21 October 2013

Killing the gerrymander

The latest government-shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis seemed to expose the existence of concurrent and contradictory majorities in the U.S. The Democrats and President Obama could claim to represent a majority in the Senate and White House respectively, while the Republicans could claim to represent a majority, though presumably not the same majority, in the House of Representatives. Many Democrats won't concede the point. Pointing to the numbers that show that more Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans in House races, they argue that the GOP controls the House only by virtue of gerrymandering -- drawing the borders of congressional districts over every decade to create as many Republican-majority districts as possible while diluting Democratic voting strength in various ways. This is an old problem and has been discussed here before, though I'm not aware of any new solutions proposed by disgruntled Democrats and I'm not sure they can claim to be arguing in good faith. Gerrymandering is a fact, or at least has been perceived as one for the last 200 years, but it's also a sour-grapes excuse for a losing party. The problem is rooted in the House's identity as the "popular" house of Congress, designed to represent units of population rather than specific communities or units of geography. Since each state is assigned a shifting number of Representatives based on changes in population, the states are redivided into congressional districts after each federal census. Ideally this should be done without partisan distortion, and some reformers believe in the possibility of non-partisan redistricting, but it's unclear whether there can be an objective standard for drawing electoral districts based on population. For that reason, some reformers propose proportional representation, according to which a state's seats in the House would be divided among the parties based on a statewide vote for at-large Representatives. This is really the most sensible option, but the change would come as a radical shock to many Americans.

We've come to think of the House as the section of the federal government that's closest to the people, the Representatives as those members of the government most local in orientation, most rooted in actual communities. A Representative is easier to see as "one of us" than a Senator may be. Under proportional representation, Representatives would be no different from Senators, both groups representing the entire state in Congress. Blame that on the 17th Amendment, which changed the way Senators were elected. In any event, it's likely that Republicans and conservatives wouldn't be the only ones to feel slightly disenfranchised by the adoption of proportional representation. Racial minorities have benefited from gerrymandering, though often in a way that supposedly benefits the Republican party more. If proportional representation were to mean fewer black or Hispanic Representatives, someone would certainly cry foul, though one could expect Democrats, at least, to adopt some sort of quota system when picking their slates of at-large candidates. In the bigger picture, many self-styled communities across the country would feel that they were no longer being represented in the manner to which they had become accustomed. Many of those would see proportional representation as a further takeover by a "political class" and a suppression of "local" voices. Those on the right would see it as a bald Democratic ploy to change the rules of a game they've been losing, and the more hysterical or paranoid in that group might see it as another step toward the end of democracy. They might be justified in their suspicion of Democratic motives, but they'd be wrong as far as democracy is concerned. It has always been a fallacy, although it was long a harmless one, that cities or counties as such were entitled to representation in Congress. There may be no comfortable way to disabuse people of that fallacy, but if the redrawing of district borders is always going to draw criticism, and if there's no way to redraw those borders on a rational and consistent basis, change may be necessary in order for the House to live up to the democratic function the Founders intended for it.

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