DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think

By David Brin, Ph.D.


Finger-Pointing in All the Wrong Directions

On September 19, 2005, the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and sponsored by the American University Center for Democracy and Election Management, issued a report containing 87 important recommendations for how to improve the U.S. Electoral process, ensuring better credibility, accountability and confidence in the nation's most basic political process.

The twenty-one distinguished members of the Commission -- including leaders from political parties, academia and nonpartisan groups -- focused on problems such as inaccurate voter registration, individual voter fraud, corruption of local and statewide procedures, improved voting machinery, absentee balloting, and so on.

This bipartisan endeavor, initiated in response to scandals that erupted during the 2000 and 2004 election cycles, is clearly sincere. Many commission recommendations are laudable, even obvious, although a few sparked controversy. Especially a proposal to achieve greater security by moving toward more standardized voter identification -- a trend that is already underway nationwide, as states unify procedures for issuing drivers' licenses. Americans tend to be prickly over the notion of a "national ID card." This will certainly be a hot issue during the coming decade, with technology itself casting the final, deciding vote.

Unfortunately, despite all their sincerity and wisdom, the commission ultimately nibbled at the edges, avoiding the worst problems and faults of our American electoral process. While some of the most egregious and blatant abuses from 2000 and 2004 may get fixed, nowhere does the report address a far more basic problem -- that some American votes are more influential than others. Sometimes a whole lot more.

In fact, under conditions that are growing worse daily, millions of Americans who think they have a vote, do not actually have one. Not one that is meaningful, that is.

One can hardly blame the Carter-Baker Commission for shying away from this larger issue of vote-effectiveness. After all, much blame lies rooted in the distribution of power among the states -- large vs small, rural vs urban -- that we inherited from history. Then there is the Electoral College, an archaic beast that cannot be killed or reformed, because that would require a Constitutional Amendment. (Or would it?)

And yet, even those relics of the past are not the worst culprits. In the coming series of short chapters, I want to guide your attention down a path that this Commission -- and may others -- could and should taken, exploring one of the most horrific betrayals of citizen sovereignty. One that threatens the very heart of our democracy.

It is a path with many complex twists and turns (hence ten short chapters!) But when all of the effects are tallied, you will see that this problem adds up to something far worse than the Electoral College... plus vote fraud, corruption, miscounted ballots and all those other messy issues... combined.

Indeed, when it comes to certain types of elections -- those that choose our delegates for the legislative branch of government -- most Americans have been denied any chance to choose their representatives. They have no real choice at all.

By quietly and gradually cranking up a process called gerrymandering, members of the Political Caste -- in both parties -- have managed to effectively seal most of us away from the very franchise that we all consider to be one of our most basic American birthrights.

Alta Sedent civilis vulnera dextrae...
(Deep are the wounds inflicted by civil strife...)


[image from votecitizens.org]

The Worst Insult to 21st Century Liberty: The Gerrymander Gambit

First, some context and background.

As we slowly recover, still quivering, from the traumas of Election 2004 -- further punched, pummeled and punctuated by war and nature's devastation -- here comes a tidal wave of punditry, telling us to begin girding for the next political season. Prepare for Election 2006... another gut-wrenching, nation-dividing descent into the "Culture Wars."

(Who could have predicted that we would someday look back with nostalgia on the Clinton-Dole campaign, as a time when politicians sometimes disagreed congenially over policy, while sharing a fundamental belief that government can be made to work?)

In one way, the 2006 campaign will be easier, emotionally. For one thing, it won't directly involve the Presidency, much to the relief of George W. Bush, given his slide in popularity.

Instead, attention will focus on Congress.

Will one party continue to control all three branches of government? Or will voters choose to stir in some fresh faces and, perhaps, a little accountability?

This could be of special importance right now. If either house of Congress passes into Democratic control next year, one immediate effect will be to suddenly invigorate a dozen oversight and investigation committees, which have lain mostly dormant for six years. Just picture the ferment when those torpid committees are abruptly staffed with scores of newly-assertive investigators, empowered with stacks of subpoenas, summoning scores of administration officials -- and whistleblowers -- in a veritable festival of accountability, unlike anything since 1994, when Newt Gingrich & Co. swept into control over the House, carried by the reform rhetoric of his "Contract with America."1

Of course, all of this assumes that political issues -- or even voter opinion -- will make a difference in outcome, during the campaign for who controls Congress.

