Saturday, October 15, 2005

American Democracy ... more fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin
( October 2005)

IX. Citizens Revolt:
....Answer Gerrymandering by moving your vote where it will count.

Reprise: Thwarted at having anything meaningful to do with their votes, might people find a way to evade this trick of the political pros? The precedent is clear. We have only to follow the wisdom of our ancestors. If we have the guts to rebel against ‘party identity’ and instead maximize our personal access to political power.

Last time we concluded, after a long and complex path, that there will be no immediate solution to the Gerrymandering Plot from the ones who engineered it. The Professional Political Caste.

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_cElsewhere, I have examined how this might be seen as just a small part of a major phenomenon, perhaps the biggest -- and most under-reported -- conflict in America and the West today. A conflict that runs completely orthogonally to the standard, hoary left-right-political axis. One that seems to arise as an immune response by nearly all professional castes, against what I have called a rising "Age of Amateurs." I won’t go into detail about that here, except to say that this conflict should be unnecessary. The Age of Amateurs is coming, empowered by rising education and technology, no matter what anybody tries to do about it. This should also result in a shining new age of empowered citizenship. And if the professional castes decide to help fostering the trend, instead of resisting, they will be honored, as never before.

But let us focus once again upon a particular battle in that war. How can citizens fight back against a tactic that has eviscerated our sovereign franchise, turning the right to vote into little more than a mockery?

Last time, logic and history seemed to lead to one possibility. Just one slender chance.

If districts have been scornfully reworked in order to make the November general elections worthless, then everyone in a district should join the party of that district. Make the primary election the locus of real argument, real campaigning over issues, real voter participation. Real politics.

Clearly, this is the minority's best tactic, when gerrymandered "solid" districts and national division have rendered competitive politics a thing of the past.


All right, it’s a bold plan. Disturbing, too. So let’s ponder some implications, in detail. How would this work?

Take a hypothetical gerrymandered congressional district in which only a quarter or so of the voters are Democrats, while more than half are Republicans (and the rest independents, many of them conservative-leaning). Under such extreme conditions, it sure doesn’t sound like there is very much that a liberal can do. Surely the representative from such a district will be -- and ought to be -- some kind of conservative.

Still, should those Democrats be just written off, forever? They amount to more than a hundred thousand citizens. Voters who hold a useless franchise, because they won't ever make a difference in choosing their legislative representatives, either next November or the next... or any other for the foreseeable future.

Only now suppose the hundred thousand Democrats switch to become registered Republicans. They have that right! And, suddenly, that number becomes significant, easily as large as any particular faction within the district’s Republican party. Large and potentially influential. Perhaps even enough to help an insurgent moderate -- someone who is conservative in the old-fashioned and decent sense of the word -- to depose one of the recent wave of outrageous neoconservative crazies.

At minimum, it could tighten quite a number of primary races. Force a few incumbents to spend more time and money visiting the home district. Perhaps even win some moderating concessions.

Now add in this factor. At least another quarter of the electorate may call themselves "independent." This trend, toward abandoning all party affiliation, had its roots in good old, irascible American contrariness. But it has turned out to be one of the most foolish and counterproductive in generations. Might it now give way to a much more savvy rebellion? One with vastly greater potency? All those "independents" have to do is follow the power... and grab some when it matters.

And yes, it goes both ways. There are also millions of Republicans who live in gerrymandered Democratic districts, where their vote doesn't seem to matter, either. Might they try the same tactic, in reverse?

Is that a problem?

Either way, the trend toward ever-narrowing electorates, ordained outcomes and increasing power for fringe fanatics may turn around. Whether those fanatics happen to be romantics of the loony left or the klepto-apocalyptic right, they have already done more than enough damage and had far too much power to disrupt the true American tradition of negotiation and pragmatic problem-solving. It’s time to say to all of them, enough.

==Continue to Part 10z  or return to Part 1 of this series


Anonymous said...

