Monday, April 4, 2011

Redistricting, 101

Our two-month-long redistricting saga wound down to a wholly predictable conclusion: a registered Democrat college professor handed the Democrats a victory.

One can only assume that if the Democrats submitted the map that the tiebreaker eventually supported, it will ensure that Democrats remain immune from their failure to secure the electoral support of the majority of voters casting ballots in legislative elections.

Some history. In 1966, confronted with the “one-man-one-vote” mandate from the SCOTUS, New Jersey responded by scrapping its old, county-based system of legislative representation, settling on the 40 district Legislature presently extant. Apparently concerned about partisan gerrymanders of legislative districts – which, of course, DO present a problem, as they enable today’s majority to entrench itself against the desires of future electorates – the Framers settled on the Commission system: each party would appoint five delegates, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would appoint a tiebreaker.

Alas, this elegant theory has not worked out well in practice. Instead of districts drawn by folks (at least theoretically, if often marginally) answerable to the people, we have created a monster, in which one man, answerable to no one, wielding essentially absolute power, and bound by no popularly enacted standards, can impose his whim upon the electorate.

Various theorists and political scientists have their own individual standards which apply to drawing legislative districts. The problem presented by giving one man essentially unbridled power is that his quirky standards shape the political landscape for (at least) a decade. In 1991, the tiebreaker chose an assertedly Republican map, but only Jim Florio's mistaken confusion of his electoral victory for a mandate for hard left policies – including the most massive tax increase in history – produced hefty Republican majorities.  The Dems won seats in every election from 1993 to 1999.

The tie breaker in 2001, perhaps mindful of the consequences of drawing fair districts, corrected that error, creating districts in which one Democratic Assembly Representative routinely secures election with a paltry 20,000 votes, while one of her Republican counterparts receives in excess of 50,000. GOP legislative candidates, collectively, routinely outpoll the Democrats, but the map nonetheless ensures wholly disproportionate Democratic majorities. During Chris Christie’s defeat of Jon Corzine, Republicans picked up precisely one Assembly seat. Not a single Democratic incumbent lost.

Now, although persuasive, none of this demonstrates that the map is wholly unfair. Residents in heavily Democratic districts, often, take their civic responsibility to vote less seriously than do Republicans. Were there a realistic possibility that the local Democratic candidate might actually lose, the local population might actually be motivated to vote. We do not operate under a parliamentary system, and no one can predict what the results of an election held thereunder might be. Alternative histories, or counterfactual hypotheticals, make for interesting discussions, but do not much inform the debate.

Rather, the question is whether a naked partisan gerrymander, such as that imposed on the people of New Jersey in 2001 – the results of which were used as the baseline for this year’s map – smells any better for having been imposed by an allegedly “neutral” third party. Had standard political practices employed in other states applied here, the map would be very different, as the partisan Democratic legislative majorities would have faced the check of a likely gubernatorial veto.

Instead, the Democrats procured essentially what they wanted, because the opinions of the tiebreaker, and not the standards the people themselves might have adopted, produced the map. And there is nothing whatsoever that the people can do about it.

Take just one standard considered by the tiebreaker: “continuity of representation”. For those not familiar with academic speak, that translates as “incumbent protection”. Such was (allegedly) one of the key concerns of the tiebreaker this year. (It actually works out to "Democratic incumbent protection"; many a Republican finds herself in difficulty, as you'd expect with a nakedly partisan map.)

Why? While 120 people care passionately about “incumbent protection”, 9 million folks don’t give a rat’s patoot. Why should the careers of 120 legislators make a tinker’s damn worth of difference? Believe it or not, the state would survive – and, perhaps, prosper – if a significant number of incumbents were obliged to find another line of work.

(Note: the process also demonstrates the foolishness of the federal Voting Rights Act. Thereunder, special attention must be paid to ensure that folks with the right last names or the right skin pigmentation secure a proportionate share of legislative seats. This group-think mentality is profoundly anti-American and profoundly offensive, as it implies (a) the people will vote along group lines, and (b) that only someone who shares the electorate’s ethnicity can provide adequate representation. Both of those concepts are poisonous, and should be forthwith consigned to the ash heap of history.)

Whatever one thinks of the merits of the tiebreaker’s factors, one thing is clear: the people NEVER endorsed those factors. Instead of the people, or their representatives, making the determination, one unelected man, answerable to no one, wields the power to impose his essentially unrestrained whim by diktat. Such is simply not the hallmark of a representative system; in a republic, the people make the rules.

This is not to argue that the standards the GOP committee proposed ought to govern (although they were more responsive to actual votes). Instead, the people ought to set the standards by which districts are drawn, essentially removing all discretion from folks who – however well intentioned (or disinterested) they might believe themselves to be – might be sore tempted to shape the state in accordance with their own political predilections.

The only truly fair way to reapportion is to preclude as many opportunities for political hanky panky as humanly possible. So, create a simple metric: equality of population and compactness. Essentially, start in Montague and keep adding towns until one reaches the magic number, then move on, coming as close to a square as circumstances permit. Only a map in which population numbers are better, and districts more compact, would suffice as a challenge.

Of course, there will still be room for partisanship: do we add this (Republican) Town or this (Democratic) Borough in order to reach parity? But, at least, incumbent protection and “partisan fairness” (whatever that means) would be off the table.

Searching for perfection is a fool’s errand. But having now endured two straight reapportionment cycles in which rank partisanship masquerades as impartiality, it seems appropriate to reconsider the system, and move to one which empowers the people rather than college professors.