American Culture

Redistricting: by deceitfully moving a line, I can rule forever

In America, most — but probably not all — citizens who seek public office do so with initial good intent. They wish to perform a public service.

That quaint, altruistic notion lasts, on the national level, perhaps 10 minutes after the swearing-in ceremony.

Lobbyists descend. Party leaders demand fund-raising success now. The novice lawmaker is partnered with veteran D.C. good ol’ boys (and girls). And before casting a single vote, the political novitiate begins the daily grind of hours spent dialing for dollars.

And the new titles — Congressman, Senator — and their apparent conferred respect edge into the psyche. I like this, think the freshmen. People stand up when I enter a room. People with money — lots of money – offer me not-so-subtle favors. I like this.

The discovery of power breeds the lust to retain it. An individual politician may be a decent human being. He (or she) may not end up in sexual disarray or keep $90,000 in his freezer. But as a species, politicians place preservation of power at the center of their communal altar.

National politicians cheat, steal, connive, and kiss babies to stay in office. That we can live with. But we should no longer stomach the mind-numbingly boring — so mind-numbing far too many journalists ignore it — and tainted process of redistricting. We must demand its reform.

That’s because Machiavellian maneuvers in redistricting — manipulating lines on a map — is how these charlatans keep the power they use so ineptly and unwisely.

It’s no secret that re-election rates to Congress are astonishingly high. But too many of us in the governed class, myself included, have focused our attention on the ungodly sums of money these indeliberate deliberators raise.

It’s not, so much, the money anymore: It’s who draws the lines of congressional districts, how they are drawn, and with what motive.

Redistricting is the legally required process of equalizing the numbers of people in districts following the decennial census. This is done to ensure that House seats are fairly distributed. But gerrymandering — the redrawing of district lines with the motive of ensuring a “safe” district for an incumbent — has corrupted the process. Consider these few bizarre, convoluted examples of gerrymandered districts scattered through this post.

It’s quite simple, really. Legislatures in 34 states control redistricting. In other states, “independent” and “bipartisan” commissions draw the lines. It’s always been a partisan process, but in this era of childish political tantrums, the process serves only to maximize the power of those who rule, not distribute fairly the power of those who are ruled. Districts are packed, using unimaginable boundaries, with voters of one party to the maximum extent possible.

Now do you see why the re-election rates of incumbents in Congress are so damn high?

Despite the few successes in ’08, ’10, and ’12, voters find it difficult to “throw the bums out.”

Imagine the United States, if political wrangling over redistricting and unfettered spending on campaigns by millionaires and billionaires remains unchecked. Will the day come when members of Congress simply cannot be removed through the ballot box?

If that happens, it will make the doomsday-prepping wingnuts seem absolutely prescient.

Cast your eye over history. What has been the fate of nations when citizens could not peacefully remove their government?

As boring as it is, demand transparency in redistricting efforts. And demand media organizations cover them as ardently as they do the tragic OJ-Lite™ drama under way in South Africa.

16 replies »

  1. I’d like to see districts drawn across the country according to just a couple of simple criteria – maximize ethnic and economic diversity, equalize partisan leanings as much as possible, and maximize the geographic continuity.

    • Your first couple of criteria are precisely the sorts of things that lead us down the path to hell. You’re engineering for outcomes when you do that. All I care about it a good-faith attempt at geographic continuity.

      • Yep, I am engineering for outcomes – the most competitive districts possible, where incumbents have to fight for their job every 2 years. How is competitiveness a bad thing?

        I agree that geographic continuity is the most important, but I don’t think that it’s enough to prevent gerrymandering – maximal ethnic and economic diversity or some similar second criteria is required in addition to the geographic continuity.

        • Competitive isn’t a bad thing. Artificial competitiveness is, because you’re making prefabricated judgements about how things ought to turn out. That’s a recipe for a different kind of gerrymandering. If I live in a town that’s 80% Dem, for instance, why should we concoct districts to make things more even? That’s like a letters to the editor section running five letters pro and five letters con on an issue where the people are 90% pro.

        • Alternatively, if you live in a state that is 50% Dem (nearly all urban) and 50% Rep (nearly all rural) and you go strictly by geographic continuity, you’ll end up with gerrymandered urban districts where no Republican could possibly get elected in an urban districts and no Democrat could possibly get elected in a rural district. That’s arguably no better than what we have now. At least with a guideline to maximize diversity you’ll get a majority of districts that are competitive instead of a majority of districts that are safe.

