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Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Whatever your official party or persuasion, there is one enemy here — gerrymandered political radicalization. That enemy has an ally, the insipid "team spirit" of identifying ourselves and our votes with the name, tokens and emblems of a simplistic and outmoded political party system. Can we see labels for what they are — conveniences that can bind and enslave us, when we let them?

Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think

"solutions" that just may work

Reprise: If there is to be any hope, we must be the ones to take responsibility. This is one problem we voters are going to have to solve ourselves.

I mean it. There is no political party that will help us to slay the dragon of gerrymandering. No billionaire is going to come to the rescue with a foundation grant. And do not expect Bigtime Journalism to raise this as a cause celebre.

The parties may not be equal — morally or in policy — but they do share blame for this problem. A billionaire will invest where the chances of success are better than nil.

And the press? Their contempt for the public has no bottom. (I come from a long line of journalists.) They will look at the sheer complexity of this issue and despair of ever explaining it to all those dolts out there.

So, is there any hope, short of believing that science will someday come to the rescue with brain pills?

the utopian hope for action at the top

Supposing that the courts do act — or by some miracle our legislators take action against gerrymandering. How should it be done?

Whenever people talk about eliminating gerrymandering, the kneejerk, reflex "reform" appears always to be the same — hand the job of redistricting to some "impartial commission," often comprised of retired judges, perhaps guided by some general rule that they must try to follow urban boundaries or perhaps minimize the ratio of district perimeter to area (in order to reduce contorted boundaries).

This notion has advantages, and it would be welcome if done in an equitable manner, encompassing red and blue states all at once. Still, I want to speak up about some disadvantages that probably won't be raised elsewhere.

For one thing, this method is easily satirized by opponents who call it an attempt to create a great big bureaucracy, an unaccountable layer between the people and an important act of sovereign will. This argument was used by opponents to ant-gerrymandering initiatives, on the 2005 ballot in Ohio and California.

Also, the members of such commissions can be subject to all sorts of under the table suasion. Indeed, the members will almost certainly be partisan, in their own right. That's a foregone conclusion.

Moreover, there is something else inherently wrong with the way districts are drawn, and this has little to do with gerrymandering, per se. (Though gerrymandering makes it far worse.)

I find it objectionable that state assembly, state senate, and US representative districts are often aligned to be similar, bunching together the same neighborhoods in voting for three different chambers. This may seem convenient, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong... in that it betrays the dynamic of true democracy. The notion that we should constantly be in a process of creative negotiation with our neighbors — all of our neighbors.

Think. Suppose you live in a suburb, maybe one that can be called upper middle class. Most likely, all of the upper middle class suburbs around you are gerrymandered into the same assembly district. Congressional and state senate districts are a bit larger, but that mostly draws in some edge zones from the nearby college... and a bit of the poorer area to the west. It won't make much difference, though. Us suburban voters outnumber "those people" so forget 'em. We elect delegates to represent the majority. Which means us.

All right, this can happen even if the districts are drawn fairly. And it is not horrifically unjust by itself. Majority rule is supposed to balance out across the land.

But what is lazy and awful is when all three legislature districts are so similar that the same political logic will hold in all three, making your assemblyman, state senator and representative cookie-cutter clones of each other.

Consider this alternative method of reforming gerrymandering, one that would make it completely unnecessary to have "impartial redistricting commissions" at all! In fact, the reform law could be written in a single sentence. Moreover, it would have other good effects.

Simply require that all of a state's assembly, congressional and state senate districts shall be drawn to minimize overlap!

All right, ponder that a little. What would it mean? For one thing, it allows one chamber — say the state assembly — to still be gerrymandered by the professional politicians to their hearts content. Oh, let the politicos have their way, once. Nevertheless, because of this one-sentence requirement, the power of gerrymandering will be almost completely eliminated in the other two chambers! If one chamber is elected from districts that are contorted to create partisan super-majorities, it is almost certain that the same trick won't work for the other chambers, providing that district overlap truly is minimized.

Again, note that this reform takes just one sentence! No need for complex formulas or intricate redistricting commissions at all! Just this simple rule would banish the worst aspects of the gerrymandering crime. People would get back their vote-effectiveness in at least two chambers. Say in the state senate and Congress. That's good enough for me. How about you?

Now add one more advantage to this approach. You and your neighbors would no longer get to be lazy about voting for legislative representatives. Yes, your local assembly person may be "safe" for your party — perhaps dedicated solely to the interests of upper-middle class suburbanites, shrugging off those voters at the fringe...

