Sunday, October 02, 2005

American Democracy ... more fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin
(http://www.davidbrin.com/politics.html October 2005)

II. Gerrymandering at the surface:
...the “harmless” way it’s generally portrayed.


Reprising from last time: “Quietly, without much comment or notice, the practice of gerrymandering has transformed from a somewhat dismal but bearable act of occasional opportunism into a cancer at the heart of democracy itself, rendering our votes nearly meaningless in countless constituencies across the land.”

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_cYou won’t see the problem expressed that way very often, as a relentless - and perhaps deliberate - scheme to deny Americans a meaningful vote. Certainly, whenever a writer uses that kind of tumid language, he or she bears a burden to build a solid case!

This I intend to do, peeling back layers, exposing what decades of gradually worsening abuse have done to American constituent democracy - the portion of our electoral process that specifically involves the legislative branch.

In the popular press -- even prestigious journals like the New York Times -- you will see gerrymandering portrayed as a dirty but relatively minor tactic in the war between Republicans and Democrats. A traditional -- even venerable -- trick that is used wherever one party gains an advantage, in order to tweak one or two more seats out of a state congressional delegation. Heck, it was done in Cromwell’s time, predating America itself.

Nobody openly admits that they approve of gerrymandering. Even chief perpetrators claim they are only struggling to stay even with the real culprits -- those connivers in the opposing party. Both press and public deem it unscrupulous. Still, amid war and spiralling deficits, corruption and terrorism, gerrymandering hardly gets ranked up there as a threat to the republic.

I hope - in this essay - to persuade you otherwise... and to suggest it’s time for the people to take a stand.

How does gerrymandering work?

Let’s take, for example, my home state of California. Periodically, the Democratic controlled legislature in Sacremento commissions professional consultants to draw the borders of congressional districts (and those for state assembly and senate), based upon recent census data. Using specialized computer programs, these consultants draw boundaries that veer and shift, paying little heed to city limits, geography or even rules of geometry. The shapes are planned with one goal in mind, to maximize the number of districts will have a reliable majority of Democratic voters. By resconfiguring boundaries to exclude some neighborhoods and include others, these hired-gun consultants promise an optimum size for the Democratic Party’s Congressional delegation, each even-numbered year.

It works both ways, of course. In Texas, Florida and thirty other states, Republican dominated legislatures do the same thing (with a vengeance), drawing boundaries that twist and contort like tormented snakes, always with the sole aim of maximizing the number of Republicans likely to win seats in the next election.

And not only to win, but win with ease.

Yes, the trick is mentioned by pundits and dissected in some press reports that tsk tsk about gerrymandering as an unfair trick. But then, since both California and Texas do it, should we really be concerned? All told, the practice seems to benefit the Republican Party more than Democrats. (Notably, the GOP controls more states and thus gets to engage in this practice to a significantly greater degree.) Still, when you cancel everything out, the final difference should only add up to a few dozen seats, out of 435 in the House of Representatives. Right?

That seems hardly enough reason to put it at the top of our political Worries List.

But this superficial numbers game - balancing seven extra seats for the Texas GOP vs six for California democrats - only serves to conceal and distract from a core fact ... that nearly all U.S, Congressional districts -- along with state assembly and senate seats -- have been gerrymandered in one direction or another.

Indeed, there are other effects of gerrymandering that go far beyond the total numbers game or a slight left-or-right shift among the jostling parties on Capitol Hill. These far-worse side effects add up to both a disenfranchisement of the average American voter and a steady rise in uncompromising radicalism, not only in Washington but all across America.

The worst effects of gerrymandering do not cancel out. They multiply. They exponentiate. Indeed, these trends may be among the most deeply pernicious and dangerous to threaten the Republic in recent memory.

(Next time: gerrymandering as a job security measure for the Guild of Professional Politicians.)

==or Return to Part 1 of this series

17 comments:

Tony Fisk said...