          I’m all for the simplest option that will work, but I’m also for not oversimplifying. And pure geographic distribution is oversimple.

        • Pure geographic distribution. You mean like states?

          You’re drawing lines according to a theory about how outcomes “ought” to be. That’s gerrymandering, by definition.

        • Actually, what I’m recommending is the antithesis of the definition of gerrymandering. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines the transitive verb “gerrymander”

          1. to divide (a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible
          2. 2 to divide (an area) into political units to give special advantages to one group [gerrymander a school district]

          What I’m recommending would minimize the number of districts where either political party has an electoral advantage and would be specifically designed to not give special advantages to any one group.

        • However you define it, it’s the same thing. If I take an area where there is a decided advantage for party X and redraw the lines so as to benefit party Y, that’s gerrymandering. If a country or city or neighborhood is heavily saturated with people who vote X and you redraw the lines so that half of the area is now artificially lumped with the next area over, which is heavily Y, so that you can have “fair” or close elections, you have decided in advance that engineering outcomes that are close is what serves us best.

          At best, you are engineering around an assumption that is nowhere justified by evidence or analysis.

        • Thinking about this a little, I’ll admit that there’s an unstated assumption in my approach, so instead of leaving it unstated, I’ll make it explicit: I’m assuming that maximizing ethic and economic diversity will result in districts that are not dominated by one political party or another and will be more competitive than districts that are strongly one ethic group or another and/or strongly one economic class or another. This may or may not be a good assumption, but I think it’s reasonably accurate. I am not using “ethnic diversity” as code for “Democrats,” however. Nor am I using “economic diversity” as code for “Republicans.”

          I’m also assuming that having more competitive districts will result in candidates that have to be moderate in order to win election, and that having more moderates in the US House of Representatives will be better for the state of federal governance. Again, I think these are reasonable assumptions, but I haven’t offered any evidence to back either of them up. But as they are the foundation of why I’m arguing for more than geographic continuity, I figured it was worth stating them.

          As for gerrymandering, I’ve provided you with the dictionary definition. What I’m suggesting is, by definition, not gerrymandering. What you are suggesting as a hypothetical possibility is not, by definition, gerrymandering. It’s only gerrymandering, by definition, if the district boundaries are designed specifically to maximize the electoral power of Party A and minimize the electoral power of Part B. Period. You’re claiming that gerrymandering should be considered more broadly as “engineering districts for a specific outcome” is fine, but find a different term or phrase than “gerrymandering.”

          By the way you’re attempt to redefine gerrymandering, you would also define the Voting Rights Act as gerrymandering. After all, the DoJ engineers district boundaries in historically racist areas for a specific outcome, namely the electoral rights of minorities. The Voting Rights Act is most definitely “engineering districts for a specific outcome,” but it is also not “gerrymandering,” for the same reasons described above.

          You’re clearly a supporter of the Voting Rights Act (although I’d guess that you’d be a lot happier if it wasn’t necessary), so clearly even you think that there can be valid reasons to engineer districts for a specific purpose. All I’m suggesting is that engineering districts to create a more moderate House of Representatives that is more willing to craft compromises and actually govern instead merely serving as a roadblock is a valid reason to do it.

          So long as districts are going to be redrawn every 10 years, they’ll be redrawn to someone’s advantage. I’m suggesting that they should be redrawn to the advantage of the nation, the voters, and the people being governed, rather than to the advantage of the politicians.

        • Let’s explore this bit: “I’m also assuming that having more competitive districts will result in candidates that have to be moderate in order to win election, and that having more moderates in the US House of Representatives will be better for the state of federal governance.”

          Why do you assume this? Can you provide me with some examples of current “moderates” whom you think others ought to emulate? As you think about this, where on the scale of US opinion do you believe “moderate” lands right now? Hint: Obama is to the right of Nixon.

          Then, if you would, explain to me how moderation combats the corrosive corporate influence on our democracy.

        • BTW, if you have evidence that my assumptions are wrong, I’d love to hear it or be pointed at it. I haven’t attempted to do any analysis of this myself, and I’ve always figured (perhaps incorrectly) that the states where district boundaries are drawn by non-partisan commissions were less likely to send rank partisans to the House than states like Texas, where slinky districts based on computerized population/party affiliation maps were practically invented (Thank you, Tom DeLay…). But if there’s evidence out there that counters my assumption, then I’d like to know it so I can update my opinions accordingly.