Posted by Adam @ 9:05 am on February 27th 2007

California redistricting shenanigans

The LA Times has an article that described a Democrat backshuffle on redistricting reform in California (I ask again, will the GOP ever stop wailing about media bias? The answer, of course, is no).

I am against elected representatives getting together and redistricting based on political interpretation of census and voting data. I don’t have any problem with redistricting taking place as and when required by census data (to make sure that each person’s vote counts roughly equally, you need to have roughly equal numbers of people in each district), but if doing it is a political decision, that is what we might call ‘highly sub-optimal’; it means that a majority in the legislature can be increased simply by redistricting, which in itself means that being in the majority is enough to be in a larger majority next time around, all other things being equal. You can redistrict so that even falling into minority in popular vote in the future still wouldn’t even threaten that majority.

The gerrymandering tactic in modern times was used, for example, in Northern Ireland by the (then) government of Northern Ireland, with the aim of supressing catholic representation; this was a serious part of the civil rights complaints brought by the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. The unhappy transition of civil rights movement to terrorist-fuelled stalemate is a long story that doesn’t cast either side in a favourable light, but the fact remains that they had some genuine complaints; while gerrymandering in the US hasn’t led to anything like that (in fact, that sort of stuff is about the only reason that the Supreme Court will step in), it is contrary to the spirit of American Democracy, the American War for Independence and of representative democracy in general, where changes in electoral opinion are reflected in changes in representative actions or representation. Gerrymandering, the redrawing of district boundaries for political gain, is aimed to minimising the electoral effects of a change in electoral opinion.

Above and beyond the undemocratic nature of gerrymandering of this sort is the fact that politicians are often not even playing to their party’s interest, but rather, their own; in the LA Times piece, there is also the accusation that the legislators’ concerns stretch to getting the Hell out of CA politics before they hit their term limits, to the Promised Land of milk, honey and no term limits: Washington, DC. At any level, however, the fact is that defending a safe seat increases career longevity; I think that most of us would prefer that career longevity were achieved through a representative serving their constituents and reaping the electoral rewards, rather than by changing the identity of their constituents. One could argue, I guess, that gerrymandering allows for homogeneity to be achieved within an electoral area, so best to represent the significant majority of that area, but that just doesn’t work in a two-party system. There is no real reason to assume that rural democrats and urban democrats have significant common interests in terms of what they want from their representative, for example, even if a snaking urban/rural constituency would be a bold shade of blue when painted from our two-colour palette. Additionally, at the larger scales (such as for Congressional Representatives), as Rojas mentioned yesterday, there’s inevitably red and blue there. The aim isn’t to make homogeneity, it’s to achieve electoral surety; a 60/40 split between the two parties serves the represenative well in that regard.

The LA Times piece also makes the strong point that when the legislature has direct control of the redistricting, it can be used as a big stick with which to beat the up-and-coming politicians; don’t toe this or that line, don’t raise enough money for campaigns and you’ll be preaching gay rights to a crowd of armed militia on tractors while running in what passes for the urban heart of a 500 mile long district that’s 10 miles across at its widest point.

The issue of how non-political redistricting is to be done is an interesting one. We can imagine several schemes baesd on relative homogeneity of needs rather than political opinions; historical conurbations, physical geography, areas linked by transport links, distance that would have to be travelled to get to the representative’s offices, etc. I confess that I don’t know how the Boundaries Commission in the UK do their work; it’s a government agency, but I guess that it must use a relatively uncontroversial method of redrawing boundaries (and it doesn’t cause enormous changes). The biggest issue of representation in the UK is the overpresentation of Scotland in terms of its number of MPs and, now, the Scottish Parliament deciding certain issues for Scotland and yet Scottish MPs then getting to vote on those same issues in the House although they will only affect England and Wales (thanks, Tony!); it’s not as if the UK doesn’t have representation problems of its own, but at least the constituency boundaries don’t move crazily around from census to census according to which party is in the majority at the time.

In conclusion: I remain no particular fan of Schwarzennegger (although I like him more now than I did) nor, indeed, of Californian politics, but I think that the Governor is right on this issue. I don’t have a particular problem with term limits being rolled back or abolished (I have always felt that with the paucity in good candidates, if the electorate find one that they like, they should be able to keep them) as the CA Democrats wished to do, particularly not if that happening is done at the cost of destroying a far more potent weapon in the armory of those who wish to preserve the political status quo; sane redistricting procedures, however, are high on my wishlist for electoral reform in the US (which should probably be another post).

1 Comment »

  1. Here’s how we eliminate this Gerrymandering nonsense.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/28/2007 @ 2:36 am

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