News


Off Deadline: Can democracy survive self-serving, high-tech 'gerrymandering'?

 

When Joe Simitian ran for state Senate in 2004 he discovered that his district "resembled an old-fashioned telephone handset," as he described it at the time.

One end encompassed Midpeninsula communities, including his home base of Palo Alto, where he was deeply rooted and well-known.


Jay Thorwaldson
The other end was far south, covering the Santa Cruz region, where he was virtually unknown to voters and had to hustle hard to learn the region's history and issues. The two lumps were linked by a narrow strip.

Welcome to "gerrymandering." That is a term coined in the 1800s to describe a widespread technique used primarily to exclude certain types of voters from a political district. It can be local, regional, state-level or national. It can be a form of ethnic or racial discrimination (illegal) or as a way to protect the jobs of incumbent politicians (not illegal, according to a recent court ruling) or a political party. (Wikipedia has an excellent entry on history, types, effects and remedies for gerrymandering.)

Simitian had to work extra hard to get himself known at the south end of his district. Later termed out, he successfully ran for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, succeeding Liz Kniss, who now serves on the Palo Alto City Council, again. This political musical-chairs is not gerrymandering but a result of the term-limit rule enacted years back.

But Simitian's experience goes much deeper than his Senate district. When he was elected to the state Assembly in 2000, following terms on the Palo Alto Board of Education and the City Council, he took office "just in time for reapportionment and redistricting" to surface according to an every-10-year requirement.

New district maps were being drawn in his first year in office. There was "a certain sense of urgency" due to a primary election coming up in June 2002, he recalled in a telephone interview. To push things along, someone handed out maps of the new districts in the Assembly one day. All regular business came to a halt while each member studied the boundaries of his or her own district.

The system then was that the Assembly was responsible for redistricting the Assembly and the state Board of Equalization, and the state Senate was responsible for itself and Congressional district boundaries.

Simitian was "hoping to run for state Senate, Byron Sher's old seat" in the 11th State Senate District, so he had an interest in both houses of the state Legislature.

Yet it was "hard to make the case that San Carlos and Capitola were part of the same community of interest," he observed.

The result of the 2002 boundaries was to "preserve the status quo," with a healthy majority for Democrats.

"There is no more political act than establishing district boundaries," Simitian said. Even when done fairly, "by its nature there are winners and losers, sometimes between and sometimes within parties."

Yet when such boundaries are manipulated for personal, political or other purpose -- as in the classic definition of gerrymandering -- they begin to subvert the very nature of democracy, to betray the concept that voting citizens should decide on a so-called (possibly mythical) "level playing field."

Witnessing such manipulations in his first Assembly term, "I became an advocate for redistricting reform," Simitian recalled.

Gerrymandering has a major inherent effect that subverts the democratic process, he said: "Instead of voters selecting elected officials, it allows officials to pick their own voters. There's an inherent conflict in that exercise."

Gerrymandering in California has come under significant control by way of a 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission established by voters in 2008 and active in 2011. Its purpose is to assure fair redistricting, along lines of logical boundaries along "communities of interest."

Such a desire for compact, fairly balanced districts is not new. Long-ago Menlo Park Mayor Ira Bonde about a half-century ago proposed that Midpeninsula communities (with strong economic and social interconnections) form a new, contiguous, compact county and voting district. That idea was ridiculed by other local politicians and dubbed "Bonde County."

Yet the logic of such compact districts has hung on, despite self-interest and political pressures. Other states have or are considering such commissions. Yet resistance has come from local sources and both major political parties, such as the regional reapportionment-manipulation efforts by Democrats John and Phil Burton decades back or more recently by Republican strategist Karl Rove's reported efforts to solidify Republican power once and for all.

There can be a numbers game, such as when a couple of inner-city districts are created to lump certain groups (racial, ethnic or political) to pull them out of surrounding districts so the result would be a half-dozen solid-conservative suburban districts, outnumbering the couple of inner-city or sure-liberal districts. Such "cracking and packing" is common in racially motivated redistricting.

A more subtle but even more dangerous-to-democracy effect is to undermine voter confidence that their individual votes count. This deadly political virus contributes to low election turnouts and decisions that benefit special interests more than any broad public interest.

Such gerrymandering "can only exacerbate the cynicism of voters. That is a rigged system!" Simitian said, echoing current political rhetoric.

Yet, for some reason, none dare call such voter manipulation treason, or even anti-democratic.

In 2010, Republicans at the national level focused intently on statehouses and state legislatures, while Democrats essentially were asleep at the switch, Simitian observed.

Gerrymandering and its effects are still rampant nationally. And technology is making it more effective, hence worse, in many ways. There's even a computer program called Maptitude that enables creation of incredibly precise boundaries, with virtually block-by-block precision for inclusion/exclusion of types of voters.

