Drawing the boundaries of election districts: Election district boundaries should follow local government boundaries. This method, used in Japan, prevents the creation of politically biased districts while only slightly increasing population inequality among districts.


It is not surprising that some of the worst examples of political behavior occur when politicians write the laws that govern their own actions. Problems can arise when politicians determine their own pay raises, pensions, or benefits. Politicians are poor investigators when looking at their own scandals or ethical lapses. Politicians also have strong incentives to bias elections in their favor when they write election rules, decide election district boundaries, or use the tools of government to create a favorable electoral environment.

The solutions to this age-old problem of who watches the guardians generally take one of three forms. First is to delegate these decisions to non-politicians. For example, monetary policy in many advanced industrial democracies is delegated to a central bank that is independent of politicians. This is done, in part, to prevent politicians from using a country’s monetary policy to create short-term booms that coincide with elections, actions that harm long-term fiscal stability (Bernhard, 2002, 2). In the electoral context, the tendency has been to entrust the task of drawing election district boundaries to neutral and non-partisan commissions (Karch et al., 2007). Cain (2015, 183) argues that courts rather than partisan elected state officials or political parties should oversee all election procedures. Similarly, civil service reforms in the United States were enacted to remove the possibility of patronage in the awarding of government jobs, one of the important tools politicians used to augment their political standing (Grindle, 2012).

A second strategy has been to use the inherent competition among political parties to have one party keep in check the excesses of the other party. Thus, members from the opposition party might demand and hold investigations of the ruling party (Kriner and Schwartz, 2008; Parker David and Dull, 2009). This system tends to break down when one party controls all of the levers of government, but even in that situation, the press and voters can often function as a check on the excesses of the ruling party (Canes-Wrone et al., 2002: Carson et ah, 2010).

The third method is the tool of democratic accountability to counterbalance the excesses of a ruling party. For example, in the United States politicians who vote to raise their own salaries run a high risk of electoral rebuke at the hands of their constituents (Theriault, 2004). This tool, however, loses its effectiveness when self-serving political actions are complex or lost in the details of other more significant issues. Thus, it is hard to marshal voter anger, for example, against election district boundaries that give a partisan political advantage to one political party (Fougere et ah, 2010). Politicians can thus evade democratic accountability and ‘choose their voters,’ as the well-known quip puts it, rather than the voters choosing their representatives.

One of these problems, the drawing of election district boundaries, is more severe in Japan and the United States than it is in most other advanced industrial democracies. Both Japan and the United States have strong candidate rather than party orientations in their elections. Voters in both countries, of course, are influenced by political parties—their leaders and their platforms. However, because voters cast ballots for specific candidates rather than political parties, voters are primed to consider attributes of specific candidates in addition to party information.' Quite a few countries have single-seat districts in which voters cast ballots for candidates rather than parties. There are, in addition, several other factors which encourage voters to give greater weight to candidate attributes rather than party membership (Carey and Shugart, 1995). Japan and the United states are at the far end of a continuum that ranges from candidate-centered elections to party-centered elections. As such, individual politicians in both countries pay close attention to the boundaries of their election districts. In contrast, in Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom, parties rather than candidates show the greater interest in the effects of election district boundaries. Thus, individual politicians in Japan and the United States strongly oppose any loss of their control over the boundary-drawing process. Japan’s innovations to help solve this problem, then, are especially useful for the United States, the country that is most similar to Japan among the advanced industrial democracies in terms of the candidate-centered orientation of its elections.

In contrast to Japan’s recent innovations, the United States has historically been a world leader in solving the problems that surround the drawing of election district boundaries. The long history in the United States of election districts with unequal populations (malapportioned) ended with Supreme Court decisions beginning in 1962 that required that all election districts be of equal population. Since then, US districts have stopped being malapportioned, but now district boundaries are drawn to benefit a particular political party (gerrymandered). US election districts might have exactly the same number of people, but the boundaries of the districts are contorted, either to create districts in which a majority of the voters are members of a specific minority group or the districts are contorted to give one political party an advantage.

