Opinion

How gerrymandering undermines democracy

In a democracy our legislators should work for us, not the other way around. Redistricting needs reform.

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With Congress deadlocked, pundits have been pointing fingers every which way at potential culprits for the lack of congeniality in Washington.

Many of the targets are individual members of Congress. But a little-understood phenomenon, not a person, is sharing much of the blame for the root causes of partisan polarization and the inability to pass major legislation. It’s called gerrymandering, and it happens when legislators redraw district boundaries for political gain.

If you’ve ever looked at a map that shows voting district boundaries, you’ve probably noticed a sea of squiggly, oddly shaped formations. The creation of those boundaries, or redistricting, happens decennially, following the census and delivery of reapportionment numbers (how many congressional seats have been gained, held, and lost by each state) to state governments.

Legislators should be redrawing district lines to correct for population shifts that occur over the course of the decade and to ensure that all Americans receive equal representation. But more and more often, they’re not.

Most point to the 1812 signing of a legislative plan by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s (hence “gerry”mandering) that packed opposition Federalists into a salamander-shaped district as the opening salvo in our country’s redistricting wars. But it’s been going on for much longer: Patrick Henry conveniently forgot all about that liberty/death pledge and ably sliced James Madison’s home out of the Virginia congressional district the future president had hoped to run in.

Though most scholars agree that there is little, if any, causal relationship between redistricting and levels of partisanship, voters are right to challenge the unfair process.

By allowing legislators to participate in the mapping process that determines who runs and who gets elected, redistricting effectively upends the crucial relationship between representative and represented.

We’ve gotten to the point where our legislators don’t work for us; we work for them.

Consider: Nancy Pelosi is quietly working to scuttle a California redistricting reform initiative passed by voters in November 2008; Tom Delay (in)famously redrew district lines in Texas to his pleasure back in 2003. In both cases, politicians treated voters as merely chits on a game board, where the winner takes the most power. The direct, unhindered involvement of politicians in the redistricting reeks of arrogance on the part of our political class.

Redistricting is right around the corner, so this year’s midterm election comes packaged with extra import. If the politician you vote for this November wins, he or she will be in office when the line-drawing begins next spring, and will surely avail themselves of the opportunity to corral favorable voters, carve up emerging communities that might vote the other way, and consign potential challengers to the political dustbin (the neighboring district). They will do all this and still probably get reelected for years and years – unless voters like you stand up and hold them accountable.

Yes, in a democracy there will always be winners and losers. And our system is not designed to provide everyone the representation they want, but the possibility of participating in a fair structure that churns out a representative body.

Reforming the process of redistricting is a step toward creating the kind of government we learned about in civics class.

Find your district. Understand its contours – why certain areas are in and others are out. Watch for hearings on the redistricting process and participate, testify.

And look to advocates: There are reform efforts in many states, and while all proscribe different ways to fix redistricting, almost all of them are better than the current systems.

Jeff Reichert is the writer/director of “Gerrymandering,” a new documentary film that will première at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. He is also cofounder and editor of the online film journal “Reverse Shot.”

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