Sunday, June 10, 2012

Reconsidering Gerrymandering

In 1812 the term "gerrymandering" was first used to describe the process of forming electoral districts to "establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan or incumbent protected districts. Governor Gerry of Massachusetts had created an oddly formed district, that bore resemblance to a salamander, for the sole purpose to cement the hold of his Democratic-Republic Party. Since then parties have battled to fashion districts to expand their power or to diminish that of their opponents. Over the last 48 years gerrymandering has increasingly taken on a racial focus; electoral districts have been engineered with the sole goal of politically empowering select ethnic groups. Evidence shows that this initially well meaning strategy to combat racial discrimination has outlived its usefulness and has given rise to troubling unintended consequences. And on a philosophical level, it is clear that this practice rests on a very weak foundation, that runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the American Way.

In one scenario, political or ethnic group X is spread across several districts as a minority who is unable to elect a representative. Through gerrymandering, the areas of the districts in which the political or ethnic minority predominates are detached and consolidated into a new district in which they constitute a majority. Gerrymandering can also be used to limit the power of opponents through packing, that is, to concentrate the maximum number of a certain type of voter into a district, in order to limit their power in other districts. Another strategy is cracking, which involves consciously spreading out a particular group of voters over several districts, so that they will not be able to form a demographically or politically cohesive district.

During the Jim Crow era, redistricting was one of several means used to limit voting rights for African-Americans. In response to this onerous practice, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which greatly helped to expand voter participation for African-Americans. Based on the assumption that white voters would never elect a minority candidate, section 5 of the Act promoted ethnic gerrymandering as a means to create majority-minority districts. This remedy greatly expanded the number of elected African-American officials. In the last 30 years, redistricting battles and court cases have also taken place to create districts that ensure the election of Hispanic, Native Americans and (to a lesser extent) Asian-Americans. In a short time this helped expand voter participation for minorities and the number of diverse public officeholders. 

Although section 5 of the Act proved to be of tremendous value in advancing civil rights, the cultural and political transformation that has occurred in the United States over the last few decades has called its need into question. Clearly, the fundamental justification for section 5, the belief that whites will not vote for a minority candidates, no longer holds true. Even in the "racist south" we have witnessed African-American candidates beating white candidates in white majority, conservative district without the use of racial gerrymanderingAllen West (R-FL) was elected in a district that is 82.3% white, Tim Scott (R-SC) was elected in a district that is 74.8% white and J.C. Watts (R-OK) won in a district that is 79.7% white and only 6.7% African-American.

This phenomena also holds true for other diverse groups. In Idaho's1st District, which is 91.6% white, Latino Candidate Raúl Labrador (R) defeated a white candidate. In Nevada, Brian Sandoval (R) only gained 33% of the Hispanic Vote, yet still won the election, because a majority of white voters supported him, over a white candidate. In Louisiana, an Indian-American, Bobby Jindal (R) was able to defeat a white candidate, in spite of the fact that Asians only comprised 1.5% of the population. And Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh Immigrants from India was elected the Republican Governor of South Carolina.

A fundamental problem with the Voting Rights Act is that over time its purpose and philosophical foundation has mutated. Whereas it's original raison d'être was to uphold individual rights and equal opportunity for all Americans, in almost all cases it is now invoked as a means to advance principles that are found nowhere in the constitution: group rights and the assurance of equal outcomes. By the mid 1970s, civil rights organizations were arguing that diverse groups were entitled to representation (by politicians of their own ethnic group), proportionate to their population numbers. Even when no evidence of voter suppression was present, an "insufficient" numbers of minority officeholders was viewed as proof of discrimination. The possibility that a diverse voter could select someone of a different race because they better represented their vision, was not even considered as a possible explanation. The federal government began to intervene in localities with no history of vote suppression, in which diverse individuals had held office for a number of years, like New York and California. For example, in 1972, the federal government objected to a redistricting plan in Brooklyn, because it would leave a particular district with only 61% African-Americans. The federal government pressed for changes that would increase the number of African-Americans to 65%, in order to ensure the election of more African-American politicians.

Recently, heated legal battles erupted in Texas because LULAC and MALDEF demanded "equal representation that reflects the demographics of the state of Texas," claiming that "only when Latinos gain majority-Latino districts that reflect their growth...democracy can prevail." Similar lawsuits also occurred in Illinois and California. Underlying their statement is an implicit rejection of the individuality and philosophical diversity of Hispanic Citizens. Implicit in their position is the notion that Hispanics exist in a unified political body with shared goals and aspirations that are distinct from those of other Americans. And also that Hispanics, unlike earlier groups of immigrants, are unable or unwilling to assimilate, hence they require their own political districts. The belief that American Citizens of Latino Descent can only be properly represented by Latino Politicians, in Latino Districts, is just as racist and erroneous as the belief that whites can only be represented by white politicians, in white districts.

The drive for ethnic gerrymandering is based on a vision of a balkanized America, in which different ethnic groups compete in a spoils system. In its more egalitarian form, there is a constant drive to dole out jobs, contracts, educational opportunities to each group, in proportion to their numbers. However noble its intentions may be, this system inevitably takes on a less benign form, in which wealth and opportunities are distributed according to the support that groups provided to a ruling party or politician. This runs contrary to the Classical American vision of individuals and organizations, bound not by blood, but by shared values (be they liberal, conservative, secular or religious), working together to pursue the general interests of their shared geographic community (city, county, state and country). When a citizen is consumed by their own narrow ethnic interests, they will inevitably invest lest time and energy in the pursuit of common interests, such as the promotion of clean energy and economic freedom.

Over the last two decades, a growing number of Americans have come to question the wisdom of ethnic and political gerrymandering. In 1993 Supreme Court Justice O'Connor correctly pointed out that efforts to create electorally safe black and white districts would increase segregation. Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein added that this would also increased political and philosophical segregation. The end result is that voters and their representatives are more isolated from Americans with different values and backgrounds.  This has almost certainly contributed to the growing polarization and rigidity that has taken hold in both parties. Politicians presiding over districts rendered ethnically and philosophically homogeneous, through gerrymandering, have few incentives or opportunities to cultivate a spirit of compromise and cooperation. Not by chance, Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of the most moderate and reasonable Republicans, who has shown a capacity for bipartisan cooperation, represents a politically, ethnically and economically diverse district that has not fallen prey to gerrymandering. Furthermore, when faced with a lack of real competition, voters are less motivation to participate in the Democratic Process, which may partially explain declining rates of voter turnout, especially in politically and ethnically gerrymandered districts.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed for African-Americans and other groups to enjoy their full political rights and increase their representation within the American Political System. But, as recent elections across the country prove, in the New America whites will vote for diverse politicians who share their worldview. And equally African-Americans and Hispanic-American voters have voted against their ethnic compatriots who do not represent their goals. Let's stop promoting even greater political, cultural and ethnic segregation. Let's stop negating the individuality and philosophical diversity of Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic and European descent; Americans are bound not by blood, but by the visions which they have adopted. Let's end gerrymandering in all its noxious forms and create simple districts, reflecting geographic logic and population numbers. Square shaped districts, composed of equal population, randomly generated by computers can do far more to promote healthy competition among parties and integration and moderation among citizens, than the machinations of courts, politicians and ethno-political activists.

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