Thus, in the 2018 election, Republicans won all four congressional races in Arkansas with only 62.6 percent of the votes in the state. Similarly, Democrats won all five of Connecticut’s races with only 61.6 percent of the statewide vote. Even in California where the boundary lines were drawn by a non-partisan commission, in the 44 congressional districts that had both Republican and Democratic candidates. Democrats won 86.4 percent of the seats with only 73.3 percent of the vote. In the 2014 elections the California disparity was even greater: Democrats won 72.1 percent of the seats both parties contested with only 55.9 percent of the vote.

Japan is the opposite of the United States. It doesn’t have a problem with gerrymandering. Rather, Japan’s election districts are malapportioned. Though the 2017 reapportionment was put into place in time to be used for the 2017 elections, the previous reapportionment in 2012 came almost two years after a Japanese Supreme Court decision that required action be taken. The legislators also delayed the effect of the reapportionment until after the 2012 election. This and similar controversies in Japan make it seem as though Japan is unique among the advanced, industrial democracies for not having yet solved its malapportionment problem.

This characterization, though, ignores the substantial reduction in malapportionment that has occurred in Japan. At the peak of malapportionment, Japan’s 1972 election, the Osaka 3rd district had 397,696 voters per representative in contrast to the rural Hyogo 5th district which had only 79,403 voters per representative. The voters of Hyogo 5 enjoyed five times the representation as the voters of Osaka 3. The insistent prodding by the Japanese Supreme Court and a new electoral system in 1994 that required the drawing of new election boundaries both helped reduce malapportionment levels dramatically. In the 2017 election, the worst disparity was only 1:1.98, meaning that the 473,879 voters of the Tokyo 13th district only had 1.98 times the representation as the 238,961 voters of theTottori 1st district.

Nevertheless, it might seem odd to suggest that the United States can learn anything from Japan’s less than stellar record of redistricting. After all, the United States, despite its other political shortcomings, is the nation that spearheaded the malapportionment revolution and still leads the rest of the world in its commitment to the ‘one person one vote’ principle. The United States, however, has erred in being rigidly committed to vote equality, so much so that other, equally important concerns, have been completely ignored in the drawing of election district boundaries. The US commitment to absolute vote equality has opened the door to rampant gerrymandering, creating a worse problem than small deviations in the population of election districts.

In contrast, despite an extensive literature that criticizes the disparate sizes of Japanese districts (Hata, 1990; Hickman and Kim, 1992; McElwain, 2013; Kobayashi, 2012; Wada, 2012), the Japanese have actually succeeded in creating a system that balances vote equality with district cohesiveness.2 In fact, the interplay between these two factors creates boundary-drawing rules that are a model for other countries. Japan’s rules reduce the discretion of line drawers to a minimal level by using local government boundaries to determine the composition of election districts. With discretion so reduced, gerrymandering is hardly a possibility. In addition, malapportionment is constrained by requiring that districts created be within maximum ranges of tolerated population disparities. The Japanese system sensibly allows for small amounts of population inequality while preventing gerrymandering by removing much of the discretion in the boundary-drawing process. In addition, the Japanese system is better suited for countries that have candidate-centered elections such as Japan or the United States (Nemoto and Tsai, 2016, 165-6). When voters are influenced more by candidates than by political parties, the incentives to manipulate district boundaries increase significantly. Solutions such as non-partisan commissions, which work well in countries with weaker incentives to manipulate, don’t work as well in countries such as Japan or the United States for two reasons. First, non-partisan solutions are less likely to be adopted. Second, even when they are adopted, they are more likely to be coopted by partisan interests. The heavy reliance of the Japanese on local government boundaries may be the best solution for the problems of political redistricting, especially in countries with candidate-centered elections.

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