As long as a candidate only needs the support of 50% (+ epsilon) of the voters in her district to win, it is inevitable that some voters will think their voices to be unheard--and probably a significant fraction, at that.

What if (a) the winners of an election were defined as those who each received a specified minimum of votes, and (b) the number of votes that each winner could command in their respective legislatures was proportional to the number of votes they received? I'd be much happier having a representative for my district whose views were congruent with my own, even if he had only 1/3 as much influence as another representative from my district. (This would also make it easier for minor parties to get a toehold, which would be a bonus.)

Anonymous said...

Not to mention:

1. Why not try to have preferential numbered voting on the local level and build up? It should be easier to pass in a city, then a few more, then a district, then a stae, and so on. This would be a huge benefit if more than one member of each party ran. The 'losing' party members would still have influence to prevent those extremists that don't represent.

2. What about an open primary? California has one. Independents can participate and so can members of the other parites.

3. If we are ever going to see the rise of third parites. It will start small (local) then build up to state levels, then national. It happened for the last third party to transition up (lincoln) why not now?

Rob Perkins said...

There are obstacles to your first suggestion; many city governments are not organized to accept such a change, and this or that political machine still has them in thrall.

I think California's open primary is gone, now. Washington lost its open primary as well, and has since voted in a runoff primary system (like Louisiana), which is still being adjudicated in the courts, over whether or not a political party has a sovereign right to pick its own candidates.

I waffle back and forth on that one. All things being equal, I think political parties ought to have the right to vote within the party in a party primary. But, as David has spent the last 6000 words or so pointing out, all things are not equal. In that scenario, where one party has the lock on a district, an open primary or a runoff primary is one of the few ways to break that hold.

It's telling, that after decades of gerrymandering, *both* major political parties oppose open primaries.

They do so for at least one good reason, related to gerrymandering: A party in a gerrymandered district can prevent the other parties from fielding viable candidates which their members might care for, simply by demagoguing the opposing party and getting their members to vote in the other guy's primary, for the nonviable candidate.

It's the reason the Washington State Republican Party nominated Pat Buchanan to the national convention. A union member I know even gloated about the well-organized push to do that, in our State.

On to David's comments: I think there are telling reasons why an honest person would not join a majority party and work for change within. My dad, for years, called himself a "Democrat", and was at one time active in the caucuses in Utah for them, getting posted as a delegate to the state conventions, etc.

Since that time, the Democratic party has adopted positions abhorrent to him, and made loyalty to those positions equivalent to party loyalty. In other words, there are poison pills in the platform.

Anonymous said...

It's a clever solution you've come up with, David, but in the end it's just a gimmick not a real answer to the problem. The problem isn't that it wouldn't work if millions of average voters tried doing it, it's that no matter how hard you try or how clever a campaign you put together, no matter how fed up they are with how things are going, people just won't do it. A plan that requires millions of people to do something they're just never going to do isn't a workable one.

Oddly enough though, you score a direct hit on the target when you talk about the coming "age of amateurs". What's needed is to encourage the onset of this era. If you haven't already, take a look at the book Extreme Democracy, which explores the application of social technology & the math of networks to the political arena.

If there is a solution to the mess we're in, it's in research, design, development & testing of systems based on the ideas talked about in this book. No magic bullets, no gimmicks; just solid advancement of the potential of these emerging concepts.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Brin

Your recent series on gerrymandering has inspired me to write down an idea that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of decades. I recognize that implementing it one state at a time will not solve the problem of enhancing the nationwide power of the party that is the minority in the state that implements it. Perhaps campaigns could be organized in balanced groups of states, with adoption by each state in a group conditioned on its adoption by all states in that group.

I will try to explain my idea in a series of questions and answers.