This should be a key issue debated at all levels during our political seasons, right up there with global warming, sustaining a strong economy with good jobs, and raising a well-educated, involved next generation -- not who's the biggest liar, cell-phone abuser or profiteer.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 16, 2016 at 11:20 am

I believe we have a problem in the congressional districts not being aligned with the county boundaries. We are being asked to vote on county specific taxes and issues yet the congressional districts overlap the county lines.
San Jose is the largest city in Santa Clara county. If they are voting on an issue then the whole county should participate if it has a tax impact - think highways and Caltrain / Bart. This comes up in the taxes for the VTA projects where the tax assessed value by county does not get applied equally to the whole county.


15 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 16, 2016 at 11:50 am

What democracy are you talking about surviving? America's democracy has been stillborn,
and our republic, the representative democracy that used to function fairly well is now faltering
on the brink of falling into oligarchic tyranny with the mass regimentation of people with no
regard for anything but the profits of those on top. The vast majority of citizens are basically
managed like livestock. I cannot think of a single Founder of this country who I think would not
be aghast and terminally dismayed at what has occurred in the last 100 years, and that includes
even the ones who had contempt for the average people and believes the landed and well-educated
should run everything. Our richest people do not show the integrity or intelligence that they use
to 200 years ago, they are more like the corrupt royalty who live in their insulated fantasy worlds
where those dependent on them tell them everything they want to hear.


10 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 16, 2016 at 11:55 am

Oh, and if you think that is exaggeration see:
Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy
-- The explosive account of how Republican legislators and political
-- operatives fundamentally rigged our American democracy through redistricting.


1 person likes this
Posted by Steven
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

[Post removed.]


15 people like this
Posted by Silent Coup
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Silent Coup is a registered user.

California is basically a one party system with a Democratic super majority.

Federally, the 1st, 2nd and 4th amendments are under constant attack and the court system appears to vote along party lines on every issue. Max income tax rates have risen from 7% to 39.6% (down from a peak of 77%) yet we will still have over a $20 trillion national debt.

Executive orders are issued on everything from immigration amnesty to what bathrooms people must use. Non-treaty treaties are made without Senate approval and secret payments over $1.7 billion are broken into a mix of cash and electronic payments in order to hide the money laundering transfers to Iran.

The latest wiki leaks traumche of DNC emails shows spreadsheets keeping track of which government position was given out for how much of a donation. Ambassadorships and FCC posts averaged about $1 million.

HRC and Lois Lerner were not even taken to a grand jury despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating rampant corruption in the State Department, IRS, FBI and Attorney General Office. Across the board, top ranking officials refuse to use proper email accounts for official business, keep proper records or provide them when requested under the freedom of information act.

I would say our democracy is already struggling to survive.





2 people like this
Posted by Andy
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2016 at 8:39 pm

So long as politicians paychecks depend on the shape of their district, gerrymandering is a keystone of the American political process, unfortunately. Since gerrymandering probably won't end as a result of any action in Sacramento, I wonder if there will ever be a ballot initiative where political districts basically mirror state - county - municipal boundaries as much as possible, and let the chips, and votes, fall where they may.


3 people like this
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2016 at 8:39 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

As noted in the column, the bipartisan commission to control redistricting/gerrymandering was in fact formed by an initiative measure approved by voters in 2008. I would agree with an exclamation point that democracy in America is struggling, the Middle Class is shrinking as the super-rich and very-poor segments grow, that our highways are far too deadly and broad political promises that have no hope of being fulfilled by the Wizards of Oz ("Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!") seeking office and the power such office confers. -jay


7 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2016 at 10:17 am

Slilent Coup,
-- California is basically a one party system with a Democratic super majority.

To say California is Democratic is a bit of a misnomer. Feinstein and Boxer on
all but the most peculiar of social issues were Conservative as they come, or
maybe I should have said Establishment.

Boxer last year tried her best to goad Sanders' supporters towards violence
in Las Vegas with a squad of police there to back her up she was working to
discredit Sanders and maintain the weirdness of the CA and overall Democratic
party which is a party that does not stand up for the people any more.

More often than not in the media we see what used to be Democratic positions
parodied and taken down with fake provocations like people blocking bridges
and protesting for the Palestinians. This is the Democratic party rushing rightward
to fill the gap left by the Republican party which has gone completely off the
rails.

The only reason we are not seeing Republican emails, which is not reported on
at all is that Bush-Cheney administrations deleted their emails, or so they say.


7 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2016 at 10:38 am

Andy,
-- I wonder if there will ever be a ballot initiative where political districts basically mirror state - county - municipal boundaries as much as possible,

One problem is ... what is a really fair way to do redistricting?
I don't know that there is one the way we decide to represent people.
We do it by real estate basically and there are always different types,
groups, classes of people living in any particular area.

