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Ending Gerrymandering: Power to the People

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 20 years ago, in 2002, on the World Wide Web.

Poor Lee county is a mixture of a prosperous college town and a run-down old mill town; rural areas facing extreme poverty; and sitting not far north of the Alabama black belt counties. As a result, if you look at the House districting map of Lee county, you’ll see that we’re carved up into six different fiefdoms for the state House of Representatives, you see that we have six different districts of the state House of Representatives, with lines running straight through the middle of towns to carve out safe districts. And Lee isn’t unique: we’re just part of a larger problem (look at the Birmingham district in Jefferson County and the surrounding area). This carved-up districting process establishes fiefdoms for dynastic state legislators; if you get elected enough to be in the legislature at the time of a census, you get to redraw the map for your own re-election. And gee whillikers, the people writing the rule book keep winning from census to census.

In the aptly-named How to Rig an Election, the [Economist][] examines America’s peculiar system of legislative redistricting, in which the lines are drawn and redrawn state-by-state according to partisan power politics. District gerrymandering gives state legislators the tools for egregious incumbent-protection schemes, which decimate the possibility of competitive races and completely invert democratic control of governance. The corrupt gerrymandering of safe districts means that legislators pick their voters, instead of voters picking their legislators.

So how can we fight back and reclaim the power from the careerist political hacks?

The Economist suggests a more European style of redistricting, Putting it into cleaner hands such as bipartisan commissions or neutral civil servants. But this isn’t going to help matters any. The problem is the power that rests in the hands of experts who know how to tweak and twist and manipulate the demographic data to shore up power. Ameliorating the direct interest of personal power by taking it out of the hands of the legislators themselves helps a little, but it doesn’t remove the process from partisan or bureaucratic power politics. Strategic interests don’t disappear when you switch over to an army of bureaucratic civil servant tweakers.

Our reluctance to challenge the arrogance of careerist bureaucratic "experts" has limited our ability to see other answers. But it is precisely expertise that is the problem. This doesn’t mean that the people drawing the lines should be stupid; it means that they shouldn’t be professionals who have invested their efforts in the art of twisting, tweaking, and manipulating districting lines.

So here’s how we reform redistricting

  • First, completely overhaul how districting is done in the first place. State legislature districting should only be done within a county: each county gets one state senator, and a number of state representatives proportional to its population. Because they’re elected at the county level, district lines can only be drawn within the county, and you have no more gerrymandering across county lines. Also, since this scheme will generally increase the number of senators and representatives, it will also make legislators more responsive and representative towards individual constituents.

  • Set strict guidelines for the shapes of districts which prevent egregious gerrymandering.

  • Now ditch the legislators, ditch the bureaucrats. Instead, bring the people into the process. Create a process for selecting committees of randomly-chosen ordinary citizens who will be charged with redrawing the districts in a rational manner. For the state House of Representatives, districting can be done with citizens from the county represented. For the US House of Representatives, districting can be done with a larger committee of citizens cluster-sampled from across the state.

  • Make the entire process open to the public, with media coverage and input from citizens not on the committee.

While this will help a great deal, fixing districting is hardly the be-all and end-all of democratic reform. To challenge the dynastic power of entrenched legislators, more will have to be done.

  • Ensure that no candidate ever runs unopposed: give voters the option to vote None of the Above in any given race. If NOTA prevents a candidate from getting a majority of the vote, then the election is scuttled and new candidates run for the position.

  • Implement legislative term limits, to break up the power of dynastic candidates. If they can’t stay in office from one redistricting to another, there’s no point in trying to mainpulate it in your favor.

  • Obliterate ballot access restrictions which prevent non-Demopublican parties and independent candidates from getting on the ballot. Every citizen needs to feel empowered to run for office and alternative viewpoints need to be included in the discourse: giving an up-down decision on the pre-selected favorite of the Party elite is democracy as it was practiced in the Soviet Union. It’s not a real choice.

  • Similarly, institute ballot reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting, which will empower independents and third parties by destroying the wasting your vote and lesser of two evils arguments. IRV allows for preferential voting, where if no-one gets a clear majority of the vote, the second (and if necessary, third, fourth, etc.) choices of the voters still count towards choosing the winner.

  • Empower citizens to go over the heads of the state legislature to the people themselves. Institute a voter initiative process so that action doesn’t have to be filtered through the whims of legislative power.

  • Empowering citizens also involves the creation of participatory, local spaces for citizen organization and power. This means forming neighborhood assemblies and interest-based caucuses of citizens, which can pass resolutions, organize cooperative mutual aid in the use of money and goods, and open up a space for people to work at running their own lives.

1 reply to Ending Gerrymandering: Power to the People Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. D. Frank Robinson

    I agree with your analysis of the problem of redistricting. I offer an alternative solution which requires minimal voter trust of bureacrats employed by politicans. Let the people “vote with their feet” VIRTUALLY. By that I mean that voters for a legislative district (e.g.,Congress) simply choose which congressional district in their state they wish to vote in just as they can choose a party affiliation. Voters who gerrymandered in a ten year minority status in one district would simply “migrate” virtually to another district to become a majority or at least make the district competitive. Voters could change their district after each election to keep them untethered. One hundred thousand “loose cannon” voters in a state would disrupt bipartisan gerrymenders.

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Anticopyright. This was written in 2002 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.