15 March 2011

The True Costs of Gerrymandering

Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL 3rd) is a Jacksonville based Congresswoman who has represented parts of Alachua, Clay, Duval, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, and Volusia counties since 1993.  This gerrymandered district was drawn to ensure minority representation in Florida by linking demographic pockets in Jacksonville, Gainesville, the outskirts of Orlando down to Sanford.  The district has one instance where the boundaries look as wide as a highway.

Aside from being a ten term incumbent, Rep. Corrine Brown is in a safe D+18 district.  Yet her campaign coffers are virtually barren with a balance of $417.  According to Brown's  2010 expenditure report, she spent $35,977 in hotel bills,  $34,192 for catering, $32,242 for paid media, $24,266 for media consulting, $35,549 for fund raising consultants and $54,730 of direct mail publicity. The fund raising, media consulting and direct mail costs seem like payola and expenses for the insider campaign machinery.  Some might interpret the catering and hospitality costs as living large while on the campaign hustings.  But spending so much on “incidental” expenses on the campaign trail points to the perils of having an extremely gerrymandered district.

While it is unlikely to need to travel from stem to stern in the 3rd Congressional district in a day, it spans over 142 miles by surface roads.  The district is in the major media markets of Orlando and Jacksonville along with Gainesville. This safe seat can be quite a costly district to defend.  More importantly, it serves as a significant structural barrier for campaign challengers.  The latter consequence of gerrymandering explains why Rep. Corrine Brown is fighting to challenge Amendment 6.

Florida voters decided during the 2010 general elections to enact a couple of measures to try to remove politics from the redistricting process.  The newly drawn districts required legislative districts be compact, reasonable, and follow city, county, and geographic boundaries. The initiatives were designed to  prevent the district's shapes from being drawn to favor a particular race, language, incumbent politician, or party affiliation.  Amendment 5 applied to state legislative boundaries and Amendment 6 applied to Florida’s federal congressional redistricting.

Critics of the redistricting amendments observed that organizations tied to George Soros had contributed $7 Million to support passage of the amendments.   Amendment opponents opined that the initiatives will result in court cases that will eventually result in judges drawing the districts.  If it helps orient a novice to which way the wind blows, former Florida Gov. “Good Time” Charlie Crist favored passage of the ballot initiatives.  In the end, an electorate which was weary of partisan politics and grotesque gerrymandering passed both propositions by a resounding  63% to 37% margin.

Rep. Corrine Brown is challenging Amendment 6 in court, joined in spirit by former Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL 25th) who had represented a geographically large district that seemed carved out to be R +5.  Rep. Brown is going against her party and unions in arguing that Amendment 6's impetus to draw compact districts that do not favor political parties would not protect the “minority access” districts, of which she derives great benefit.

Other states are trying to implement non-partisan redistricting with questionable results.  Virginia’s Independent Commission on Redistricting presented a couple of purely partisan proposals drawn by ivory tower academics which palpably punished Republicans in a Commonwealth that has been strongly trending red in the last few elections.   California also just passed a ballot initiative to steer redistricting to consider a “community of interests” to ensure effective and fair representation.

Fortunately, the so called “bipartisan” Redistricting Commission’s report was only advisory.  Ballot initiatives will lead to extended lawfare.  It seems likely that unelected “Men In Black” will eventually draw the districts.

If one thinks that the Judicial branch can create legislative districts in an innocuous and efficient manner should consider the case of Texas.  After the 1990 census, Texas gained three seats in Congress.  But litigation prevented the permanent application of the Census results when redistricting.  The eventual answer was to draw the districts using the old 1980 census data, in which Democrats had signficantly more proportional strength than they had in the 1990s. So the Democrats gained more power through lawfare and such incumbents had substantial advantages against challengers for the next few election cycles.

Republicans had been chastened by judicial interference in implementing the Voting Rights Act when redistricting, so the Grand Old Party embraced cynically embraced minority access districts by applying a packing strategy.  Effectively, the GOP endorsed creating minority districts that had solid minority majorities creating safe districts to create more competitive districts elsewhere, thereby improving their lot elsewhere.  Packing is nothing new, but it was taken to a whole new level of precision through the power of computers in applied statistical demographics.  That can lead to districts that are co-joined by narrow Interstate highways.

Ever since the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the body politic has been minimizing the role of state legislators in our application of Federalism.  The Judicial Branch stepped in to enforce Voting Rights Act and prevent any potential disenfranchisement.  The solution to has been to get pre-clearance of any changes through the federal government, which can be as banal as switching polling place locations to approval of redistricting.  

The advent of the Tea Party has awakened the great silent majority who want good governance and ideally less partisanship when spending our tax dollars.  Such non-political types tend to recoil at the messiness of politics and governing.

 Even though politics is my favorite contact sport, it is understandable that most people do not want to dwell on the minutia and recoil from adversarial debate.  It calls to mind the quote attributed to Otto von Bismark “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”  But buying your meat prepackaged in a grocery store does not mean that it is not butchered.

 As messy as it is, it is preferable to have elected officials accountable for their actions than to have political solutions imposed by the Judiciary or supposed non-partisan Commissions who apply their skewed predilections covertly or without consequence.

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