But that assumption may be dead wrong. One trend, that has built momentum across several decades, may insure that the average voter will have very little influence over the outcome of the US Congressional elections, come November 2006.

No, I am not talking about outright cheating, though we certainly have seen a disturbing and outrageous burst of truly despicable behavior, ranging from fraudulently rigged voting machinery to manipulation of voter rolls, from corruption of sworn officials to dirty trickery, all of which contribute to a decline of faith in democracy, perhaps even debasing the word "freedom" itself. (See recommendations of the Carter-Baker Commission.)

But even vote-fraud is small potatoes.

After all, cheating of the kind we saw in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004, can only work when the polls are already very close. Is a 51:49 outcome any more of a legitimate mandate than 49:51? At worst, outright cheating can nibble at the edges of a system that is rotting from the inside.

No, I want to draw attention to a different kind of manipulation. One that has ensured that close elections for US Congress almost never happen.

It is the same shameless manipulation that prevents all but a few Americans from having any real voting power over who will represent them on Capitol Hill.


[image from Wikipedia]

Gerrymandering at the Surface: The "Harmless" Way It's Generally Portrayed

Quietly, without much comment or notice, the practice of gerrymandering has transformed from a somewhat dismal but bearable act of occasional opportunism into a cancer at the heart of democracy itself, rendering our votes nearly meaningless in countless constituencies across the land.

You won't see the problem expressed that way very often, as a relentless -- and perhaps deliberate -- scheme to deny Americans a meaningful vote. Certainly, whenever a writer uses that kind of tumid language, he or she bears a burden to build a solid case!

This I intend to do, peeling back layers, exposing what decades of gradually worsening abuse have done to American constituent democracy -- the portion of our electoral process that specifically involves the legislative branch.

In the popular press -- even prestigious journals like the New York Times -- you will see gerrymandering portrayed as a dirty but relatively minor tactic in the war between Republicans and Democrats. A traditional -- even venerable -- trick that is used wherever one party gains an advantage, in order to tweak one or two more seats out of a state congressional delegation. Heck, it was done in Cromwell's time, predating America itself.

Nobody openly admits that they approve of gerrymandering. Even chief perpetrators claim they are only struggling to stay even with the real culprits -- those connivers in the opposing party. Both press and public deem it unscrupulous. Still, amid war and spiralling deficits, corruption and terrorism, gerrymandering hardly gets ranked up there as a threat to the republic.

I hope -- in this essay -- to persuade you otherwise... and to suggest it's time for the people to take a stand.

How does gerrymandering work?

Let's take, for example, my home state of California. Periodically, the Democratic-controlled legislature in Sacramento commissions professional consultants to draw the borders of congressional districts (and those for state assembly and senate), based upon recent census data. Using specialized computer programs, these consultants draw boundaries that veer and shift, paying little heed to city limits, geography or even rules of geometry. The shapes are planned with one goal in mind, to maximize the number of districts that will have a reliable majority of Democratic voters. By reconfiguring boundaries to exclude some neighborhoods and include others, these hired-gun consultants promise an optimum size for the Democratic Party's Congressional delegation, each even-numbered year.

It works both ways, of course. In Texas, Florida and thirty other states, Republican-dominated legislatures do the same thing (with a vengeance), drawing boundaries that twist and contort like tormented snakes, always with the sole aim of maximizing the number of Republicans likely to win seats in the next election.

And not only to win, but win with ease.

Yes, the trick is mentioned by pundits and dissected in some press reports that tsk-tsk about gerrymandering as an unfair trick. But then, since both California and Texas do it, should we really be concerned? All told, the practice seems to benefit the Republican Party more than Democrats. (Notably, the GOP controls more states and thus gets to engage in this practice to a significantly greater degree.) Still, when you cancel everything out, the final difference should only add up to a few dozen seats, out of 435 in the House of Representatives. Right?

That seems hardly enough reason to put it at the top of our political Worries List.