Corrections:

"Let's take, for example..."
- By resconfiguring boundaries...
(Typo)

"It works both ways, of course..."
- ... Republican dominated legislatures do the same thing (with a vengeance)
(suggest you remove the aside: it makes you sound partisan.)

"The worst effects..."
- The worst effects of gerrymandering do not cancel out. They multiply. They exponentiate."
(suggest you remove the last sentence: it is an obscure term, and reduces impact.)

----
(Next time: gerrymandering as a job security measure for the Guild of Professional Politicians.)
...not to mention internal 'branch stacking'. But, one thing at a time, eh?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Here in New Zealand the whole gerrymandering thing is rendered moot by a simple proportional representation, you vote for your electoral candidate and for a party (there were about nine parties at the recent election), the parties get seats proportional to their votes (5% threshold), we tend to get minority goverments but that works it just eliminates extreems, probably not the best system but it is very simple!

Frank said...

"to maximize the number of districts that will have a reliable majority of Democratic voters." -- Left out 'that'.

A minor thing. I've noticed you use both the single hyphen-minus and the double hyphen-minus to indicate a parenthetical statement. Maybe it would be a good idea to stick to one of those symbols.

Admiral said...

I think the gerrymandering thing is being blown out of proportion, and I daresay that I agree with the NYTimes here.

Gerrymandering wasn't and isn't just about political opportunism. Structurally, it has the effect of becoming a part of checks and balances. It discourages the whims of the majority, acting as a part of our 'republican' virtue. Rightly so, for I'm sure that you remember it took a seismic shift of dismay and disgust for this country to kick the Democrats out of the House / Senate in 1994. This was done despite their best gerrymandering efforts at the beginning of the decade, and the exact same thing will happen again someday when the Republican f-word up and fail to represent the people. Gerrymandering means that it takes something big to make a change, and requires a real change, not whimsy. That's really not such a bad idea sometimes, and you asserted how it's so pernicious... without any evidence.

The reality is that we're doing just fine with it. You are correct in that it sacrifices representation for other things, but if we take the long-term view of it, as we should, then we see it has some beneficial aspects too. In addition to what I already mentioned, it may well balance the whimsies of the people with the underlying will of the people and therefore insulate them from immediate pressures to get results because not everything is best accomplished overnight. Sometimes, legislating great things takes time. So this is obviously not to say that the Republican takeover has led to great things... it demonstrably has not, except to balance Clinton and force him to be a good President, but it means this is how we should judge each Congressional era.

Nate said...

One thing you might want to mention is how the parties create "safe" seats for their opponents as well. Mainly by cramming as many of their opponent's voters into as few districts as possible. So the representatives there get elected with massive overkill, most of which is "wasted".

The House of Representatives was set up to be more affected by the changes in public opinion thanks to shorter terms and everyone being up for election every two years. But now something like 98% of the House is in "safe" seats. There's usually only maybe a dozen competitive races out of 535. With gerrymandering on top of the already considerable advantages of incumbency, and the amount of money modern campaigns cost, is it any wonder so few Representatives lose?

Which, re-reading, I see you're going to probably cover in the next section, Dr. Brin, so nevermind. Looks good so far.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if a different order of the sections wouldn't be better. Seems like too many forward references.

--steve mcclure

Jacare Sorridente said...

I think that it builds up nicely so far- obviously no real conclusions about the effect may be drawn until we get to the meat of the essay.

At any rate, I agree with the premise so far. If the US is to be a representative republic then people must be allowed to choose their representatives without unfair gaming of the system. Gerrymandering essentially ensures that the party, not the voter, chooses the representative. It effectively eliminates the mounting of effective campaigns by any third party candidate in the gerrymandered districts as those candidates will have to attract a lot more votes to defeat the incumbent than in a competitive district.

David Brin said...

Nate gets it. The House WAS designed to be mercurial and reflect public mood swings! Admiral seems to be saying the House should have the function designed for the SENATE, which is supposed to be the damper on mood swings. Huh?

