Can Environmental Thinking Help Solve Gerrymandering?

Barack Obama devoted the final quarter of his State of the Union address last week to the topic of how we might “fix our politics.” And the very first challenge he mentioned in that category, before campaign-finance reform and the protection of voter rights, was gerrymandering. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he demanded, as the White House’s live video stream overlaid a map showing examples of some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts.

Barack Obama criticizing gerrymandering in the 2016 State of the Union address. White House video screenshot.

Gerrymandering—the political sleight-of-hand in which a party draws district boundaries to maximize its own electoral advantage—has been a problem in the United States for a long time. Reformers have recently stepped up campaigns in favor of non-partisan districting boards, and several states, including Wisconsin, have been hit with lawsuits challenging unfair electoral maps. The outcry is understandable: many gerrymandered districts look truly ridiculous.

But how can we prove that a district has been maliciously gerrymandered, other than the fact that it looks funny on a map? Political scientists have turned to statistical measures like the “efficiency gap” in order to provide an objective standard of a district’s “fairness” which can be offered as evidence in a legal case. This same analytic thinking has led others to suggest that the decisions about districting should be handed off entirely to algorithmic techniques like splitlines or simulated annealing that advocates think can’t be corrupted by partisan scheming. Oftentimes, however, mathematical approaches to measuring and solving gerrymandering treat voters as if they were generic points scattered over a featureless, uniform surface.

By contrast, geographers and environmental historians know that the world is far more textured than the bare outlines of a map make it seem. Places have identities and histories of their own that aren’t reducible to mere demographic distribution. Geographic factors like resources, harbors, trade routes, and climate help determine why and where people cluster together, and where edges form between discrete regions. Because people aren’t just randomly scattered across the map, they shouldn’t be randomly scattered into electoral districts, either. That’s why any discussion of how best to create electoral districts needs the insights of historical and environmental thinking to help understand what conditions make a place meaningfully “whole.”

“Natural” lines and “political” lines

John Wesley Powell proposed a division of the American West into watersheds. From the <em>Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey</em> (1878); digitized by <a href="" target="_blank">Matthew Frank</a>.

John Wesley Powell proposed a division of the American West into watersheds. From the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey (1878); digitized by Matthew Frank.

There are many examples from American history when environmentally-minded critics have objected to the ways in which political borders have violated the supposedly “natural” designs of geography. John Wesley Powell, the explorer and geologist who surveyed the American West in the years after the Civil War, felt that watersheds, rather than rectilinear grids, should be used to determine administrative districts in the nation’s arid lands. Sylvester Baxter, a journalist and social reformer who helped create Boston’s metropolitan park system, complained in 1893 that Massachusetts’s territory was “divided upon political and not natural lines,” leaving the region “unable to provide for its needs in an intelligent manner.” During the New Deal, conservationists helped agitate for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, hoping that it could carry out regional planning that was impossible for the states, whose boundaries cut across ecological units. In these and other similar cases, districts based on geographic forms like watersheds, coastal basins, and river valleys served as foils to the ostensibly irrational and backwards divisions that politicians had created.

One of the most interesting critiques of gerrymandered geography came from Carl Sauer, the historical geographer whose work heavily influenced twentieth-century research on human-environment relations. Though Sauer was most famous for his cultural landscape studies, one of his earlier research publications was a 1918 article in the American Political Science Review entitled “Geography and the Gerrymander.” The article isn’t well known, even among Sauer scholars, but it offers an important insight into the way that historical and ecological thinking can be brought to bear on the problem of political districting.

In the article, Sauer argued that the greatest “wrong” of gerrymandering was not its political chicanery but rather the way it perpetrated “a violation of the geographic unity of regions.” In Sauer’s opinion, regions cohered together around a set of common interests. And the factors that led to the formation of those common interests were—culture, history, and environment. He wrote:

A region of geographic unity is one in which conditions of life are in general similar because of similarity of environment. … Quite commonly also the people of such an area have a common history … Past and present, therefore, combine to give such an area a definite political attitude. The interests of representative government demand that such a crystallized opinion be given a voice, that it be not concealed by the division of the natural unit.

Sauer therefore took a historical geographer’s pen to the maps of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, attempting to divide these states into areas of “historic unity” based on a cultural and ecological evaluation of regions bearing a “common interest and tradition.” These analyses were based on meticulous fieldwork: Sauer was about to publish his dissertation on the regional geography of Missouri’s Ozark Highlands, and was soon to begin a major study of Kentucky’s Pennyroyal region.

Maps of Missouri showing geographic and political divisions, from a 1918 <em>American Political Science Review</em> article by Carl Sauer.

Maps of Missouri showing geographic and political divisions, from a 1918 American Political Science Review article by Carl Sauer.

What areas ought to stick together?