... but this will not be the case for your state senator, whose district includes an entirely different mix of neighborhoods. That representative will have to operate under different assumptions, and so will you! Both you and your immediate neighbors will have to raise your heads and look more often "across the tracks" at people who are different. Maybe you'll want to do a little talking, negotiating, dickering, even trying just a tad harder to understand each other. If only because your State Senator desperately wants some talk and understanding, for his or her own political survival!

Because the whole web of compromises that make up the state assembly will be different than those comprising the state senate. Where the dynamic in gerrymandered districts will always tend toward partisanship and radicalization, these anti-gerrymandered districts will select for moderation — for politicians who want us talking to each other again.

Is that a bad thing?

start a citizens rebellion

Putting aside utopian dreams, you and I know that the politicians and courts will do nothing about this crime, this treason against our constitutional way of life. How then shall citizens rebel and take back their votes?

What can we do right now, pragmatically, to change the balance of power, even in districts that twist and writhe like serpents, so that the same party may contrive to dominate utterly and apparently forever?

Sometimes, you must seek inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

Go back in time — sixty years, seventy, eighty — to the old post-bellum South. Yes, that time depicted in O' Brother, Where Art Thou?, when segregation reigned and the Klan ruled the night. Certainly the land of Faulkner wasn't all dismal stereotypes. A lot of good and noble things were also going on. But politically it was not the most open and enlightened era.

For one thing, a majority of white voters would vote for a "yellow dog" if it were the Democratic nominee.

If Republicans dominated the Union at large, from the Civil War until FDR, their monopoly on power was nothing compared to the Democratic Party's lock in the old "Solid South" from Reconstruction until Richard Nixon. In those days, the November election was generally a sham, a mere formality. A coronation of the Democratic nominee, whoever that might be.

A few black citizens who managed to get registered to vote would join some urban intellectuals in casting a smattering of futile, dissenting ballots in the fall. Most did not even bother.

Real political fights were reserved for the primaries, when there were sometimes knock down, drag-out battles among candidates for the democratic nomination — from governor all the way down to mayor or dog catcher.

Often local blacks or liberals would seek (when allowed) to re-register as Democrats, so they could vote in the spring, when and where it really counted. When political power was actually apportioned.

Can you see where I am heading with this? Gradually, almost unnoticed, we have been manipulated into becoming a nation of ten thousand little "Solid Souths," in almost every state assembly and US Congressional district across the land.

Gerrymandering has done to nearly all of America what Jim Crow achieved much earlier, from Texas to the Carolinas.

Sure enough, the problem has been seen before. But the past may also tell us what to do about it.

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.

Think of it this way: Gerrymandering has given each district a de facto — if not official — one-party state within each district. There is no sense whining about it.

If districts have been scornfully reworked in order to make the November general elections worthless, then by all means, 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.

neutralize gerrymandering by voting in the only election that counts

In the last section I showed why politicians will probably be of no help in doing away with gerrymandering, but in fact, this help is 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 political 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 gerrymandering — a tactic that has eviscerated our sovereign franchise, turning the right to vote into little more than a mockery?

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.

a realistic short-term solution?

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 one after... or any other for the foreseeable future.

Only now suppose the hundred thousand Democrats switch to become registered Republicansin order to vote in the GOP's primary.

They have that right!

And now, that formerly minuscule number becomes significant! A hundred thousand voters may seem piddling in November, but it's huge inside the smaller battle of a primary election — easily as large as any particular faction within the district's Republican majority!

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.

Alas though, this still requires a psychological shift on the part of voters, away from proud party affiliation over to fierce pragmatism. A Democrat living in a highly gerrymandered conservative district must still grit teeth and study which conservative to support. Again, 90% of this tactic is psychological. But it can be done.

(Note: Some states have open primaries or semi-open primaries, in which a citizen may choose — on election day — which party primary to participate in, just by asking for one ballot or the other, without having to register in advance. Open primaries have been hard fought by the professional politicians for years. But these states offer a chance to use this strategy more conveniently.)

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 if they are barred from selecting a nominee. 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.

does a 'citizen's rebellion' stand a chance of working?

We have been discussing a "modest proposal," one that probably has about as much chance of implementation as the one Swift offered, centuries ago: 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 and influence their primary. Make the primary election the locus of real argument, real campaigning over issues, real voter participation. Real politics.

Oh, if this is ever tried on a big scale! If a movement like this really started to take off, can you imagine how the desperate fanatics and old-style politicos would fight back?

They'd call it "cheating" — with far more venom than they ever used against real fraud at the polls. Cross-registrants would be called "carpetbaggers" and reviled for cynically betraying their beliefs. Or they would be called "spoilers," who have crossed party lines in order to do harm, pull dirty tricks, or stack the majority party with bad candidates.