True, the Founders worried about mob-like surges of passion – one reason for the life tenure of judges and the long terms of senators. On the other hand, the House of Representatives was designed to be mercurial and responsive! Shouldn’t at least one of the houses of Congress reflect the public’s sovereign right to rapidly change its mind? Should we have NO rapid recourse, if the public suddenly wakes up to a pack of scoundrels in charge?

As things stand, the House has become the stodgy bastion of party conformity, unresponsive to changes in public will. This is not what the founders intended. It is not what the people want.

As for our Kiwi friend, yes, proportional representation has its place. But it also emphasizes parties and doctrines over individual (and sometimes quirky) delegates, which is what you can get when candidates are foremost and parties second. What gerrymandering has done is to make parties more important than individuals, at least when it comes to the House.

My personal ideal is the Australian Preferential Ballot. It’s also used in voting for the Hugo Awards. You can rank order the candidates as you like them, from favorite to worst. If your favorite is eliminated in the 1st round of counting, your vote gets switched to your second choice for round two, and so on, till SOMEBODY gets a clear majority. No more plurality winners! The winner is somebody who at least 50% deem they can at least live with. It lets you vote a protest for a quirky 3rd party candidate AND know that you’ll also get to help the lesser-of-two evils defeat the really awful guy. This is also a favorite of voting theory experts because it is one of the voting methods with only a few nasty side-effects.

Robert Leyland said...

David said:

"My personal ideal is the Australian Preferential Ballot. It’s also used in voting for the Hugo Awards. You can rank order the candidates as you like them, from favorite to worst. If your favorite is eliminated in the 1st round of counting, your vote gets switched to your second choice for round two, and so on, till SOMEBODY gets a clear majority."

... yes, but there is a problem, in that many voters simply Donkey Vote listing their preferences in the order on the ballot. It used to be that you had a clear advantage if your name began with 'A'.

Then the ballots got randomized, and voters had to hunt for the names of their preferred candidates, leading to errors, and disenfranchisement.

I guess no system is perfect.

Rob Perkins said...

And, we saw that in the impeachment last term. The House, all hot and bothered by Clinton, was turned aside by the Senate.

So, some of that is still in place.

(I didn't watch the impeachment trial.)

I like the randomized Australian Preferential Ballot. If the cost is that the impatient or the too-proud illiterate can't vote properly, it seems a small price to reenfranchise the rest of us.

(The illiterate can always ask for a poll worker's help. Hence the "too-proud" modifier. Except in Oregon and Washington. No poll workers when you mail in your ballot.)

Michael said...

My personal ideal is the Australian Preferential Ballot.
Yay, Aussies! :)

Representative democracy allegedy means that you vote for the local member, who represents your local interests at a national level. (Hands up all those who have seen their local representative in person.)

How much of the problem would go away if whichever country wasn't broken up into districts? Let the entire nation be a single district. Everyone casts thier votes for a party, and allocate the people appropriately. Guaranteed proportional repsentation across the country. Goodbye, gerrymandering. Goodbye, pork barrelling (sort of).

Just a thought...

Palliard said...

"How much of the problem would go away if whichever country wasn't broken up into districts?"

I was wondering if someone would bring that up. Because those districts do (or originally did) serve an important purpose.

For you Californians, here is a practical question: what do a cattle rancher in Alturas and a soap opera actor in Los Angeles have in common? This is not an idle question, because the same laws govern both of them... leaving the actor to wonder why he should care about water rights 800 miles away and leaving the cattle rancher to wonder why he should be required to buy earthquake insurance. The districts allow regional advocacy for regional issues.

Over time, the districts, be they of whatever type, tend to get pretty heavily skewed towards population centers. Which is really one of the purposes of voting districts, to make sure people are numerically evenly represented on a geographic basis.

Quite aside from the fact that the districting process has been completely subverted by the political class... it also does not well serve those who, by choice or accident of fate, don't live in the city, but have specific local geographically-based concerns.

