Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Gerrymandering is Bad for Democracy

I was in Iowa for the weekend attending Jan’s xxth high school reunion. (I don’t have permission to fill in the xx!) It got me thinking about the redistricting process most states are undergoing.

The US constitution calls for a census every ten years and, based on its results, the maps for US congressional districts are redrawn. The stated object is to balance districts so that each of us has an approximately equal vote for our representatives. Enter the politicians.

In most states the state politicians get involved and those elected representatives get to redraw federal and state election districts for future elections. Not surprisingly, the currently elected want to keep their jobs and so draw district lines to include people who think like them and keep out people who do not. Since it is difficult for each legislator to accomplish this task, it is done along party lines.

There is nothing new about this. The word gerrymander came into existence almost 200 years ago in Massachusetts when then Democratic-Republican governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that produced a district that looked to one political cartoonist of the day as a dragon. Another saw a salamander. Gerry + salamander + political cartoonist = gerrymander, or so said the Federalists at that time.

So, if it has been going on for 200 years, what’s the problem? Technology has materially changed politicians’ ability to mold election districts to favor one party or the other, leaving fewer and fewer districts that are up for grabs in normal (not landslide) elections. When this happens, the real election occurs during the primary, not the general election.

To see how this plays out, let’s postulate two districts: one 80% Republican and 20% Democratic; the other the reverse with 20% Republican and 80% Democrats. District 1 will reliably vote Republican. District 2 reliably votes Democratic. In District 1, unless the Republican is caught fellating an elephant, the Democrats have no chance, and in District 2 the Democrat needs to be caught screwing with a donkey to lose an election. Simple theft, getting caught with hookers and the like are often insufficient to lose an election (although these days the caught politician might be forced to resign).

Since Republicans are more conservative than Democrats, in District 1 the candidates for the Republican primary tend to move away from the national political center and toward the right. In District 2 the primary candidates tend to move away from the national political center and toward the left. If Independents can vote in any primary election they choose, the candidates need to pay some attention to their rhetoric in order to avoid triggering the independents to vote en masse for their opponent. But in most states you must declare your party affiliation before you can vote in a primary, and in these states the push to the extremes (right and left) is stronger, especially when combined with the belief that conservative/liberal voters are more likely to vote than moderates in primaries.

You can see where this is heading. If you do not need to worry about attracting Independents or voters from the other party and the most extreme voters of your party are the ones most likely to vote in a primary, to get elected you need to move toward your party’s extreme in the primary.

The greatest extent of this polarization will be in house seats (state or federal). State senate seats will be less affected because they per force cover a larger geography. Federal senate seats are the least affected since the entire state must be reliably Republican or Democratic. The ameliorating factor is the extent to which a general election counts in who is ultimately elected. Presidential candidates have a meaningful general election and they must attract votes from the center (regardless of party affiliation or independence) in order to win. As a result, presidents often reflect the sensibilities of the national center more than they do the center of their own party.

Two examples of the ameliorating effect of meaningful general elections are the recent senate races won by Joseph Lieberman and Lisa Murkowski. In 2006 Sen. Lieberman from Connecticut, a former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, lost the Democratic primary to a more liberal candidate and had to gain reelection as an Independent. In the 2010 Alaska Senatorial contest Sen. Lisa Murkowski similarly overcame the right wing of the Republican Party and won re-election as a write-in candidate. In both cases the incumbent won because politicians can’t redistrict a state’s boundaries and the victors could draw votes from across their state, persuading enough Independents, Democrats and Republicans that the incumbent would serve them better than either the Democratic or Republican nominees.

Unlike these state-wide races, in many gerrymandered Congressional Representative districts there are insufficient independent and other party voters to counteract the conservative/liberal primary voters leaving the extremes in each party mostly unchecked. Thus party faithful elect most Congressional Representatives and these politicians need make no accommodation for voters from the other party. In fact, to avoid a challenge from the more conservative (liberal) wing of their party they must NOT move toward the center. While currently we see this most clearly with so-called Tea Party Republicans, this is not a Republican-only phenomenon as evidenced by the 2006 challenge to Sen. Lieberman.

Therein lies the challenge to democracy. Without compromise, it becomes majority rules, minority be damned. That eventually leads to a tyranny of the majority.

Iowa has a better way

Iowa law forbids gerrymandering. No kidding. Iowa Code Section 42.4 lists eight criteria for redistricting. Number five reads:
A district shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other person or group, or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group. In establishing districts, no use shall be made of any of the following data:
   a. Addresses of incumbent legislators or members of Congress.
   b. Political affiliations of registered voters.
   c. Previous election results.
   d. Demographic information, other than population head counts, except as required by the Constitution and the laws of the United States

I can’t say I’m too fond of Iowa’s presidential caucus process, but when it comes to redistricting, they get my vote hands down.

If we voters want to take back our stolen voices from the politicians of both parties who want to strip away our real election power to vote them out of office, we need to insist that every other state adopt a process to redraw election districts that is at least as effective as Iowa’s.

Now that I’m back home, I plan to write my state representatives and ask why Michigan doesn’t do as well for its voters as Iowa does. I hope that, regardless of your political beliefs or what state you live in, you will join me in this effort to take back the value of our voting rights.

~ Jim

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