Q. What is the basic idea?

A. Let the citizens come up with the districting plan.

Q. How can this be done?

A. Let anyone who wants to do so submit a proposed plan, and the best plan of all those submitted will be selected.

Q. But how can the best plan be identified?

A. This is the heart of the problem. There are basically two criteria that a good districting plan should fulfill - all districts should have approximately equal populations, and the total of the perimeters of all the districts should be as small as possible. In order to have a well defined method for comparing two plans, you need to have a method to combine the extent to which each plan fulfills both criteria. A reasonable approach could be based on the idea behind Whitaker-Henderson graduation. Let M be a measure of population inequality
between the districts and P be total of the perimeters of all districts. (Disconnected districts would be disallowed.) The best plan would be the one that has the lowest value of rM + sP, where r and s are parameters that are carefully chosen before districting proposals are solicited from the public.

Q. The measurement of the perimeters seems relatively immune to behind the scenes political manipulation, but how should the measure M and the numbers r and s be chosen?

A. Choosing r and s (which can be subjected without loss of generality to the constraint r + s = 1) should be done in advance by whatever group proposes the system. They should identify a parameter choice that will ensure that a minor improvement in one of the two criteria will not produce a lower value of rM + sP if it comes at the expense of a substantial deterioration in the fulfillment of the other criterion. As for the measure M of population inequality, I think a simple one will do: let M be the population of the largest district produced
by your plan minus the population of the smallest.

Q. What would be needed to carry this out?

A. The information processing capacity available in the modern world should be sufficient to give anyone the ability to put together a plan and submit it over the internet. After all, the basic process has been going on since the census 1790, although not always practiced by people whose goals have been to draw districts as fairly as possible. The process of districting consists essentially of identifying "elementary units" and putting them together into districts in a way that meets criteria that are important to the person performing the process.
All we are proposing is an identification of what we believe are the best criteria, measuring them precisely (and as accurately as feasible), and selecting the best plan according to those criteria and measurements. If region is being divided into N districts, all a person who wants to specify a districting plan has to do is assign a number from 1 to N to each of the "elementary units" and submit this assignment to a central authority. To make sure that the central authority is accountable, any or all submissions could be sent elsewhere as well, such as to
public interest groups or newspapers. The central authority could calculate the value of rM + sP for each submission (or verify the submitted value) and announce the winner at the end of the submission period. The correctness of their announcement could easily be checked.

Q. How would the "elementary units" be selected?

A. This is an area that might seem to be subject to influence by those seeking to gerrymander the districting process. However, I believe it should be difficult for them to be effective in achieving their goal. First, there is a system of elementary units already in place - every time you vote, you go to a polling place near to where you live, and each elementary unit could be declared to be the area served by a polling place. If there are several "precincts" served by one polling place, each of those precincts could be an elementary unit. (If a good
districting plan can result from one division into elementary units, then the same plan, but also perhaps a better one, can result from such a "refinement" of the division.) Furthermore, the residents of an area constitute natural experts - they should be able to identify absurd dividing lines once it is made clear that there are no legitimate reasons why the elementary units in their area should not have reasonable shapes.

Q. What information would have to be collected about the elementary units in order to make it possible to put together a districting plan and evaluate how good it is?

A. For each EU, you would need to know it population (as determined by the latest census), and for each pair of EUs, you would need to know the length of their common border. For non-adjacent EU pairs (and each EU would normally be adjacent to only a few others) this would be 0. Once all this information has been compiled, as soon as you put together a trial districting plan (by assigning a district number from 1 to N to each EU) software could verify whether any of your districts is disconnected, and calculate the value of rM + sP for
your plan. (P would be calculated by adding the lengths of the common borders of all pairs of EUs that were not in the same district. The perimeter of the whole state would have to be added in in order to produce the definition of P given above, it should be equally valid to defined P as excluding the states outside border. This choice might affect the best choice for r and s.) The lowest value of rM + sP submitted to date could be continuously available from the central authority.

