I haven’t seen the new documentary film Gerrymandering but I’ve been intrigued by various reviews. Filmmaker Jeff Reichert tells the story of gerrymandering, beginning with how our country inherited gerrymandering from the Brits, and how they, like our neighbors in Canada, wisely eradicated it from their political process. According to Gar Smith of the Berkeley Daily Planet, the film is based on interviews with more than 50 commentators from across the political spectrum, and Reichert presents a compelling argument that allowing politicians to draw district maps is a tool that works to defeat true democracy.
According to Smith, “The film argues that allowing legislators to draw voting districts means ‘politicians choose voters instead of the other way around.’ Once an urban population has been sliced-and-diced to consolidate wealthy neighborhoods, ensnare partisan cores, or divide and disempower Asian, Hispanic or African American enclaves, ‘it really doesn’t matter who you vote for,’ a seasoned political player observes. ‘The election outcome has already been determined.’
Since I may not have a chance to see the movie, I thought I would pass on a review from both Capitol Weekly and Berkeley Daily Planet, as each arrives at a very different conclusion about the film. But first, I’m going to use this opportunity to educate myself on the practice of gerrymandering—something Reichert recommends we all should do.
What is gerrymandering?
(The following is courtesy of Wikipedia and also from the film’s website.)
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of the redistricting process for political gain.
The Constitution requires that a census be held every ten years to determine the population of each state and that the 435 Congressional seats be reapportioned according to this new data. The Constitution leaves the methods for electing Representatives – including redistricting – up to the individual states. However, both Congress and the courts have placed certain requirements on the redistricting process:
1. Each district must be equal in population . There must be an equal opportunity for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice
So, every ten years, each state is forced to redraw district lines to account for both adjustments in the size of their overall congressional delegation, and variance in the populations of their already-drawn districts. In a few states —Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington —a specially appointed bi-partisan commission handles redistricting. In the rest, politicians control redistricting, and often those whose political careers might be threatened by the change of a line.
Packing: Placing as many voters of one type in a single district to minimize the number of elections they can influence.
Cracking: Spreading voters of one type over many districts where they will comprise minorities that are unable to influence elections.
Hijacking: Separating an incumbent candidate from his constituents and placing him or her in a district where he or she has no name recognition.
Kidnapping: Drawing two incumbent candidates into the same district so they must run against each other.
The Original: Gerrymandering is as old as the country itself. In 1812, Jeffersonian Republicans forced through the Massachusetts legislature a bill rearranging district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming elections. Although Governor Elbridge Gerry had only reluctantly signed the law, a Federalist editor is said to have exclaimed upon seeing the new district lines, “Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander.” This cartoon-map first appeared in the Boston Gazette for March 26, 1812. Even though the term “gerrymander” originates here, it dates back even further – some say to Patrick Henry drawing Virginia’s first Congressional district map so as to make it harder for James Madison to be elected to Congress.
Partisan Gerrymander: When the party in control of the redistricting process draws the district lines to maximize the power of their own party.
Sweetheart Gerrymander: When the people in charge of redistricting tacitly agree to draw district lines to ensure that incumbents of both parties win reelection.
Racial Gerrymander: The drawing of districts to create opportunity for minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.
Gerrymandering: A movie review from Capitol Weekly
Malcolm Maclachian and Tony Sheppard writing for Capitol Weekly, feel Gerrymandering does a good job telling its story in human terms. The film makes its case with a series of recent examples, such as the 50 Democratic Texas legislators who fled to Oklahoma in 2003 to stall a legal but unethical effort to redraw that state, just two years after it had been done as part of the standard once-a-decade process. (The Tom Delay-led effort resulted in the GOP gaining six seats.) And, the film provides a play-by-play of California’s Proposition 11 campaign in 2008. In this case, it was Democrats in the California Legislature fighting to prevent change. According to the reviewers, as long as we “have single-member districts, millions of people will be effectively disenfranchised because they’ll have no chance of electing someone who thinks like them.”
So what to do? Gerrymandering floats the idea that the best way to get rid of “the lines” is to go to a European style parliamentary Democracy with proportional representation. And the reviewers ponder the possibility:
The question is: would Americans accept this? More than people in many countries, it seems, we vote for individuals. But haven’t we all learned by now the public niceness, or jerkiness for that matter, has a very indirect relationship to moral behavior when the cameras aren’t on?
A parliamentary democracy, which would guarantee any party with a certain number of votes would get a seat, would likely confuse and anger many people. But if you believe that the top goal of an electoral system is to translate the will of the people into legislators and then into legislation, it is the best system known. It’s often been remarked that our Legislature is ideologically extreme compared to voters, but it’s rather homogenous in terms of party representation. If some of those extreme members were Greens or Libertarians, and moderate Democrats and Republicans needed to work with them in order to form coalitions, the mere act of forming a working government for that session would get us more of the way to a budget.
In short, it’s a worthwhile film on a topic that we really ought to be thinking more about.
Gerrymandering: The movie, the proposition, the conflict of interest
The second review titled “Gerrymandering: The Movie, the Proposition, the Conflict of Interest” is written by Gar Smith of the Berkeley Daily Planet. It is lengthy and goes into detail about the film. But Smith feels the film Gerrymandering, while interesting and informative, also strikes some odd notes, at times making Democratic senators and congressmen look bad. While filmaker Reichert insists it is a non-partisan look at gerrymandering and is a coincidence that its release coincides with the upcoming election, Smith discovers it is being used as a fundraising tool for Proposition 20, a GOP backed proposition scheduled for the November 2 election.
The Voters First Act for Congress (proponents of California’s “anti-gerrymandering” Proposition 20) has taken full advantage of the coincidence. In early October, VFAC distributed 660,000 free DVDs of Reichert’s film as part of a glossy mass-mailed packet urging people to vote “Yes on 20; No on 27.” Mailing this multimedia “nonprofit” message cost somewhere between $102,000 and $113,000.
Proposition 20, he further discovers, is being touted as a grassroots movement to further the democratic process, but has been extensively bankrolled by two very wealthy California businessmen who want to keep the current commission who oversees redistricting. The current commission is not supported by Democrats, Unions, Firefighters, etc. who are supporting the more progressive Proposition 27 which would abolish the commission.
Smith comes to the following conclusion:
There must be transparency whenever any individual or group decides to attempt to “lead the voters,” be it by gerrymandering, “Astroturf” campaigns, corporate-backed initiatives or documentary films. Viewers — and voters — need to be advised that “Gerrymandering” requires an “R” rating — for A Risky Proposition. Voter discretion is advised.