Jeff Carroll said...

If you view Democracy under system theory, then the election process is the primary negative feedback that keeps political oscillations in check. Two aspects already weaken this feedback: the delay of the election process (happening, at most, every two years) and the effect of the media. Gerrymandering further weakens it, and taken to an extreme could turn this negative feedback loop into a positive feedback loop--the better it works the more power it gains to work even better.

Systems fail when their negative feedback loops are insufficient in strength. Postive feedback loops drive growth, erosion, and eventually collapse in the system.

Anonymous said...

"For you Californians, here is a practical question: what do a cattle rancher in Alturas and a soap opera actor in Los Angeles have in common? This is not an idle question, because the same laws govern both of them... leaving the actor to wonder why he should care about water rights 800 miles away and leaving the cattle rancher to wonder why he should be required to buy earthquake insurance. The districts allow regional advocacy for regional issues."

Throughout the 80's, I was registered in a district which combined sucessful actors in Malibu with old Hispanic Californios in the West San Fernando Valley... not to mention white collar/ blue collar/ professional/ farmers and meduim wealthy that lived in the district. meanwhile, I voted absentee from a warship based in San Diego. I remember being distinctly upset in 1992 that the man I voted against religiously for 10 years had gotten his district changed so that I was no longer in it...

Point being: even in a district that is geographically distinct, there will be variations. Gerrymandering just makes it worse.

HawkerHurricane

Michael said...

@ Palliard
The districts allow regional advocacy for regional issues.

Districts produce a single voice from a region, potentially alienating the voices of 49% of the population. Extending that to the obvious imbalance, a uniform 51% party leaning would produce a 100% party representation.

What districts do give is the appearance that you can go to someone local and deal with them face to face. And that both parties will put forward someone who will come to your area. This mode of thinking is outdated. Assuming I agree with other principles, I'd much prefer to vote for someone who keeps an active blog or discussion board, regardless of how far away he lives, rather than woever works in that office I pass occasionally and never even consider entering.

Suppose there wasn't regional representation. Individuals in a region would vote for someone who will represent them. 10000 or however many) ranchers put one rancher representative in power. 10000 soap opera actors put a representative in power. 10000 fiscally conservative moderates put a representative in power. There aren't 10000 fiscally conservative moderates to put someone in power? Tough - they don't have enough of a presence to get representation in the wider stage.

This would force politicians to create a message that would appeal to a group of individuals large enough to get members represented. And would make politicians directly accountable, without the party based preselection / primaries.

Wayne said...

Michael asked "How much of the problem would go away if whichever country wasn't broken up into districts? Let the entire nation be a single district."

Israel uses that system. I believe New Zealand does too. In Israel the result is that there are many small parties each representing just enough of the vote to meet the threshold for representation. Americans tend to view politics as an us and them sort of thing because there have been only two parties for so long. Most of the world (or at least most of the Western world) has more than two parties.

If you had true proportional representation the traditional parties might start to break up into smaller organisations with more specific focuses.

In Israel a government typically can't be formed without a coalition of parties. This leaves the government held hostage to the whims of the small parties needed to make up the voting block. In the US though, there is no real need for a permanent coalition, since the head of government is elected separately from the congress and governs regardless of the concensus or lack of it in congress.

I started out this comment thinking that proportional representation would lead to a hijacking by special interest groups, as sometimes happens when a coalition must be formed to govern. Since the US government can't fall when legislation is defeated, there is less pressure to give into the special interests. Proportional representation looks better in this system. Coalitions can form around issues, then break up and reform in different ways on new issues. It could lead to a real reviatalisation of the middle ground, since that's where more interests would meet.

Michael said...

Wayne, I hadn't thought about proportional representation in terms f the US system. It is an interesting influence, isn't it.

I agree that it'd be terrible to have a political system hijacked by special interest groups. ;) Let's not risk a change that cuases that.