Q. Is this information already available?

A. The population information should be available as a result of the census. The common border lengths may need to be measured, but it should be possible to handle this locally. Existing information defining all the EUs (perhaps existing voting precincts to start out) could be made available over the internet. Anyone, such as a local resident with a GPS unit could submit an estimate for a common border length near their home. If values submitted by different people were significantly different, they could probably get together and reach an
agreement. Since this process would take place before the redistricting began, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to predict how misrepresenting one measurement would affect the ultimate result of the redistricting process, so there should be no motivation for try to get false data into the system. Hiring licensed surveyors would obviously be too expensive disputes happened often, but perhaps this would be a solution if one or two heated disputes arose.

Q. Wouldn't it be better to have a computer find the plan with the lowest possible value of rM + sP?

A. Although this may be possible, there are several reasons not to do this. First, it is important to remember that the main goal is not to select the "best" districting plan, just to avoid getting stuck with a terrible one. Any plan that was not the result of serious gerrymandering would constitute the elimination of the main problem that we are trying to solve. The fact that this idea provides a method for selecting the "best" districting plan from multiple non-gerrymandered choices constitutes only a marginal improvement over the goal of avoiding
a terrible outcome. Second, allowing anyone the opportunity to be involved in the political process (especially people who may have little taste for being a candidate, working for a candidate, or raising money for a candidate) should be beneficial to the country. Third, if the districting process remains "behind closed doors", in that it is done out of the public eye and under the control of politicians, there is little reason for the rest of the population to have faith in it. Fourth, if anyone has the desire to identify a plan that not only not terrible, not only
good, but actually the best, they are welcome to try and to submit the result.

Q. Are there ways in which this process could be improved.

A. Probably. One improvement would enhance the likelihood of winding up with more "natural" districts, separated by such things as major rivers and bodies of water, freeways, and major watershed divides. That would be to apply an adjustment to the length of any boundary (or part thereof) between two EUs that lay along such a natural divide. The length of the portion of boundary along the divide would be reduced by an appropriate factor. For example, the reduction might be 80% for major rivers and 40% for freeways. However,
starting the system up with such factors included would likely lead to lengthy debates about what the best adjustments are, and these would be of little actual consequence other than delaying the adoption of the system, perhaps indefinitely. Once the simpler version is up and running such changes and their consequences could be examined and evaluated more easily. It might also be possible to identify or construct elementary units that are better than existing election precincts, but that process could also be long, complex, and argumentative without
proving very beneficial.

Q. Are there other criteria that should be used to evaluate districting plans besides equality of population and minimal perimeters?

A. Possibly, but I have not thought of any that are of such clear value and subject to such simple measurement. For example, although experience has shown that it is bad to have a situation where almost all seats cannot be seriously contested, does it follow that the best alternative is to have all seats closely contested? If a small minority of people with unique views gather to live in one geographically concentrated area, perhaps we would all be better off if they had a single voice to represent them in a national (or statewide) forum, rather than
have a districting process that was designed to spread them among many districts. Even if you felt is was best that all such districts should be broken up, it could probably not be accomplished by such a transparent public process. I suspect that no process that has a particular outcome as its stated goal could be implemented without closed door decision making by politicians.

Anonymous said...

One of the denizens of the Traveller Mailing List travelled lived in Vietnam for a year (his adopted son is Vietnamese). He said that at the local level there was a lot of democracy: sure the Party's candidate won the election, but there was a lot of politicking, debating, and so on to determine which Party member was the candidate.

David Brin said...

Walter, thanks for your excellent and thoughtful comment on gerrymandering.

We could spend all day and the next decade contemplating possible redistricting models that could replace today's absurd versions. It's fun to contemplate switching to preferential ballots (perhaps starting local, as somebody suggested). Or redistricting by minimum perimeter to surface ratios...

...Or... as I recommend... simply making sure that state senate and assembly and congressional districts have minimum possible overlap. So that each will feature a different interplay of neighbors talking to (or at) each other.

