Thursday, September 29, 2005

American Democracy ... more complex and fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin
(American Democracy: More Fragile than we think: The Gerrymandering Gambit  -- now on my website.)

While “reform commissions” fiddle around the edges, fretting and tweaking voter registration and ID cards, the most insidious damage to our electoral process has already been done by politicians themselves.

Here is one topic that has been avoided at all costs. How extreme gerrymandering has effectively robbed most Americans of a vote...

....and how citizens may use some clever innovations of their own, in order to rise up and fight back.


Introduction -- American Democracy in the 21st Century:
... finger-pointing in all the wrong directions.

GERRYMANDEROn September 19.2005, the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and sponsored by the American University Center for Democracy and Election Management, issued a report containing 87 important recommendations for how to improve the U.S. Electoral process, ensuring better credibility, accountability and confidence in the nation’s most basic political process.

The twenty-one distinguished members of the Commission - including leaders from political parties, academia and nonpartisan groups - focused on problems such as innacurate voter registration, individual voter fraud, corruption of local and statewide procedures, improved voting machinery, absentee balloting, and so on. (To view the report or a summary of recommendations, see:

This bipartisan endeavor, initiated in response to scandals that erupted during the 2000 and 20004 election cycles, is clearly sincere. Many commission recommendations are laudable, even obvious, although a few sparked controversy. Especially a proposal to achieve greater security by moving toward more standardized voter identification -- a trend that is already underway nationwide, as states unify procedures for issuing drivers’ licenses. As I discuss elsewhere (e.g. in The Transparent Society ), Americans tend to be prickly over the notion of a “national ID card.” This will certainly be a hot issue during the coming decade, with technology itself casting the final, deciding vote.

Unfortunately, despite all their sincerity and wisdom, the commission ultimately nibbled at the edges, avoiding the worst problems and faults of our American electoral process. While some of the most egregious and blatant abuses from 2000 and 20004 may get fixed, nowhere does the report address a far more basic problem - that some American votes are more influential than others. Sometimes a whole lot more.

In fact, under conditions that are growing worse daily, millions of Americans who think they have a vote, do not actually have one. Not one that is meaningful, at all.

One can hardly blame the Carter-Baker Commission for shying away from this larger issue of vote-effectiveness. After all, much blame lies rooted in the distribution of power among the states - large vs small, rural vs urban - that we inherit from history. Then there is the Electoral College, an archaic beast that cannot be killed or reformed, because that would require a Constitutional Amendment. (Or would it? See:

And yet, even those relics of the past are not the worst culprits. In the coming series of short chapters, I want to guide your attention down a path that this Commission - and may others - could and should taken, exploring one of the most horrific betrayals of citizen sovereignty. One that threatens the very heart of our democracy.

It is a path with many complex twists and turns (hence ten short chapters!) But when all of the effects are tallied, you will see that this problem adds up to something far worse than the Electoral College... plus vote fraud, corruption, miscounted ballots and all those other messy issues... combined.

Indeed, when it comes to certain types of elections - those that choose our delegates for the legislative branch of government - most Americans have been denied any chance to choose their representatives.

 They have no real choice at all.

For an unusual suggestion for how individual citizens can find a way around gerrymandering, see: A Modest Proposal to Neutralize Gerrymandering. 

By quietly and gradually cranking up a process called gerrymandering, members of the Political Caste - in both parties - have managed to effectively seal most of us away from the very franchise that we all consider to be one of our most basic American birthrights.

Alta Sedent civilis vulnera dextrae...
....(Deep are the wounds inflicted by civil strife.)

==Continue with series on American Democracy


cryptochrome said...

You should write all this up as a half-page summary and a longer explanation w/suggestions, print it up, and snail-mail it to the relevant parties (Carter c/o the Carter Center, etc.). Also try to get it in print somewhere.

Dave Baker said...

Hi David,

I agree that you have a good point here which should be heard, but I wonder if you've identified the problem correctly. It can't be that the problem is disenfranchisement of individual voters, at least if disenfranchisement is supposed to mean the loss of their chance to influence the election's outcome. After all, the "voter paradox" already shows that even in a perfectly fair election, none of us have any real chance of influencing the outcome.

For those who haven't heard of the paradox, the idea is simply this: you can only effect the outcome of an election if the candidate who won would have lost without your vote. But there are so many voters that the odds of your vote being necessary are many times lower than your odds of winning the lottery.

What makes a difference in elections on this scale are large groups of voters, not individuals. Since gerrymandering definitely renders large groups of like-minded voters powerless, it would thus seem to be much worse than hanging chads and the like. People often say that "every vote must count," but by the voter paradox, not every vote matters. Small flaws in the system will rarely affect the outcome in a negative way, but large, systematic problems like gerrymandering will meaningfully harm it.

Frank said...

If I understand this gerrymandering thing correctly, it can only be done if one already knows how most people are going to vote (and what their locations are). Maybe this is an example of how secrecy (anonymity) can be a good thing?

This first part functions as an intriguing intro BTW.

Nate said...

Individual secrecy of votes doesn't help. Votes are reported by various counties, districts, parishes, what have you, based on where people live. So when politicians are drawing up the new districts, their first concern is almost always making "safe" seats for themselves. They look at how various areas voted, then chop them up so their own sections tend to have historical majorities of 60% or higher. And then they try to make the "swing" districts more favorable to them. And jam as many as possible of their opponents' supporters together into as few places as possible, often with 80% or higher majorities.

