DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Eighteen: Time to End Gerrymandering

By David Brin, Ph.D.

[image from votecitizens.org]

Amid all the attention given to the presidential election, something politically earth shaking went almost unnoticed, in California, where Proposition 11 imposed neutral redistricting upon the state. Since this change will be much to the detriment of the majority Democratic party, it amounted to a stunning act of civic minded fairness on the part of a largely Democratic electorate. One almost certain result will be the loss of Democratic seats in Congress and the state legislature, in 2010. This clearly moves gerrymandering up to the front burner of American politics. Indeed, few other issues merit greater urgency than solving a desperate injustice, one that has contributed greatly to America's political and social jeopardy.

From the Weekly Standard: "The practice of drawing less than honest legislative boundaries is as old as the republic itself. It got its name in 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who went on to become Madison's vice president, signed a redistricting bill that positioned his Jeffersonian Democrats in the legislature to take seats from the Federalists by concentrating their supporters in a minimum number of districts. The Boston Gazette ran a cartoon depicting the new district as a contorted animal and proclaiming the 'Gerry-mander, a new species of monster.'"

Since then, the monster has thrived and been used by successive major parties. New mapping software has made gerrymandering easier and more precise in eliminating competition to incumbents. Incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, opined: "Every redistricting is a partisan political exercise, but this is going to put it at a level we have never seen. That's the gift that the Supreme Court and Tom DeLay have given us."

Effects are blatant. For example, despite this being a "landslide" year for Democrats, safe districting ensured that they would gain only 18 net seats (out of 435) in the House of Representatives. This malignant sickness is also responsible for some of the radicalization of most Republican -- and many Democratic -- officeholders, who need only cater to their districts' rabid base and can safely ignore the clear desire of most Americans for pragmatic moderation.

What the California bombshell suggests is that the Democratic Party will NOT enjoy the fruits of further gerrymandering. It may even suffer, if more blue states follow this course. This puts the democratic officeholders in a bind. As individuals, they love their gerried districts. As legislators, statesmen, party members and Americans, they should loathe and take up arms against this horrid practice. See a detailed series analyzing gerrymandering from top to bottom.

One solution might be for President Obama -- or several governors -- to call a meeting of all states, encouraging them to negotiate among themselves a uniform method (as they did with the Uniform Business Code) for ending a modern travesty. Recalcitrant states can be pressured with both lawsuits and a persistent information campaign. Doing this in an evenhanded manner could use the standard method -- independent redistricting commissions.

Or, a far more clever approach would simply require minimal overlap between state assembly, state senate and Congressional districts. This solution would instantly transform politics for all of us, in all our neighborhoods, and eliminate the evils of gerrymnandering at a stroke, while minimizing interference in the authority of legislatures. It may be hard, at first, to visualize, but let it sink in.

I hold out little hope for gerrymandering to be eliminated by politicians without intense outside pressure. At one level, there is all the difference in the world between good and bad politicians, and we have reason to hope that good ones are now entering power. But, at another level, they are all members of a political caste that has been complicit in the gerrymandering scam. If President Obama really wants to prove he is above this kind of thing, he could start in no better place.

[image from Wikipedia]