24 July 2008

Electoral district sizes

It seems intuitively obvious that there exists a lower limit of granularity below which electoral districts make no sense. That is, it makes no sense to establish a separate electoral district for each person, nor each household, nor (for most purposes) each city block.

Likewise, there would seem to be a maximum practical district size. The U.S. Senate notwithstanding, an entire state is too large a district for most purposes.

It has been argued that a district should be no larger than the number of people that a single representative can effectively represent. That is, it should be practically feasible for a candidate to campaign over the entire area of the constituency, and, once elected, to hear and respond to all grievances raised by everyone in the constituency. How large a population this is in practice is subject to debate, but the principle itself seems reasonable.

At the lower end, for an electoral system to work, there needs to be competition. A district should be large enough to field more candidates than there are slots available, at least most of the time. Otherwise the voters have no choice, and their vote means nothing.

Ideally, these two ranges overlap – you can find a district size such that a representative can represent the entire district, and the district fields multiple candidates. If the two ranges do not overlap, you have a problem with lack of citizen involvement, and you need to address that before worrying about district sizes.

Note that these size limits do not necessarily imply that each district should only have one representative. If the district is small enough for a candidate to represent the entire constituency, and large enough to field 6 or 7 candidates, then it could reasonably elect 4 or 5 representatives. If the same multi-member district were divided into 4 or 5 single-member districts, most of those districts would field only one candidate, or none at all.

This suggests that, in general, the ideal district is the maximum constituency that can be effectively represented by one person. If the district has multiple representatives, so much the better.

So far, this discussion has not addressed minorities. What happens if we've established a multi-member district of the ideal size, yet there is a minority group within that district that is at odds with the rest of the constituency, and yet is unable to elect a representative of their choosing due to majority voting (technically, plurality-at-large)?

Some organizations would advocate breaking up the district, establishing one or more districts in which the previous minority is a majority. As indicated above, the resulting district is often of insufficient size to field multiple candidates, eliminating voter choice. Perhaps more to the point, it doesn't solve the original problem! It merely reverses the majority-minority roles, so that what used to be the oppressed minority is now the oppressive majority. (Gerrymandering is also illegal and immoral, at least in the eyes of many.)

A more effective solution is to maintain the multi-member district, but institute a proportional voting system such as choice voting. Thus any sufficiently large and cohesive minority can elect one or more candidates of their choice.

Choice voting also has many other advantages, but that's the subject of another discussion.

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