Gerrymandering: Destroying Democracy with a Hard G

It’s 2010, census year. The headcount was in April and the results will be released in December. Next spring the action begins: redistricting.

If you thought the November elections mattered for control of Congress, the forward momentum of the progressive movement or the new energy economy, add another item to your list. November’s winners will control the redistricting process. They’ll be in position to cement their advantage for another ten years (at least).

This comes up now because I just saw the DC premier of a new film, Gerrymandering. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger came to town to discuss California’s Prop. 11 and
http://www.commoncause.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=4950691&ct=8420255&notoc=1 and maybe build a legacy as a politician who defended the machinery of democracy rather than one particular issue.

The film is terrific. Film maker, Jeff Reichert, started with a subject that’s inherently tedious – data analysis and mapping – and turned it into political dynamite. He made a documentary that’s simultaneously informative and entertaining, distressing and charming. It shows how our democracy is broken and how to fix it. (Trailer here).

Gerrymandering goes far to explain why dissatisfaction is so high, debate is so partisan and problems so unsolved. An elected official in a seat designed for safe reelection need do nothing else. Politicians in gerrymandered districts pick their constituents, not the other way around.

I especially like the scene with Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative describing a city council seat in tiny Anamosa, Iowa. The council member is elected with only two votes, his neighbor and his wife. Everyone else who makes up his districts is in a nearby prison. They can’t vote but they still count for purposes of political apportionment. Prison-based gerrymandering brings “representation without population,” Wagner complains.

I learned something else about gerrymandering. I’ve been saying it wrong, all these years (though I probably still will). It’s pronounced with a hard G, named after colonial era governor Elbridge Gerry, hard G, who redrew his state’s district lines in 1812 to secure party advantage. A period newspaper observed that the district map looked like a salamander, and dubbed it a “Gerry-mander.”

The movie comes out in the fall. The salamandering fights are in the spring. In between, there’s an election. Start fighting now.

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