But all of this is moot. The Professional Political Caste will not allow this kind of tinkering. Nor will Constitutional inertia. For the time being, we just have to get practical and get a movement going to register moderates in the part of their district. That solution is not incompatible with any other solution! Nor is it incompatible with voting for your old party in November.

Oh, California did have open primaries. But the political caste managed to neuter that proposal.

Anonymous said...

David, it strikes me this "join the party and vote at primaries" philosophy has a... contradiction?... tension?... with the "Proxy Power" philosophy that yo occasionally put forth.

You explicity argue that a lot of little memberships are better than one big membership, because it enabled the organisations to say "We have X-number of registered members, so pay attention to the issues we raise."

Doesn't joining a party that you don't support, in the hopes of influencing the primary, give extra credability to someone that you don't endorse?

One response to this another often cited statement: the brain dead political axis. :)

I'm not saying that contradictions are wrong, I'm just interested if you'd care to comment.

Anonymous said...

David Brin said, "... everyone in a district should join the party of that district. Make the primary election the locus of real argument, real campaigning over issues, real voter participation." I joined a political party for such reasons twelve years ago. My own political preferences are socially liberal, pro-labor, religiously traditional, and fiscally conservative (I am annoyed that the Republican Party has cast aside the idea of a responsible budget), so technically I have no politcial party to match my views. But I see the primary election as the arena where I could vote for candidates I like rather than just the better of two poor choices, so I registered as a Democrat. In urban Maryland, that is the party of my district. So long as I have some views in common with the Democratic Party, there is no dishonor in allying myself with them. I help the Democratic Party focus on the best agenda in their platform, which I define as the agenda I like.

Tim Keller said, "A plan that requires millions of people to do something they're just never going to do isn't a workable one." Yet I did it without any prompting. Perhaps Mr. Brin's scheme is implementing itself spontaneously.

On the matter of gerrymandering and redistricting, one anonymous poster proposed the straightforward idea: "Let the citizens come up with the districting plan." He then describes a complicated process to honestly calculate and combine the citizens' preferences. Alas, a process that requires an optimizing equation rM+sP to find its results is too complicated to start with. When further real-life difficulties are added, the process will become incomprehensible and unmanageable. It is a great idea, but it needs to be simpler.

However, a simpler self-districting plan is in effect on a small scale already. My daughters attend college in Indiana, so they reside there most of the year. Yet they vote here in Maryland. They could register in Indiana if they wanted, but they care more about our hometown issues rather than their college-town issues. They have a choice between two districts.

What if everyone had a choice of districts? In our modern age of mobility, why does voting power have to be tied geographically to residence? Imagine a man who lives in the suburbs and owns a business in the city. He pays city taxes on his business, yet does not vote for the city government. Shouldn't he have some representation about his taxes? Giving him two votes, one in the city and one in the suburb, would be unfair, but giving him a choice of registering either in the city or in the suburb would be fair.

But if people could switch their districts by simply filling out a form, how stable would the carefully drawn gerrymandering boundaries be? Some people would simply change districts to participate in an election where their vote counted.

On the other hand, my notion could backfire. Maybe people would self-gerrymander to vote with other people of like mind.

Of course, the idea of non-geographical districts has appeared in science fiction stories already. In Robert Heinlein's "Double Star" (1956) he mentions political representatives for people who don't settle in one place, such as actors. The character Penelope (Penny) Russell represented "districtless university women" in the Grand Assembly.

Erin Schram

David Brin said...

Erin, this is a cool idea. I like especially your example of college students who have unusual flexibility.


I am about to post the final gerrymandering chapter. I still don't know where to send it after Salon.

But first, here in comments, I must share something sent to me.

