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.”
You 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