Debate Left, 8/21

Gerrypandering

By Ben Tomkins

Redistricting a state like Ohio is a fairly complex task, particularly when radical changes are necessitated by the loss of two representatives.  When I started to think of all the variables that must be taken into account, I nearly shot myself in the head.  Trying to break a state like Ohio into equal population swaths without giving away undue political advantage would seem doomed to err either by congruity or ideology.

Obviously, the line between gerrymandering and the realities of population and geography is blurry.  A tweak here or there is a subtle way to gain advantage in an election, and Ohio’s current system absolutely makes this a realistic possibility. A five-person board composed of two political parties is virtually guaranteed to fracture on party lines.  Seriously, there’s a reason I don’t let my dog fill his own food bowl.  I love Mr. Wallace, but Mr. Wallace will get unbelievably plump and thick without some checks and balances in place.

In light of the newest district map, the League of Women voters have spearheaded a campaign to reform the way in which Ohio’s districts are negotiated.  I believe their 12-person proposal – with four Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters apiece – will create a much more equitable situation and one that will reduce gerrymandering.

Of the four criteria they offer for a well-balanced district, compactness and competitiveness are by far the two most interesting.  Compactness is the evidence of gerrymandering and competitiveness, or lack thereof, is the result.

Consider the following experiment:

A hypothetical square state consists of two districts split vertically down its geographical center.  On the left, 99 percent of the population is red, on the right, 99 percent blue, and their populations are equal.  As such, these uncompetitive, compact districts will consistently produce one red and one blue representative, and in this regard it will accurately reflect the political constitution of the state as a whole.

Gerrymandering as it pertains to the 2012 Ohio district map is exclusively of this type.  Ohio’s 1st, 3rd, 9th, 11th, 13th and 16th districts are all “packed” around major cities to reduce competition in highly contestable areas.  Large cities in Ohio are generally more liberal and densely populated, and are therefore an obvious starting point for district finagling.  For instance, Columbus is no longer split in thirds, and instead has been reduced to a splotch in the middle of the state to remove competition for surrounding conservative districts if you’re a Republican, or to consolidate a liberal stronghold if you’re a Democrat.  District 16 is particularly egregious, with its Florida-esque testicle dangling off to encompass Canton.  Lake Erie now looks like a whale owing to District 9′s disconnected piscine tail into Cleveland despite the more obvious contiguous choice of encroaching into conservative districts in the south.

This kind of thing strikes the mind as bad, but is it?  Rather than a large percentage of a district being unrepresented by a candidate with whom they disagree, similarly-minded demographics are now virtually guaranteed a representative who will push their interests, and do so to a greater extent.  It appears equitable and reflective of the population as a whole.  Would this not be a fair, preferable state of affairs?

To answer this question, let’s explore the result if we split our hypothetical state in half horizontally.  Now we have produced two highly competitive districts, in which the outcome will likely be determined by subtle shifts in opinions on either side.  In any given election, it could easily have two candidates of one color.  Obviously the outcome of the election does not necessarily reflect the political demographics of the state, but rather the changing attitudes and ideas of the population as a whole.

I’m sure you’ve come to my point already. Elections under competitive circumstances reflect the quality of a politician’s ideas, not strict ideological demographics.  Without competition of ideas, democracy becomes functionally pointless and bereft of all social progress.  Of course, politicians will always err on the side of a sure thing, but as citizens we should demand more of them intellectually and politically for the price of our vote.

Nothing is more retarding of progress and patronizing to the process than district packing, because it creates a situation where individuals can wander through election cycles without ever having to hear or identify with the ideas of the other side.  Take homosexuality, for instance.  I grew up in a smallish town that is largely conservative.  Homosexuality was never talked about and, except for one gay hairdresser, thoroughly unknown and not understood.  Now how can one expect to have a conversation about gay marriage if one is never exposed to the issues of homosexuality?

Well, if you arrange a more competitive district, members of this community will have to deal with it every election cycle.  Gay people and gay issues will tangibly affect their lives, and they will either be forced to think critically about their argument or be publicly exposed for their ignorance and callousness.  Integration works every time, and as we’ve seen with gay culture, the sacred cows of unchallenged belief slowly crumble under the weight of self-evident realities.

Competition is the difference between unspoken -isms and intolerable bigotry.  I highly support the proposal of the League of Women Voters and, insofar as it creates competitive districts, I believe it can only have a positive effect on Ohio politics.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue.

Reach Ben Tompkins at BenTompkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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