Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Gerrymandering versus democracy

There is a moral and political principle at stake in every redistricting battle -- namely, participative democracy. Will people's votes actually matter?

How many times have you heard someone (usually conservatives) refer to the "undemocratic judicial branch" making decisions that amount to legislation? The idea is that actual legislation ought to be written and debated by democratically elected representatives of the people. I think this is a good principle, although it seems that many of those who use it to attack "judicial activism" are really just attacking judicial decisions that they happen not to like.

Step back from the judicial branch of government, and look at the legislative, especially the House of Representatives. In the House, as this article in The Gadflyer points out, there is no real election to be contested in more than 90 percent of cases. As a result, our "representatives" are really not elected at all. They may have been elected once, but their continued hold on power is due to gerrymandering.

My thesis is that because of the extent of gerrymandering, the House of Representatives is literally not an elected body. They are unelected, every bit as much as judges are unelected. And, unlike judges, these people literally are making legislation.

Let me try to put just a little bit of conceptual rigor behind this thesis.

Representative democracy, in order to be democratic, requires that representatives receive the approval of the voters. If there is no way to remove a representative from power, then that representative's power is no longer democratically controlled. We have, instead, a form of dictatorship.

Let's imagine a prototype dictator. Let's call him "Dic" (short for Dictator).

Imagine that Dic was democratically elected once, long ago. But elections have now been outlawed. Dic is still a dictator, right?

Now imagine that there are "elections" every so often, but that in those elections, people who would vote against Dic are systematically denied the opportunity to vote. Not everybody is denied the vote, just enough people to make sure that Dic will be "re-elected." The votes are a sham. Dic is still a dictator, right?

Yes, Dic is a dictator.

Frighteningly enough, that is precisely what we have in this country with respect to the House of Representatives, right now. People who might be expected to vote against Dic are carefully peeled out of Dic's district, so their votes don't count against Dic. (They count for a different Dic, in a different district.) Not everyone who is anti-Dic will be removed from Dic's district, of course -- just enough people to make sure that Dic will be "re-elected."

Thanks to gerrymandering, the people's votes literally do not count. The House of Representatives is selected, not elected. The people doing the gerrymandering are in charge.

Of course, the House has hundreds of Dics, not just one, and they all can be expected to vote against each other, most of the time. It seems strange to call them "dictators" when there are so many of them and they disagree with each other. But individually, even if we don't want to call them "dictators," we need to remember that none of these people is democratically elected.

We need a good word to describe these people. They're not dictators, exactly. But they're certainly not elected. What are they? We need a nice, punchy tag for them. (I do sort of like "House of Dictators," as a start. But I’m sure there's something better out there.)

In any case, I think this is something that democrats (both big-D and small-d) should jump on. Until gerrymandering is outlawed, across the board, we should start referring to the "undemocratïc House of Representatives," "taxation without representation," and so on. And the next time you hear a Republican mentioning the "undemocratic judicial branch," you might want to mention the "undemocratic House of Representatives."

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