But this superficial numbers game -- balancing seven extra seats for the Texas GOP vs six for California Democrats -- only serves to conceal and distract from a core fact ... that nearly all U.S, Congressional districts -- along with state assembly and senate seats -- have been gerrymandered in one direction or another.

Indeed, there are other effects of gerrymandering that go far beyond the total numbers game or a slight left-or-right shift among the jostling parties on Capitol Hill. These far-worse side effects add up to both a disenfranchisement of the average American voter and a steady rise in uncompromising radicalism, not only in Washington but all across America.

The worst effects of gerrymandering do not cancel out. They multiply. They exponentiate. Indeed, these trends may be among the most deeply pernicious and dangerous to threaten the Republic in recent memory.


[image from Roanoke Free Press]

Hidden Goals of Gerrymandering: Protect Politicians from Fickle Voters

There are other effects of gerrymandering that go far beyond a slight left-or-right shift among the jostling parties on Capitol Hill. Effects that add up to both a disenfranchisement of the average American voter and a steady rise in uncompromising radicalism, not only in Washington but all across America.

I have put forward a proposition that gerrymandering is not only about one party trying to squeeze a few more representatives for its party's congressional delegation, to compensate for the other party's similar grab in a state next door. There are other purposes and goals that go much farther and have more debilitating effects upon democracy.

One of these has been the aim of creating as many safe districts as possible. Not only for the majority party in a state, but also for members of the minority party! In effect, the practice creates job security for professional politicians, at the expense of competitive elections all across the United States.

How does this work? Suppose you are a Democratic assemblyman in Florida, or a Republican in California. You may rail against twisted district boundaries that the hated majority drew in your state -- boundaries that reduce your party's share of the Congressional delegation below what would be fair, if delegates were divided proportional to votes statewide.

Still, despite your protests, there's a palpable silver lining: You also benefit from those boundaries!

Take, for example, Florida. In order to craft a maximum number of safe districts for their party, members of the state assembly's Republican Caucus had to cull out lots of neighborhoods that are loyal to the opposition, bunching them together wherever possible, into a few districts where they will make up Democratic Party super-majorities. The essence of gerrymandering is to ensure a lot of districts where the empowered party will get a reliable 55% majority. The best way to do this is by arranging for 70% or greater majorities in the few districts that were left to the other side!

(Illustration: no incumbent Republican congressman is safer than one from a gerrymandered GOP district in California.)

View this from the point of view of an incumbent Representative of a state's minority or disempowered party. You may feel a bit peeved at gerrymandering -- at one level -- knowing that your party was cheated out of a seat or two. But then, you also benefit from the practice! You get to run for re-election in a district that has been sculpted to ensure that it will be safe for you forever. So long as you aren't caught in a toweringly stupid scandal, your re-election is assured.2

In order to get a clearer picture of what has happened, step back from partisanship for a minute. Abandon the insipid left-right-political-axis, and try to look at this whole arrangement from a completely different perspective.

Let's view gerrymandering as the natural behavior of a professional guild.

Like those old-time trade guilds in history... or what we still see in many modern professions, from doctors and lawyers to teachers, cops and CEOs. Yes, members of a profession compete with each other. But how often have we also seen them close ranks, protecting the common interests of all brothers and sisters in their craft? All members of their profession.

Sound far-fetched? Look, we're human beings. History shows that this temptation will always arise. I'm not saying this always happens callously, conspiratorially, or even consciously! (Most of the time.) But it clearly does happen, and then rationalizations follow, justifying why the guild-protection is best for everybody.

(This fits into a larger theme -- the coming of an "Age of Amateurs" -- that I talk about elsewhere.)

As for gerrymandering, try to see all this from the viewpoint of a politician -- a state senator or assemblywoman, or US Congressperson.

You and your comrades -- of either party -- share many concerns that run much deeper than conflicts over policy and ideology. You know each other well, and so do your families, not only from debates and committees but also countless social occasions.

Your common experiences matter. For example, all of you have faced the capricious voters -- those fickle folks back home -- who must constantly be appeased and soothed and bribed with heaps of pork or favors. Especially for US Representatives, the bi-annual rhythm of perpetually running for re-election can be both wearing and wearying, a grind of fund-raisers, baby kissing, flattery and heartburn on a campaign trail that seems to resume almost as soon as it ends.

