a powerful impact on voter perception. People like choices. They like transparency and clear rules. Dividing them with a map takes those things away. No matter how fairly someone else divides them, they will always look at it and wonder why they don’t get a say in it. We should give them a say. We should let them choose.

Former writer for and, currently a technology professional, teacher, and father. I write about whatever is on my mind.

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