Russ Daggatt offers this: “Kitty Kelley (of all people) had an excellent op-ed piece in the NY Times yesterday on the Bush culture of secrecy. I harp on this often because I believe it is a HUGE issue, because it effects every other element of the government. A lack of transparency allows incompetence and corruption to flourish.” Above all, it is the chief thing to show your conservative friends. Only the most maniacally ostrichlike will try to use the “dangerous times” excuse. Especially since secrecy has climbed vastly above levels justified during the COLD WAR:

Bush's Veil Over History

SECRECY has been perhaps the most consistent trait of the George W. Bush presidency. Whether it involves refusing to provide the names of oil executives who advised Vice President Dick Cheney on energy policy, prohibiting photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq, or forbidding the release of files pertaining to Chief Justice John Roberts's tenure in the Justice Department, President Bush seems determined to control what the public is permitted to know. And he has been spectacularly effective, making Richard Nixon look almost transparent.

But perhaps the most egregious example occurred on Nov. 1, 2001, when President Bush signed Executive Order 13233, under which a former president's private papers can be released only with the approval of both that former president (or his heirs) and the current one.

Before that executive order, the National Archives had controlled the release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which stipulated that all papers, except those pertaining to national security, had to be made available 12 years after a president left office. Now, however, Mr. Bush can prevent the public from knowing not only what he did in office, but what Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did in the name of democracy. (Although Mr. Reagan's term ended more than 12 years before the executive order, the Bush administration had filed paperwork in early 2001 to stop the clock, and thus his papers fall under it.)

Bill Clinton publicly objected to the executive order, saying he wanted all his papers open. Yet the Bush administration has nonetheless denied access to documents surrounding the 177 pardons President Clinton granted in the last days of his presidency. Coming without explanation, this action raised questions and fueled conspiracy theories: Is there something to hide? Is there more to know about the controversial pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich? Is there a quid pro quo between Bill Clinton and the Bushes? Is the current president laying a secrecy precedent for pardons he intends to grant?

The administration's effort to grandfather the Reagan papers under the act also raised a red flag. President Bush's signature stopped the National Archives from a planned release of documents from the Reagan era, some of which might have shed light on the Iran-contra scandal and illuminated the role played by the vice president at the time, George H. W. Bush.

What can be done to bring this information to light? Because executive orders are not acts of Congress, they can be overturned by future commanders in chief. But this is a lot to ask of presidents given the free pass handed them by Mr. Bush. (And it could put a President Hillary Clinton in a bind when it came to her own husband's papers.) Other efforts to rectify the situation are equally problematic. Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, has repeatedly introduced legislation to overturn Mr. Bush's executive order, but the chances of a Republican Congress defying a Republican president are slim. There is also a lawsuit by the American Historical Association and other academic and archival groups before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. A successful verdict could force the National Archives to ignore the executive order and begin making public records from the Reagan and elder Bush administrations.

Unless one of these efforts succeeds, George W. Bush and his father can see to it that their administrations pass into history without examination. Their rationales for waging wars in the Middle East will go unchallenged. There will be no chance to weigh the arguments that led the administration to condone torture by our armed forces. The problems of federal agencies entrusted with public welfare during times of national disaster - 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina - will be unaddressed. Details on no-bid contracts awarded to politically connected corporations like Halliburton will escape scrutiny, as will the president's role in Environmental Protection Agency's policies on water and air polluters.

This is about much more than the desires of historians and biographers - the best interests of the nation are at stake. As the American Political Science Association, one plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, put it: "The only way we can improve the operation of government, enhance the accountability of decision-makers and ultimately help maintain public trust in government is for people to understand how it worked in the past."

Rob Perkins said...

Alas, because it is Kitty Kelley, I don't predict that any "conservative" will give the words any heed, because of the paper it's published in, the author of the op-ed, and the opening paragraph. Fallacy, 'tis true...

...which is a pity, since if her example is true (it's true; I found the order), the next Congress needs to act to reverse it. And, a Republican needs to propose its reversal.

Or, the next President (maybe Clinton, who knows at this point?) could simply repeal the order. But I have evidence which suggests that if she were President, especially in her first term, she wouldn't do it.