Gerrymandering explores a topic almost as old as American politics itself: the drawing and redrawing of geographical boundaries to benefit a certain political party or group, usually resulting in haphazardly shaped districts, whose constituents have little in common with one another — other than most of them vote correctly.
The term “gerrymander” is a portmanteau of “salamander” and “Gerry.” In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redistricted his State to benefit the Democratic-Republican Party, at the expense of the Federalists. One particularly contorted district in Essex County was thought to resemble a salamander, and the term was coined.
Directed by Jeff Reichert and featuring such well-known politicos as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Howard Dean, the documentary presents a compelling case for reforming the way in which redistricting is done in the United States. Under the current system, after every census, each State evaluates population shifts within its borders and (supposedly) redraws electoral boundaries to better reflect the make-up of the citizenry. Said redrawing will remain in effect for a decade, until the next census. But the problem isn’t the concept; it’s who’s doing the redistricting: the State political parties.
If one party has absolute control at the State level, it can mean electoral disaster for the opposing party and make it impossible for any meaningful change in power. Conversely, but just as insidious, both major political parties will often come together and form “sweetheart deals,” in which districts are designed to protect incumbents, so everyone is safe in his or her seat. A great example of this is California.
In 2010, Republicans had a net increase of 63 seats in the House of Representatives, their largest gain since 1938. None of those seats was from California, despite the fact that the State voted almost 7 percent more Republican than it did in 2008. Nationally, Americans voted 9 percent more for the GOP than in the previous House elections. (It is important to note, however, that many people are willing to admit they dislike politics-as-usual but as poll after poll shows, most of those same people would happily vote their guy or gal back into office.)
This takes us to the documentary’s main case study in redistricting reform: the successful passage of California’s Proposition 11, which created a Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw districts at the State level, instead of having the State Legislature do so. (Proposition 20, passed two years later, extended that power to U.S. House seats, as well.) Despite the fact that Gerrymandering is an openly pro-redistricting reform film, its coverage of Prop 11 is fair, and the opposing side is presented alongside the movement’s supporters.
Sometimes, attempts at reform have unintentionally hilarious results, such as California’s new “top two” primary system, approved by voters in June 2011, which pits the top two vote winners in a nonpartisan primary against each other in a runoff election. Normally, the major political parties hold their own primaries, and the winners of those contests face off in the general election. In California’s very Democratic 31st House district, the four Democrats split the vote, so instead, voters will choose between two Republicans on Election Day. Neither candidate is particularly liberal, and it was Democrats who supported a ban on write-in candidates. So, a traditionally Left-leaning district will have no choice but to send a conservative Republican to Congress come November.
Gerrymandering can be done with pinpoint accuracy, used as a weapon against any threat to an incumbent. The film notes the case of Hakeem Jeffries, who mounted an impressive but failed campaign against Brooklyn-based New York Assemblyman Roger Green. The Democratic Party establishment responded by redrawing the district so that Jeffries’ house and neighbours were no longer in Green’s territory. As Jeffries puts it, “Brooklyn politics can be pretty rough, but that move was gangsta.”
One of the best things about the film is its aesthetic appeal. The graphics team should be commended for its colourful maps, which illustrate the gerrymandering process, without making the visuals too busy. Even the little touches are well-done. For example, whenever a Congressman is interviewed, an image of his (often hideously shaped) district appears next to his name in the chyron.
The film also covers the partisan Republican redistricting in Texas, initiated by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Governor Rick Perry. Democratic lawmakers responded to the move by fleeing to Oklahoma, thus preventing a quorum and making a vote on the new districts impossible. Ultimately, the Democrats came home, and the redistricting went forth. The Supreme Court eventually undid some of this redrawing, ruling in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry that at least one district, the 23rd, violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The film also explores the often-overlooked early political career of President Barack Obama. When Obama initially ran for the Illinois State Senate, he was unable to defeat an entrenched incumbent in a heavily black area. So, his backers rearranged the districts so he could run in a white, wealthy, liberal area of Chicago, and he won. I’ll leave the political ironies of that bit of history up to you.
One extreme (and funny) example of redistricting occurred in Anamosa, Iowa. A man won a city council seat with just two votes. The district was redrawn to include the Anamosa State Penitentiary, and since nonvoting citizens are counted in the census and thus affect redistricting, the councilman was able to pad his constituency artificially and guarantee himself a safe seat.
I also thoroughly nerded out at the discussion of new redistricting computer technology. In fact, the redistricting game cited in the film is one I played a while ago, before I even knew this film existed. Yes, dear readers, your humble blogger actually finds redistricting simulations fun. Judge away.
My complaints about the film are few but still nagging. Perhaps the most frustrating thing, for me, was many interviewees’ obsession with “democracy,” that great political ideal which has gone from a noble concept to, at best, a throwaway buzzword or, at worst, an ideological fetish. Certainly, the U.S. House is the most democratic Federal institution in the Republic, but that does not change the fact that the United States is just that: a republic. We are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy.
Indeed, it took the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 to see Americans have the ability to vote for Senators directly. (This is why the House was traditionally called “The People’s House”; the amendment essentially rendered the Senate a super-House.) It is certainly appropriate to lament the threat gerrymandering poses to the democratic process, but it is important to do so within the context of our republican government. The unnecessary musings of a Harvard professor about the what evil, elite, white men the Founders were was also unwelcome.
Another flaw of the film is that there is wistful discussion of how other countries’ political processes are not nearly so broken as ours, but there is virtually no analysis of how those countries’ systems work. There is a lot of telling but very little showing, which is a shame, because it sticks out as a glaring missed opportunity for the film to examine working political models off of which the United States could reform its own electoral system.
At the end of the documentary, those who wish to get involved in electoral reform are encouraged to go to EndGerrymandering.com, which acts as a hub for many electoral reform groups. It is a direct plea on the part of the filmmakers, but it is an effective one. After watching the myriad ways in which the political process is abused to benefit both major political parties, the frustrated viewer may well be compelled to upend the system, to speak truth to power, to fight The Man. (I believe that’s the rhetoric those smelly “99 Percent” chaps seem to champion, is it not?)
If democracy, in its purest sense, really is one man, one vote, then so too should reforming the system be possible when enough individuals, banding together as an Army of Davids, work together to effect change. Props 11 and 20 are just one State’s attempt to fix our broken system, and they may well be duds. But at least they’re something, and frankly, anything is better than what we have in place now.