What is true is that Republicans have a computer program that will
look at voters and try to optimize boundaries so that districts are
as Republican as possible, or failing that, they pile groups of
Democrats together so they cannot affect other groups nearby and
they are more easily turned Republican.

The questions really is how do you then represent people? Then the
other side is how to solve people's problems with government - that
should have a locational component to it one would think.

The problem is that the locational system is being manipulated to
reduce the political influence of certain groups in order to maintain
all the problems that have been mentioend. Perhaps that is the
place to start working that problem, not trying to get the House of
Representatives system to work in a way it cannot really work in.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2016 at 12:26 pm

"The vast majority of citizens are basically managed like livestock."

Often with the eager consent of the managed (latest example: Trumpistas). That's really what got us into this mess.


4 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2016 at 1:01 pm

-- Often with the eager consent of the managed (latest example: Trumpistas). That's really what got us into this mess.

So, does that mean democracy doesn't work except as some mythological ideal to distract us ... and if so, who's been running the country all this time?

OR, does it justify these mob excesses are bound to happen unless we have such management?

OR, not is not really knowing or having any idea what is really happen the problem that makes people flail and try to find answers to emotional things they have no idea how to even ask the right questions about .. and democracy might yet work?


2 people like this
Posted by Silent Coup
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Silent Coup is a registered user.

The political establishment for both parties is run by the global elites. They have forced globalism, open borders, multi-culturalism and financial regulations that have decimated the middle class over the last 30 years.

Sanders and Trump both reflect a last ditch effort to upend the unfair political class structure.


6 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2016 at 4:02 pm

Silent Coup
-- Sanders and Trump both reflect a last ditch effort to upend the
-- unfair political class structure.

I really don't get it ... unless these voices supporting Trump are
somehow part of a concerted Internet "astrtoturfing" effort.

If you think for a moment Trump is going to change his lifelong
tendencies I don't even know what to say. Maybe definitely not.
Trump might say just what you want to hear, before he turns
around and says the opposite out of the other side of his mouth,
but one thing is for sure, all his networks, contacts, friends and
associates are in what Bernie called the "billionaire class" and
they are all doing the opposite of what you think you perceive.

If I have something wrong, please enlighten me!


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2016 at 5:37 pm

"So, does that mean democracy doesn't work except as some mythological ideal to distract us ... and if so, who's been running the country all this time? etc., etc. "

None of the posed options. All are false choices, and silly ones at that.

"Sanders and Trump both reflect a last ditch effort to upend the unfair political class structure."

Nothing could illustrate my point better than this statement. How many times have I seen it in my lifetime, with different names? The weakness of democracy is too many people are too eager to be fooled by politicians eager to fool them.

H. L. Mencken put it memorably: “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”


4 people like this
Posted by Silent Coup
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2016 at 7:19 pm

Silent Coup is a registered user.

Trump's appeal is actually straightforward.

If one desires the political establishment of both parties to be overturned and our nation vigorously defended, he has consistently and credibly projected his intent to do so.

In addition, if one believes that global trade, unfettered immigration and government over reach have hurt the middle class and only benefited a small group of people, then he has a set of concise policy statements that rationally address those issues.

Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2016 at 3:55 pm

"If one desires the political establishment of both parties to be overturned and our nation vigorously defended, he has consistently and credibly projected his intent to do so."

Of course. Trump said so himself: crime and all of our other woes will just disappear on January 21 2017. Just disappear. And, a bit earlier: I love the poorly educated.

From the man the Party of Trump used to be named for: "You can fool some of the people all of the time... "

That's often often enough.


Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
a resident of another community
on Sep 21, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

"The weakness of democracy is too many people are too eager to be fooled by politicians eager to fool them."

Great line, Curmudgeon! Menckenesque, in fact.

If one looks a bit at some older and more recent history within the past 100 years or so, one sees "strong" leaders ("the man on the white horse!") emerge from extended periods of ineffectual or weak leadership and political stalemate: Napoleon rode his horse out of the chaos of the French Revolution; Mussolini out of the political chaos of Italy with his promise to make the trains run on time; Hitler out of years of humiliating Weimar Republic weakness.

Such conditions, perhaps not unlike today's stalemate in Congress and polarization, kind of make people want to believe that someone has the answers and the will to act. In other words, to be fooled. ;-)> -jay


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

El Camino: Another scheme to increase congestion?
By Douglas Moran | 27 comments | 2,721 views

Salt & Straw Palo Alto to open Nov. 23
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 2,364 views

Trials of My Grandmother
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 1,360 views

Lakes and Larders (part 2)
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,100 views

Can we ever improve our schools?
By Diana Diamond | 5 comments | 272 views