Sauer’s districting proposal emphasized above all else the objective of creating districts which delineated what reformers today call “communities of interest” (a term not so far from Sauer’s “natural units”). Today, when districting boards try to preserve communities of interest, they are often talking about minor political divisions like school districts or towns. But we might follow Sauer’s lead and think about communities of interest in an ecological way, recognizing that they evolve through the adaptation of human communities to the possibilities and limitations of different environmental conditions. Congressional districts—the territorial building-blocks of American federal democracy—ought to have some sort of logic to them beyond a mere aggregation. If Sauer had his way, we might talk about the representative from Missouri’s Osage Plain District, rather than the representative from MO-4.

Interestingly, although he tried to create districts that contained roughly similar numbers of people, Sauer wasn’t constrained by the the strict necessity of balancing the population in his districts. (It wasn’t until the 1962 Baker v. Carr decision that states were constitutionally obliged to apportion districts of equal membership.) That necessity turns out to be the major stumbling-block that any districting plan based on cultural-ecological regions must confront. Vermont, for instance, once kept “natural units” preserved on its electoral map by having each of the state’s towns (the so-called “little republics”) send a single representative to the state legislature—but once towns started varying considerably in population, this system fell apart.

Imagine, for instance, a fictional state consisting of a large city, a wheat-farming region, and a timber region. If the farming region has twice as many people as the timber region, and the city four times as many as the farming region, how should that state be divided if it needs to be split into three districts of equal population—and if one still wishes to preserve the cultural-ecological integrity of its regions, à la Sauer?

The tradeoff between preserving coherent regions and dividing up a state equally is one of the reasons why purely algorithmic districting schemes sometimes end up with even worse maps than gerrymandered ones. Human geography almost never divides unproblematically into equally-balanced cells, and so even the most studiously neutral districting scheme will still be forced to make compromises.

One possible way to honor Sauer’s principle of keeping cultural-ecological regions together while still adhering to population proportionality would be to increase the use of multi-member districts. In a multi-member system, a single district doesn’t necessarily elect just one representative; it might elect many more, depending on its population. (New Hampshire, which uses this system for its state legislature, features districts that range from one to eleven representatives.)

The geographer Alasdair Rae has used <a href="">commuting data</a> to show how city regions are connected.

The geographer Alasdair Rae has used commuting data to show how city regions are connected.

In that case, a districting board might first ignore the population distribution and divide a state up into regions in much the same way that Sauer did: by trying to sketch out the borders between areas that have a culture, history, and environment roughly in common. They might do this qualitatively, using a cultural landscape approach like Sauer’s, or they might experiment with statistical measures (like running partitioning algorithms on large data sets of commutes, hydrology, or telephone calls). Then, having divided a state into “regions of geographic unity,” the board might apportion the number of members to be elected to each district.

To be sure, in today’s hyper-fragmented political world, it is more difficult to swallow Sauer’s assertion that a careful tracing of regions would respect areas whose historical totality had produced “a unity of interests.” Furthermore, it’s difficult to take the kind of qualitative evidence produced by a cultural landscape study—no matter how detailed and meticulous—and present it as unquestionable evidence in court. Still, we shouldn’t leave the process of determining our electoral districts up to demographers and political scientists alone. There’s a reason why geographers, environmental historians—and most people, for that matter—write books and stories and poems and songs about places like Chicago or Cape Cod, and not about IL-7 or MA-9. Places do have an identity and a unity that is the unmistakable product of culture, history, and environment. That identity should be preserved as much as possible when mapping out the political geography on which our representative government rests.

Featured image: A detail from one of Carl Sauer’s 1918 maps of Missouri’s cultural-ecological regions.

Garrett Dash Nelson is a Ph.D. student in Geography at UW-Madison who works on historical geography, landscape and community planning, and intellectual history. His dissertation research follows the search for the “unit landscape” at different geographic scales across a 150-year arc of American land planning. WebsiteTwitterContact.

10 Responses

  1. Dave Evans says:

    Great article. Given that more and more we are living among those with similar political views*, I would argue that it’s getting easier to draw regions with “a unity of interest”. Thanks for this article, Garrett, I really appreciate it.


  2. Adam Mittermaier says:

    Thanks for sharing these ideas. I have been intrigued by the use of the “efficiency gap” in legal challenges to redistricting but, while it may prove a useful tool, it does not provide a vision of an alternative to current redistricting practices. Your point that people do not write poems and songs and novels about congressional districts brings the whole argument together for me. I see Sauer’s idea of drawing boundaries based on cultural, historical, and environmental factors as serving the ideals of democracy and “a more perfect union” in two big ways: (1) it eliminates a political tool that is divisive for the representatives and alienates or jades the citizens they represent and (2) it enhances the meaning and wholeness of representative districts and thereby gives citizens a greater sense of belonging and investment in their representative districts. Legal challenges to redistricting are important but they are a symptom of the disease and not the cure. Thanks for offering a vision of a cure.

  3. Sherry Lottig says:

    This piece was well written and very informative, thank you!

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