The Political (and Pliable) Line in the Sand

The Original Information Revolution (Click for larger image). Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly.
The dirty little secret of American politics is that lawmakers get to pick the voters before voters pick them! When you vote for your congressperson or state legislator, somebody put you and your neighbors into a political district. Too often this process has been skewed to benefit one party or another, and district boundary lines make sense only from the point of view of career politicians. But all is not lost--the information revolution is transforming our democracy in a way that exposes all the tricks and mysteries of partisan gerrymandering.

The news broke last week that Washington has increased enough in population that we might gain a 10th seat in our delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. I welcome this as good news, but as I see it, get ready for a lot of squabbling over district lines and what the term fair means when new district lines are drawn.

We're in an age of obdurate politics, and I don't think that people will quietly accept political maps that shut them out anymore. Drawing political boundaries is usually the work of backroom operators, but now citizens have powerful technology at their fingertips that promises to keep a check on gerrymandered districts and the kingmakers who draw them. People can and will draw their own maps and compare them to the official ones. Check out these online apps that give citizens the power of knowledge:

The Annenberg Center offers citizens a primer on the ins and outs of the apportionment process. The Redistricting Game lets players draw their own political boundaries in the mythical state of Jefferson. Let your inner gamer geek and political obsessive come together to "experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system."

Redistricting the Nation is the next step for those who relish the power of knowledge regarding reapportionment. Get up to speed with specialized terms like area/convex hull and Schwartzberg, then tell the partisan gerrymandering hacks to stick it up their polsby-popper compact measure!

Washington's own David Bradlee lets you get down to the nitty-gritty with his free app. Using 2000 Census data, I redistricted the congressional district I live in, WA-3. You just click on precincts until you hit the number of constituents needed to fill a district.

Another way to take on a gerrymander is through the Voting Rights Act (VRA). But this only applies to states that are covered by the law. Because of the history of racial discrimination with gerrymandering in many parts of our nation, the courts have imposed districts that guarantee that racial minorities get representation. But now that you've mastered The Redistricting Game and the other online apps, you know it can be challenging to work with various criteria to make what you think are fair political boundaries. The solution the courts have found to these challenges is to look beyond single-member districts and use multimember districts with voting systems that create opportunities for more people to have a voice in government.

I learned of this through the rulings of federal judges who have settled VRA cases with semi-proportional voting systems like limited voting and cumulative voting. This way the majority and minorities, either racial or political, in each district get representation. While we're in the neighborhood, let's look beyond the legal settlements and consider the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a constitutional proportional voting system.

Oh, I can hear some of the groans already! "These voting systems can be complicated." Not so in the case of limited and cumulative voting. Let me remind you what Washington's prospective 10th House seat hinges on: If we have enough population, Congress will put those numbers through a mathematical formula that resembles the party-list voting systems used in most places in the world. We could lose out on the 10th seat due to a fractal number! My column is wonky enough already so I'll spare the details, but do a Web search for Huntington-Hill Apportionment and D'Hondt method and you'll see.

Prominent political bloggers, partisan interests, and anyone who cares about our state capitols and powerful federal government will be watching the redistricting process. An informed citizenry is indeed the bulwark of democracy. With the information revolution, the citizen can now also be the firewall keeping partisan power grabs in check.

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