Voting choices restricted by politicians’ deals

Micah Flores

What is the meaning of a vote if the outcome of an election has been predetermined?

It is this question that is not being brought up enough in this winner-takes-all, highly partisan world of gerrymandered voter districts.

At its core, gerrymandering is a highly political process that elected officials would like to keep as their own dirty little secret. In Los Angeles, for example, district lines are drawn to discourage competition between members of Congress. As incumbents stew year after year in their mostly democratic districts, republicans do the same in their mostly affluent white districts. And come re-election time, no matter how qualified the competition, incumbents take comfort in knowing their hand picked voters will re-elect them.

Physically occurring – every 10 years — after the census, gerrymandering is based on the division of regional populations. Divisions become more complex when party registration and ethnicity are thrown into the mix. Such variables serve as political weapons for politicians, and can either siphon or stymie opponents’ political influence.

The origin of gerrymandering stems from the original gerrymander. In order to influence the outcome of his party’s election, former governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry popularized the practice in 1812 when he first carved out a district’s boundaries. A rough outline of the district resembled a salamander.

Nearly 200 years later in California – arguably the most culturally diverse geographical location on earth – gerrymandering continues to flourish. These days the process is more commonly referred to as redistricting. And with 53 congressional districts shaped throughout the state, California’s districts are designed to ensure the desired outcome.

According to California’s Legislative Scoreboard on recent elections, occupational security for political incumbents is quite safe. Stability is especially prevalent for California’s congressional delegates. Since the 2000 election – just after districts were drawn – not one congressman lost his or her incumbency. And due to rising population trends, the Democrats gained an additional seat in 2002.

The 2004 election was especially stagnant – not one of California’s 173 congressional, senate and assembly seats changed hands.

The Rothenberg Report is an independent newsletter that reports on U.S. House and Senate contests.

“Gerrymandering is commonly used as a dirty word,” said Nathan Gonzales, the publication’s political editor. “For those in charge it’s called redistricting.”

As a non-partisan analyst, Gonzales gave insight into the predictable nature of California congressional elections.

“Redistricting the way it is today cuts down on the competitive races,” he said. “In many districts voters do not have a choice. Incumbents do all the benefiting, and national parties are the winners. They are able to keep the number of competitive seats minimal.”

Gonzales said the only way to eliminate politically gerrymandered districts is to enact initiatives that would shift the responsibility to non-partisan commissions. Iowa, Arizona and New Jersey are currently the only states in the union to utilize such a commission. Referring to California’s chance to do just that in 2004 with Proposition 77, he said, “It’s easier to defeat a proposition than to get one passed.”

Backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Proposition 77 would have given the responsibility of redistricting to three retired non-partisan judges. The proposition failed by a majority of 60 percent.

“People don’t believe in the system but their skepticism does not allow them to vote for change ? it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Gonzales said.

Ethan Jones works as a consultant for the California State Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting. As an expert on committee election law and legislative proposals for redistricting, Jones said the critical consensus has been to “oversimplify” the lack of seats changing hands.

Jones then differentiated between the act of redistricting and political gerrymandering.

He emphasized redistricting as simply the re-drawing of district boundaries every 10 years in order to reflect population changes. Jones also said factors in redistricting include economics, geography and ethnicity.

“You want to identify as many common interests as you can,” he said in reference to the calculated grouping of like-minded individuals within communities. “If communities are not split up, then someone can represent their needs accordingly.”

As for gerrymandering, “It’s not illegal, per se ? it has sort have been the cost of the practice,” he said, citing a recent Voting Rights Act violation in the 2004 election in Texas as an example. “They (Republican lawmakers) went out and drew new lines without census info in the middle of the decade.”

Jones said the unproportional “packing” and “diluting” of certain races – mainly blacks and Latinos – in specific districts sometimes ensures a political advantage. In reference to packing, he said the purpose of gerrymandering is to concentrate opposition votes into a few districts in order to gain more seats in the majority of surrounding districts.

Since redistricting based on racial analysis of neighborhoods is forbidden, an example of successful packing would be to disguise it as party affiliation – which is allowed. A democratic district could be easily designed by simply crafting the district in and around ethnic neighborhoods. While it’s not always the case, non-whites and the poor traditionally vote democratic.

Diluting, on the other hand, is meant to diffuse minority strength across multiple districts. Referring to the more common diluting practice often associated with odd-shaped districts, Jones said, “political influence can be diminished by splitting up certain populations into all the districts.”

This process entails splitting up and dumping parts of ethnic areas into neighboring – mostly white – districts. Dilution pollutes the democratic vote and turns a region solidly Republican.

Nevertheless, Jones said the blatant use of race as a means of diminishing the other party’s relevance should be kept at bay by the Voting Rights Act. The act is designed to keep electoral issues of race in check.

Ned Wigglesworth of California Common Cause, a non-partisan, non-profit citizens group, does not have as much faith in the current redistricting system as Jones.

“The objectives of Democrats and Republicans is to protect their butts and the seats they go in,” he said.

Wigglesworth cited California’s incumbent sweep of 2004 as evidence, and said come Nov. 7, as many as six legislative races might show signs of competition.

Wigglesworth said gerrymandering has been a problem in America for at least three or four decades, and cited the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case of Baker v. Carr as fundamentally altering the nature of political representation. Up until the case was first argued in 1961, Republican plaintiff Charles Baker of Tennessee successfully argued the need for districts to be re-drawn every ten years, according to updated federal census data.

Christopher Shortell, CSUN associate professor of political science, said gerrymandering simply delays change by eliminating competitive races and diluting the voices of an opponent’s party. He characterized 2006 as a highly unusual election year, and said it might be on the scale of 1994 when Democrats lost the majority of the house.

“What happened to the Democrats in 1994 might happen to the Republicans this year,” he said.

“It requires greater anger and frustration to rid incumbents,” he added in reference to recent scandals involving the GOP. He cited former Republican incumbent congressmen like Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Mark Foley and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as faces of the Republican party that may cause voters to distance themselves from anything GOP-related.

ortell estimated Democrats might gain as many as 20 seats nationwide. Such a feat would give them the boost they need to take control of the House of Representatives.

He also said issues like the war in Iraq compound voter frustration and might ultimately lead Republicans to either stay home or vote democratic on Nov. 7.

Relating to students who might share the frustrations of many Americans, Shortell said students should visit the polls.

“Vote if you’re unhappy with the current state of things,” he said. “If you’re really upset, go volunteer for the party you favor.”

Wigglesworth would agree. Despite the state of gerrymandered districts, he dismissed the notion of a vote that does not count.

“(Voting) matters,” he said. “Current laws benefit people, especially college students, who go to the polls.”