There might even be attempts to restrict party-switching. Will fanatics in each party try to stop it by requiring that party members pay dues and carry membership cards? Don't underestimate the "villains" in this play, who get to write and pass laws.

And then, every even-numbered year, the inevitable Quixotic, minority party candidate would urge you all to "come on home...."

Which you are free to do, in November!

Remember this: Re-registering as a Democrat (or Republican), even though you were always a Republican (or Democrat) before, will not keep you from voting for your preferred party's candidate come autumn.

What it will let you do is vote for the lesser of two evils in the primary, the true locus of decision-making in your district.

You may be a conservative in a hippie-college town, fine. But just because a liberal will represent you, does that mean you cannot have a say when it's decided which liberal that will be?

Or if you are a progressive in a deep red county, okay, you are going to be represented by a conservative. Live with it. But maybe help support one who acts like a mensch, shows a smidgen of conscience, knows the meaning of compromise, won't take bribes, and might even make Barry Goldwater proud... instead of shrieking hysterically like Rush Limbaugh while wallowing in K Street graft?

There's quite a range within the word "conservative." It may even be worth fighting over.

To moderates and modernists, whatever your official party or persuasion, there is one enemy here — gerrymandered political radicalization. That enemy has an ally, the insipid "team spirit" of identifying ourselves and our votes with the name, tokens and emblems of a simplistic political party system, even when registering with that party no longer makes any practical sense. Even when it serves no purpose other than robbing us of our franchise. Remember that our nation's founders distrusted political partisanship. It may be an inevitable and unavoidable vice — but we needn't let it turn into political cancer.

Stand up. See labels for what they are, conveniences that can bind and enslave us, when we let them. If another label will let you do more with your citizenship, don't be shy. Take it!

Call it a voters' revolt against the calculated manipulation of the electoral process by professional politicians. Call it a movement to transform the disenfranchised minority in every gerrymandered district into an important swing bloc. Call it a way to help pick nicer conservatives instead of haters in each red-county primary, or for decent conservatives in blue-urban America to hold accountable some lefty flakes.

If the politicians have arranged, manipulated, and effectively declared one party to be the party of your district, then join the official party of the district... and choose their candidate!

It seems so logical, like an immune reaction by an inflamed body politic, responding against a cancer spread by self-interested politicos, taking back our constitution-given right to vote meaningfully for our legislatures.

a return to direct democracy?

Only now the rub: In this day and age, without help from billionaires or journalists or politicians, would something like this have even the chance of an arctic glacier in global warming?

As for me? I plan to fight however I can to help one of the parties prevail over the other, because (in my judgement) it has better policies overall and shows greater overall sanity. And because lately, things have started to get very scary for a civilization based on accountability and the Enlightenment.

Still, there is another level, one where I know that political parties are busy turning themselves into dinosaurs. The Age of Amateurs is coming, and with it, a rising age of the New Citizen: smarter, savvier, more agile and empowered by both education and technologies that gather information faster than the speed of thought. In this future, the tussle will not be between left vs right, democrat vs conservative. What appears to be looming, ahead of us, is irritability and conflict between citizens and a lazy professional political caste.

A caste that we cannot do without. Indeed, many of them are decent, skilled, dedicated. But they need a rap on the knuckles to punish laziness. They must be forced to recognize — the citizens are back.

It won't be easy and the transition needs our help. We're going to have to innovate, act swiftly, take the initiative. Prove that citizens are worthy of respect.

Lift your head, now and then, from daily battles. Look at the horizon.

In a reversal of the "yellow dog" philosophy, I don't really care if it's a Democrat or a Republican, so long as it's reasonable, moderate, broadminded, forward-looking, honest, accountable... and human.


Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think

about this article

Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

"Gerrymandering American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think" (published in full here) discusses the evils of (and unusual ways to solve) gerrymandering.

articles, films & books cited here

Charles Babcock and Jonathan Weisman, "Congressman Admits Taking Bribes, Resigns"

Ballotpedia, "Proposition 11, Creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (2008)"

David Brin, "The Electoral College: A Surprisingly Easy Fix"

David Brin, "The 'Minimal Overlap' Solution to Gerrymandered Injustice"

David Brin, "The Real Culture War, Part 1: Defining the Battleground"

David Brin, "The Real Culture War, Part 2: Fighting for the Enlightenment"

David Brin, "Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract With America'?"

David Brin, "The Value — and Empowerment — of Common Citizens In an Age of Danger"

Commission on Federal Election Reform 2005 (report)

The Economist, "How to Rig an Election"

Federalist Papers (website)

O' Brother, Where Art Thou? (film)

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