Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Wrong with Things Like Gerrymandering?

I say "things like" Gerrymandering because of a comment my last post. I had linked to this article by Geo. Will about a measure passed last week by the damphool voters of California. He describes it like this:

Henceforth, in primary elections that select candidates for most state and federal offices -- including almost one-eighth of the U.S. House of Representatives -- all voters, regardless of party registration, or those who have "decline to state" status (no party identification -- 20.2 percent of Californians), will receive the same ballot. All candidates for a particular office will be listed, regardless of party affiliation, if any, which they may choose to state, or not. The two receiving the most votes will be on November ballots, regardless of the desires of the political parties the nominees may claim to represent.

The result, as GFW explains in his masterful way, will be to cluster the November ballot candidates toward the center, disenfranchising everyone who is odd, distinctive, deviant, weird -- whatever you want to call non-moderates. Further, according to Will, it was meant to do so.

An anonymous commenter said this sounds like "a new form of gerrymandering." Hm. Well, it's not literally gerrymandering, which is the redrawing of geographical political boundaries in order to enhance or decrease the probability that one group of voters will win elections -- because it doesn't involve redrawing such boundaries. (See 1812 political cartoon, above.) However, it does seem to have the morally-active ingredient of gerrymandering, which is the intention of changing those probabilities.

In our system, gerrymandering is not regarded as either illegal or unconstitutional. Just take a look (here, on the right) at Illinois' celebrated "earmuff" congressional district, which connects two Hispanic neighborhoods via a thin corridor which seems to include nothing but a freeway. (It is currently represented by Rep. Luis GutiƩrrez.)

Though we do practice it, however, Gerrymandering is typically regarded as immoral.

Why? I guess the intuitive reason is that it tends to, and is often meant to, create a system that does not represent the will of the people. It generally supplants the will of the people with the will of the reapportioners. (Since reapportionment is generally done by incumbents, it tends to represent, specifically, their Will to Incumbency.)

Gov. Schwarzenegger and other supporters of Prop. 14 might say that their measure does enable the electoral process to reflect the will of the people. After all, isn't Joe Sixpack the average voter? Yes, but he's not 100% of the voters, and this measure creates a system in which 100% of the representatives in the districts affected by it represent him and nobody else. The others will be unrepresented.

That of course is exactly the sort of thing that gerrymandering can cause.

On the other hand, Prop. 14 is bad in a way that makes it worse than gerrymandering. As Will points out, it violates the freedom of association of political parties by forcing to take as "their" candidates individuals they would reject if they had a chance.

I don't think this is something that gerrymandering does. The Hispanic residents of Earmuffland are not being forced to associate with someone against their wishes. In fact, gerrymandering in this case has accomplished something like the opposite of that effect. As far as this particular consideration is concerned, gerrymandering does have its points.

Take as another example Rep. Michelle Bachmann's district (on the left). For better or worse, she is one of the most ideologically distinct voices in congress. It's a virtual certainty that she could not be elected if her district cut through the Twin Cities, instead of snaking around them like it does. (This is not in any way a political comment on Bachmann. It's just a fact.)

Though gerrymandering, as actually used in the current political incentive-structure, often muffles the will of the people, it also has a potentiality that is the opposite of the sort of homogenizing sausage-grinder principle represented by Prop 14.
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