Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Is Gerrymandering? (Part 1)

Politicians are good at very little that is of use to the American people, but they excel at providing themselves with job security.  It's quite amazing if you think about it for a moment.  They routinely have approval ratings below Hitler and Mussolini, yet somehow they get themselves re-elected by wide margins.

Where do I sign up for that?  Do a job so poor that any employer in the private sector would fire you without severance, yet, not only do you manage to keep your job, vote yourself a pay raise and even provide lavish benefits that no one in the private sector enjoys.

I'll tell you how they get that treatment.  They CREATE it!  It's an unethical practice known as "gerrymandering", which is the re-drawing of congressional districts in such a fashion as to virtually ensure you'll get re-elected.  With advanced polling and census data, they can literally pinpoint friendly voters block by block and even house by house.  The demographic data they have includes key factors such as gender, age, race, party and socio-economic status.  Each of these groups have tendencies to lean either heavily or slightly to certain parties or candidates.

Knowing that information, politicians can literally go house by house to include as high a proportion of voters likely to side with them.  As a result, a gerrymandered district can look like modern art, a chain saw, a hammer, a wrench or even a bowl of chocolate souffle!

What they virtually NEVER look like are grids, or any other symmetrical and logical shape for dividing an area into parts.  Imagine if city streets were gerrymandered, instead of being rectangular.  And, if the city planners who designed them kept their jobs!  Of course, with a gerrymandered street grids, no one could ever find a polling place, but that's another story.

What if you're in a district with lots of alien voters, and your adjacent representatives need to encroach on your territory?  Easy!  Gerrymandering is effective because of the "wasted vote" effect. The strategy here is to stuff opposition voters into 1 district and give the other party 1 seat and 1 big win.  Let's say you have 10 districts in which the voting is all close.  Put as many of your other party's voters into 1 district, thereby tipping the odds more in your favor for the other 9!

As a result of this weighting, voter turnout is lowered because of the perceived certainty of incumbent re-election, thereby disenfranchising everyone!

The effect of gerrymandering for incumbents is particularly advantageous, as incumbents are far more likely to be re-elected under conditions of gerrymandering. For example, in 2002, according to political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, only 4 challengers were able to defeat incumbent members of the US Congress, the lowest number in modern American history. Incumbents are likely to be of the majority party orchestrating a gerrymander, and incumbents are usually easily renominated in subsequent elections, including incumbents among the minority.

Gerrymandering also has significant effects on the quality of constituent representation.  Because gerrymandering is designed to increase the number of wasted votes among the electorate, the relative representation of particular groups, especially minorities, can be drastically altered from their actual share of the voting population. This effect can significantly prevent a gerrymandered system from achieving proportional and descriptive representation, as the winners of elections are increasingly determined by who is drawing the districts rather than the preferences of the voters.

On the other side of the coin, gerrymandering may be advocated to improve representation within the legislature among groups which make up a relatively small portion of the voter base.  By promoting the representation of groups which support the party in power, the incumbent party is able to gain an even stronger death grip on the rule-making bodies. 

Reaching for your "barf bag", yet?  Gerrymandering has even come to prisons!  This occurs when inmates are counted as residents of a particular district.  This can be particulary effective in rural areas with a large prison population.

California has two propositions that deal with Gerrymandering, Props 20 and 27.  These are key ballots measures for restoring our democracy.

In tomorrow's blog, we will attack the Gerrymandering issue by examing why one should care and the types of reforms being proposed to end this very un-democratic practice.

If you're interested in learning more about this issue, a definitive documentary called "Gerrymandering", produced by Bill Mundell is preparing for theatrical release.  The website for the film can be accessed by clicking here:  http://www.gerrymanderingmovie.com/.  A new trailer for the movie can be accessed by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kurAB5ridko.

Marko's Take

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