20 April 2010

Is Gerrymandering Doomed in New York?

An organization known as New York Uprising and fronted by former New York City mayor Ed Koch has reportedly secured commitments from all three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and likely Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo, the current attorney general, to prod the state legislature to end the ancient American practice of gerrymandering. Named after Declaration signer and Constitution opponent Elbridge Gerry, the practice has been mocked for nearly 200 years for the strange shapes of congressional or legislative districts resulting from a process designed to create "safe" districts for the party in power or incumbent individuals. It's one of the phenomena that shows the actual Bipolarchic nature of American politics, since Democrats and Republicans collaborate in the process. In some cynical cases, Republicans will actually make it easier for Democrats to be elected in certain districts by gerrymandering so-called "majority-minority" districts into existence. By drawing a crazy border around concentrations of black population, for instance, everyone looks good by guaranteeing black faces in a legislature, but by writing black voters out of other districts Republicans expect to make it easier for themselves to win more seats.

Gerrymandering is arguably an inevitable response to a constitutional requirement that representation in "popular" houses of bicameral legislatures (the House of Representatives, the New York State Assembly) be based on population rather than geography. If every x number of people are entitled to a representative, how do you determine which people will vote as a unit to elect that person? Good-government types trust that there's a rational way to divide the nation and the states into represented districts. New York Uprising wants to take the districting process out of the hands of elected politicians and give the power to an ideally nonpartisan citizens' board. The end that people like Koch have in mind is to make all elections more competitive. They hope that eliminating incumbent complacency will remove some roadblocks to more extensive political reform.

I'm not sure if there is a rational way to divide states into districts according to population. I don't mean that any way you try is automatically going to be partisan or biased -- just that the problem doesn't necessarily allow for a rational solution. The insistence on numbers as a basis for representation seems to be a legacy of bicameralism and the distinction that concept draws between the people and the land, or the landless and the landed. Once U.S. Senators became subject to popular election, the bicameral concept really became obsolete; Senators as well as Representatives represent the people. So why can't Representatives as well as Senators represent the land? Geographically-based representation is probably the closest thing to rational representation that you're going to get. On the state level, that would mean the counties, and it could mean the counties on the federal level as well, with each getting as many seats in a legislature as population merits. Since many congressional districts encompass several counties, my idea would mean a larger legislature, and perhaps an unwieldy one, though arguably a more democratic one and one more likely to produce representatives of actual local interests instead of national partisans. This isn't a fully formed idea, just one that occurred to me while reading the news from New York.

In any event, the reforms demanded by Koch and endorsed by the candidates will still require the consent of those legislators whose security in office is theoretically threatened by the plan. That fact may doom the idea, but dissatisfaction with incumbents seems strong enough this season that challengers of any party could only help their chances by promising to carry out the reform. But this is one of those reforms that could undermine your incumbent, the guy you usually think is doing a better job than the rest of those bums. That's what defenders of gerrymandering will tell you if they dare speak up. Since there's no such thing as an indispensable man in a democratic republic, that argument should have little impact -- right? Just in case, however, let's think of this the way the Citizens Union group recommends: do you want to keep a system that "allows legislators to choose their voters before the voters choose them," or do you think we can do better?


Anonymous said...

My first concern is who chooses the citizens group that chooses the districts? Should I assume that Mr. Koch is non-partisan enough to do a fair job in not stacking the citizen's group with people akin to his "partisan"ship?

This is just further evidence to me that the whole idea of 50 separate but "united" states is an obsolete idea. Rather, we should be looking at forming "one nation", with one common language and one set of common laws.

d.eris said...

The geographic-based system is an interesting idea.

Why is any group of people (let alone partisans with an interest in the outcome) necessary to draw up the borders of a district at all? One imagines it's already done with a simple computer program and a number of data sets. Or have they really not yet entered the late 20th century on this front?

I've never quite understood opposition to gerrymandering on the basis of the claim that the resulting districts look weird, as the dispersion of individuals over a given geographical plane is never going to be uniform.