Monday, August 25, 2014

A Big Setback for Opponents of Gerrymandering

It's a fact: in 2012, Michigan voters supported Democrats for both the U.S. House (50% - 46%) and the state House (54%-46%). But Republicans won control of the state House 59-50 (with 1 independent), and won nine of the 14 Congressional seats.

They did it with creative mapmaking called "gerrymandering." It is the art of jamming and cramming - putting as many of your opponents' supporters in as few districts as possible. The concept is 200 years old, originating with Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry back in 1812. With the coming of the computer age, what began as an art is now a science. The combination of data mining and sophisticated mapping programs give the creators of maps control over the outcome of elections.

In most states, the process is controlled by the political party that runs state government. For a one-party state, that means major-league mischief. Both parties do it when they get the chance.

Florida is among a handful of states that has tried to reform the process. But they made a mistake: they wrote new criteria for maps designed to end political mischief, but they left the process itself in the hands of the Legislature.

The results were predictable in a state where one party controls the Legislature and Governor's office: a map that ignored the voters' mandate for the sake of extending the majority party's control. But today, even though a court has ruled the map in violation of Florida's constitution, the tainted map will be used again in the 2014 election.

Florida tried, but did it wrong. Any real reform to the all-important process of drawing district boundaries must include some basic concepts:

  • Hands-off of redistricting for "professional partisans": the Legislature, Governor, political parties and elected judges ... and their allies in interest groups
  • Strict adherence to population equality (there's a 10% difference in population between the largest and smallest state Senate districts)
  • Respecting communities of interest rather than artificial political boundaries. The greater Lansing area, for example, is split between three congressional districts. It's safe to say Lansing has more in common with Delta Township (immediately to the west) than with central Oakland County, yet the 8th district excludes the next-door suburb and stretches 70 miles to the east
  • Creating a redistricting commission of technical experts, people with knowledge of demographics, geography and economics rather than political science
  • Prohibiting the redistricting commission from taking into consideration the impact of the map on any individual or political party (the 7th Congressional district was drawn specifically to prevent Mark Schauer from running against Tim Walberg in 2012)

Can it happen? It will be difficult, because fairly drawn election districts inevitably hurt the party in power. The party in power never, ever wants to relinquish any advantages it might have.

Another challenge: the vast majority of people don't understand the issue or its importance (thank you, cutbacks in civics classes). Before there can be reform, there must be a statewide education effort to show people the importance of who draws the lines. If politicians draw the lines, the lines protect those politicians. If citizens with expertise draw the lines, the lines protect representative government.

No comments:

Post a Comment