For the most extreme examples, as always, look at Texas. (For the curious, the redistricting ended up still being in effect and sending six new Republicans to Congress. Masterminded by Tom Delay, who just got indicted. Couldn't happen to a nicer man. Really.)

Anonymous said...

For those of you who, like me, find DB's "The Giving Plague" (and IIRC also mentionned in "Earth") one of his most intriguing short stories:

Aids virus 'could be weakening'


Rob Perkins said...

The Electoral College is not archaic. It keeps the hinterland in federation, by offering it a slightly larger slice of the pie than the high-population states. I think the topic was actually covered in the Federalist someplace, but I can't remember which number.

Also, it would, in my estimation, probably be a good thing if the United States could persist even in its current form until 20004. Alas, history has no precedent. ;-)

Frank said...

nate said:
"Votes are reported by various counties, districts, parishes, what have you, based on where people live."

Okay. So maybe *that* should be changed. Take all the votes from every county/district/parish, put them in a big basket and mix them up. That way nobody knows where any of the votes come from. No geographical info == no gerrymandering. Or is that to simple a plan for what is probably a complex issue?

Steve B said...

Pretty good start -- I'm looking forward to seeing where you go with this (although I have some idea already...). I'm assuming you'll correct the obvious typos before the final version goes live on the website, right? ("20004" mentioned twice, and a few spelling mistakes...)

Thane Walkup said...

The trick used to figure out "properly" gerrymandered borders is a little software tool known as GIS. GIS (Which IIRC stands for Geographical Information System) systems are basically a gigantic database of where everybody lives, and any relevant information about each individual person. This can be everything from property taxes, income level, poll results, political donations, race, number of children, etc.

You can plug "what-if" scenarios into these tools, and use them to figure out who has a high likelyhood of voting for one party or another. This can then be turned around and used to create these bizarre borders... It's quite easy to do.

daveawayfromhome said...

I always assumed that gerrymandering was illegal, but I quick look in wikipedia tells me it's not. It ought to be, but it's not.
All foes of Gerrymandering ought to use the golden opportunity of Tom DeLay to curb this latest round, which makes the classic 1812 illustration look tame.

daveawayfromhome said...

Oh yeah,
@ David Baker:
If this helps, dont think of yourself as an individual, but as a statistic. Unless you are truly a wacko, you're potentially just one out of a hundred people who did (or didnt) do something. If you choose to fight, statistically, so do others.
I know, I know, it doesnt really work that way, but I like to think it does, and I feel a bit better.

Michael said...

@The Voter Paradox
This is only a paradox if you accept that only 'heroic' actions matter. 'Heroic'='something done by a single individual'.

Thinking of any voting system as having a heroic single vote with decides it simply ignores everyone who made the other votes. (This happens in the Australian senate... 72 people will vote party lines, 1 person will waver, and suddenly the one person has the balance of power. Bah! Everyone who votes has the balance of power. It bugs me a little.)

Aaron Paquette said...

Having nothing of substantive value to add, I'll just interject this opinion:

David, your website needs some serious updating. The look is charming, yes, but a little hard on the eyes...

Tony Fisk said...

Having commented on the Queensland Gerrymander (which used allowable variations in electorate population to shovel the ungood voters into fewer pockets), I suppose I should add that the laws allowing it were repealed in 1990 (after Joh 'don't you worry about that' Bjelke Petersen was evicted). So, the path to the dark side is not irreversible...

Gerrymandering boundaries so that areas more likely to vote in an ungood manner can be concentrated is a more subtle approach and, as several people have commented, not hard to do with the appropriate software.

Fortunately, by the same token, it is also fairly easy to detect.

@Michael: if you know how the Australian senate ballots are worked out, you must be about the only one who does!

Frank said...

@David Brin:
"I want to guide your attention down a path that this Commission - and may others - could and should taken,"

must be: "...could and should have taken.." ?

Bill Seitz said...

Stop teasing, and get on with it!

By the way, I just had a thought today about the need for e-voting for Congressional votes, to make things more transparent.

Steve said...

I hope Dr. Brin and others are still reading this thread.

Here is one way out of the voters paradox, where everyone's vote counts. It is an article in Scientific American about rank order voting.

Still leaves the issue of gerrymandering and the Electoral College to deal with, though. I am not yet convinced about the EC being a bad thing - I look forward to the next installments!

Todd Rockhold said...

An article which mentions some mathematics involved in analyzing voting and apportionment, a September 14, 1999 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Perspective entitled "Chaos, but in voting and apportionments?" by Donald Saari, can be found at:

As far as I know Saari has done the most work in this area.

That said, I doubt that Brin's future installments will argue that we haven't done enough propeller-head analyses of these kinds of things. But we'll see.

Michael said...

@Michael: if you know how the Australian senate ballots are worked out, you must be about the only one who does!

I do indeed know how the votes are worked out. After the last federal election my curiosity was piqued, so I went and had a look at the Electoral Act (or whatever it was). It's downright fascinating how they do their best to combine respresentation with proportional voting. :)

But I actually meant inside the Senate.