Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 22, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

GERRYMANDERING....I had dinner last night with a bunch of fellow bloggers. Our host was Ann Salisbury sadly, an ex-blogger now and we were joined by Martin Devon of Patio Pundit, Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind, Matt Welch of, um, Matt Welch, and Henry Jenkins of Modern Middle Manager.

So here's an interesting thing. Our little group spanned the gamut from pretty conservative to pretty liberal, and while we disagreed about almost everything, there was one thing we all agreed on pretty enthusiastically: gerrymandering is bad. And it's gotten a lot worse.

Gerrymandering has been with us for a long time, of course, but in the past it had some natural limits due to its inherent complexity. Here in California, for example, Phil Burton was an acknowledged master of the art, but legislators of his peculiar genius do not come along in every state or every generation. For mere mortals, even pretty savvy ones, there was always a natural limit to just how unfairly you could draw the lines and still stay within the bounds of the law.

Today that's all changed. Specially designed software allows even the most thickheaded legislative leader to instantly create a districting plan that meets all the requirements of the law but still maximizes the party's share of the vote to within microns of its theoretical limit. And in states like Colorado and Texas they've added the extra little fillip of proposing new redistricting plans whenever they want, instead of waiting every ten years as we've always done in the past.

Not only is this self-evidently bad, but it's one of those odd issues in which, as near as I can tell, virtually everyone is in favor of making the system fairer and less partisan. The only people against change are professional politicians. But they're the ones who pass the laws, so nothing gets done.

It's also an issue that almost certainly needs to be dealt with at a national level. At a state level, there will always be opposition from whichever party happens to be in power at the moment (and therefore gets to perform the next redistricting), whereas a federal level solution that created a level playing field would likely affect both parties fairly equally. What's more, a big part of current redistricting law is controlled by the federal Voting Rights Act, which means that any serious reform also has to be done at the federal level.

Computer optimized gerrymandering has taken us to the point where no more than about 5% of House seats are seriously competitive in each election. The rest are mere shams, not much more real than elections in Iran or the old Soviet Union. What's more, this lack of true elections has contributed heavily to the increasing polarization of politics, since there's little need for legislators to compromise on anything if they know that their seat is completely safe. In this respect, unfortunately, I suspect that California is once again acting as a bellwether for the nation and trust me, as bad as national politics is, you do not want it to become as bad as California politics.

It's hard not to believe that if more people understood this there would be a groundswell of support to fix the whole mess. But they don't, and there's no one to make an issue of it. Too bad.

UPDATE: Legal Fiction makes a similar argument and adds a few other points as well. He also has some depressing statistics. Note that California is in the forefront, which means that things in the rest of the country can indeed get worse....

Kevin Drum 5:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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