ix days from today, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether redistricting — the process of redrawing electoral boundaries that follows each decenniel census — can legally consider politics in redrawing boundaries. In other words it will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering.

In recent years, sophisticated computer software has allowed the architects of redistricting — the partisan governments in each state — to completely subvert the will of the people by drawing boundaries that are wildly discontiguous but which, by ‘packing’, ‘cracking’ and ‘kidnapping’, ensure most seats will be won by the ruling party even if that party gets much less than half of the votes. ‘Packing’ concentrates the opposing party’s votes in a few districts, so they win those districts by huge majorities and most of their votes are wasted. ‘Cracking’ divides the rest of the opposing party’s votes up so they are not quite enough to win in any of the remaining districts. And ‘kidnapping’ puts two incumbents of the opposing party in the same district.

The effect is extraordinary: In Florida, where votes statewide were about 50-50, redistricting sent 18 Republicans and 7 Democrats to the House. In Michigan, where votes for Democrats were much higher than for Republicans, redistricting sent 9 Republicans and 6 Democrats to the House. Even worse, Republicans have started using redistricting at arbitrary times, instead of just once after the census, to make the balance even more unrepresentative. The infamous Delay gerrymandering in Texas is a prime example, as was the Colorado redictricting that was struck down yesterday (that ruling did not prohibit gerrymandering, it merely restricted it to once per decade after the census).

But in Pennsylvania, the art was taken to an egregious extreme, and it is that redistricting that will be ruled on by the Supreme Court in the case starting December 10. Many election reform experts say this case is even more important than the Bush vs Gore ruling. If the court rejects the appeal, it will mean (a) that the party in power in each state will essentially decide who goes to Congress for the next ten years, rather than the voters, (b) that the only real challenge for incumbents will be their party primaries, which tend to be dominated by unrepresentative minorities that support more extreme candidates, and (c) since only a handful of Congressional seats will be in any doubt, voter turnout will be even lower, and apathy even higher, than it is already.

I believe the Supreme Court in this case will be deciding the very future of democracy in America. But then, I’m just a crazy Canadian who has this quaint idea that electoral boundaries should be set logically by an independent commission (as is done in Iowa, by the way), and that voters should actually have a say on who represents them in government.

In somewhat related news, House Republican Katherine “hanging chad” Harris, the notorious secretary of state who delivered Florida’s decisive votes to Bush in 2000, and has sandbagged efforts to clean up the state’s electoral system ever since, is planning on running for the Senate in that state. Republicans, nervous that her candidacy will bring out Democrats in record numbers, are furiously trying to draft Bush’s reluctant housing secretary Mel Martinez to run against her. Ah, well, if she doesn’t win the primary, and if the Supreme Court rules gerrymandering unconstitutional so she can’t keep her House seat either, I’m sure there’s a job waiting for someone with her skills at Diebold.

The chart above depicts, marked by the perverse black line, the 13th Congressional District in Georgia. It’s the result of Democratic party ‘packing’ of Republican votes. Although Republicans are better at this, and more aggressive, gerrymandering is an equal opportunity abuse.

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  1. Tom McMahon says:

    With his 97,000 votes, it was really Ralph Nader who delivered Florida to Bush in 2000. Katherine Harris just counted ’em up. On another topic, get Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive”. Short, pithy, classic Drucker. It has the best line from any business book I’ve ever read: “The function of an executive is to make his people’s weaknesses irrelevant.” Running a publications department, I noticed how easy it was for our artists to slip into trying to be desktop publishers, our desktop publishers wandered into territory best handled by our subject matter experts, and our subject matter experts every now and then thought they were artists. Keeping Drucker’s statement in mind helped me keep the team on course.

  2. Raging Bee says:

    Which political officials fill the ranks of this “independent commission” in Iowa? And by what criteria do they draw House and legislative district boundaries?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Tom: Thanks, I’ll add this to my Christmas list.PTW: You’d have to ask the Iowans. In Canada, the commission is made up of line civil servants (employees, not appointees or elected officials) who work under very strict criteria: (1) equal population in each district, (2) maximum geographic contiguity possible (i.e. square is best), (3) align to census unit boundaries as much as possible, (4) drafts are circulated to the public before finalization and changes are only made, at the discretion of the commission, in rare cases where a significant number of voters present evidence that the proposed boundaries effectively disenfranchise them.

  4. Raging Bee says:

    Dave: thanks for the tip. That sounds like a workable alternative to our current system. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like the kind of policy that courts can impose from the bench. Hopefully some party can make a political and legislative issue out of it, but I’m not holding my breath.

  5. The UK has a similar independent commission for drawing up election boundaries too. At a national level this tends to work well but at a lower level town or district councils, there tends to be an element of political bias as the local government officers submit proposals to the elected council, and hence some bias gets imposed as the politicians ‘mess’ with the criteria. It seems completely alien to me to have politically biased agents undertaking a ‘redistricting’, gerrymandering indeed.

  6. Indigo Ocean says:

    If it wasn’t so damn cold in Canada I’d move there.

  7. hans says:

    Perhaps we need to follow the Libertarian lead and organize a move to Washington State, then secede to Canada.

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