Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Gerrymandering Can Destroy Democracy

Democracy is a highly fragile thing. It’s the kind of institution that without proper care and management quickly falls into a terrible state of disrepair. What of the systemic problems that can take hold in a democracy is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a process in which electoral boundaries are modified specifically to achieve a desired political outcome.

What this means is you try to optimize the number of districts your party can win and minimize the number you opponents can win. This usually involves concentrating your strength so you have areas that will never come close to electing the other party.

The ironic thing about gerrymandering is it is probably as old as democracy or representative government itself. Britain, the first democracy, had a problem known as “rotten boroughs”, which were electoral districts with no or marginal population. One, in fact, was a community that had gotten swallowed by the sea but still managed to send a member of parliament to Westminster.

The United States is notoriously bad for gerrymandering. In Canada most of our redistricting is done by independent commissions with limited political bias. Though there are complaints is by no means systematic. Check out this Map. Here you can clearly see strange shapes in the districts. The meander all over the map of Southern California so that friendly neighbourhoods to one party or another are together so that they are reliably Democratic or Republican. This is most clear with rural, and ethnic voters who predictably vote for one party over the other.

How does gerrymandering hurt democracy? At the core of democratic values is one person, one vote – gerrymandering screws with that idea. It goes as follows. Every citizen is permitted one vote, and exercises it to elect local representatives. However, if parties determine which party will reliably control which district than the freedom of choice is taken away. Though there is a bigger problem. Candidates that win their districts tend to be in the middle of their district’s values. In a healthy, non-gerrymandered democracy this produces a lot of centrist politicians. In a gerrymandered democracy it produces extremists. Why? Well, if a district is reliably liberal or conservative the representative only has to worry about challengers from within the party. Therefore they can be as radical as they want because they will not be kicked out on election day.

Gerrymandering fosters extremists and extremists break down the governing process. Gerrymandering weighs down the political parties with large numbers of hard left and hard right politicians that cannot compromise for fear of losing their seat to someone more radical than they are. On the other hand when a party sweeps to power they only do so by electing many more moderates than they are used to in their party, to win these liberal/conservative districts where their party normally doesn’t perform. The governing party naturally begins to lose traction and fall apart because the extremists and centrists can’t get along.

Gerrymandering interferes with the creation of a healthy, vibrant centre in public debate, and therefore effective government. Certain parts of a given country are going to be more liberal and more conservative, there’s no point in forcing the public’s hand by rigging the system. It’s my opinion that the road to salvation for American politics is first to get independent redistricting underway, and in Canada it is necessary to protect the system we already have.

One person, one vote is the central value of democracy, but it starts to lose meaning if everyone you vote with agrees with you.

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