Is it any wonder if -- at some deeper level -- you and your colleagues may gravitate toward an easier path? A consensus approach to making life smoother for all of you?

What if nearly all of the districts in a state, from Assembly to US Congress, could be made "safe" for the incumbents? Protecting most guild members from their true worst enemies... the infinitely mercurial and unpredictable voters, who might kick them out at any time, over anything from war to whim?

Anyway, once the districts are safe, all those campaign contributions can be used for "other things."

Let me close this portion with two items that support the notion of a tacit (perhaps subconscious) agreement among members of the professional political guild.

First -- take a recent example where the genteel arrangement failed. Some of you may recall in August 2003 when Democratic state senators in Texas made a public stink over an attempted coup-by-gerrymandering. Republicans in the Texas Senate voted to fine 11 fugitive Democrats up to $5,000 a day each, forcing them to return from New Mexico to make a quorum, so the Senate could redraw the state's congressional districts from 17 Democrat vs 15 Republican seats to likely 22 Republican vs 10 Democrat, in the next election.

This boundary re-drawing took gerrymandering to wholly new levels of contorted absurdity, in such a sudden and dramatic shift that some of the protestors expressed a sense of personal betrayal, because their GOP colleagues had broken unwritten agreements.3 The sheer scale of the attempted seat-grab would ruin many of their own safe districts and threaten them with personal political extinction -- dirty pool and a double-cross that broke tacit professional and guild courtesy!

A second closing point for this section -- out of 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, only a couple of dozen are considered "open" or truly competitive in Campaign 2006, with both Democrat and Republican starting even, ready to be judged primarily on the basis of policies, politics and personality.

What more proof is needed than that single fact?

Next... but wait -- It only gets worse!

1 An aside about the prospect (if Democrats win control over House or Senate) of sudden assertiveness by Congressional oversight committees: Should even a sincere conservative call this prospect of divided government a bad thing? Certainly not an honest conservative who watched with concern the unambiguous and overwhelming increase in secrecy that has spread like a shroud, since the Bush administration took office. Can any student of human nature feel comfortable, knowing that so many cronies (even your side's cronies) are making so many deals in the dark? Even if many of these deals are legal, should they not also be visible? Or have we become so entrenched in Culture War partisanship that each of us thinks light should only shine one-way? A war of competing searchbeams or light sabers, stabbing left or right, but never illuminating us all?

Those in power rationalize this surge-tide of cryptic concealment in the name of national security. But honestly, ask yourselves this question. Does the threat posed by Al Qaeda justify more secrecy than our society endured during the Cold War, when our opponent was the vast, sophisticated and evil Soviet Empire? Over the long run, secrecy must become a core social and political issue. No matter where you stand along the spectra of belief about large or small government, about the role of market forces or taxation or the proper use of military power, don't we all know that shadows tempt the honest and lure the corrupt?

Looking back on the rhetorical success of Gingrich in '94, here's one trick the Democrats might try, if they wanted a startling jiu jitsu move. What if they stunned the nation by publicly adopting half of the planks in Gingrich's "Contract With America"? Not the partisan half, those "planks" that justified a loony/selfish -- and disproved -- theory that looting the treasury will help balance budgets. But the other half. The planks that offer air and light, openness and accountability. Those were the parts that citizens voted for in 1994. And we are still waiting for those portions of the Contract to be fulfilled. return to where you left off

2 It can happen, of course, when that arrogant sense of invulnerability breeds towering foolishness. This year, in my own "super-safe" GOP district, scandal-plagued Representative, Randy "Duke" Cunningham withdrew from a re-election campaign that had been an easy "given." He subsequently resigned his seat after being convicted for taking bribes. In such a loyal district, this only shows that his scandal-wreaking behavior was really, really stupid. return to where you left off

3 As of February 2006, the issue of the Texas redistricting appears set to appear before the United States Supreme Court. I can only hope that some of the aspects of gerrymandering that are raised in this paper will be presented, and that the honorable justices will rule according to what is best for the nation, not what is good for the party that several justices appear to be deeply committed to. return to where you left off