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Fair and Balanced Districts?

by Richard M. Mathews --


In a November 25 editorial ("Prop. 11's point"), the Los Angeles Times stated, "California is supposed to end up with a lot more of those evenly balanced districts." The Times does not understand of the process of gerrymandering. Balanced districts must not be our goal.

The Times did point to the close State Senate District 19 race as an example of mudslinging in balanced districts. The problems of balanced districts, however, go much deeper.

There is no evidence that balanced districts have ever led to the election of more moderate representatives. Balanced districts do not produce moderates, and District 19 is just one of many examples. There are many close races still undecided around the country in which the candidates are nowhere near having the same positions.

The District 19 race split 49.8% to 50.2%. That means that just short of 50% of the voters are disappointed with the result. About half of the people in the district will have a representative who will not represent them, who will not fight for what they believe in, and who will disregard their ideas. A close race may be more interesting and help sell more newspapers, but it does not help the People.

Districts should be built out of like-minded people. If a candidate wins 80% of the general election vote, that is a good sign that the vast majority of the people in the district will have their interests fairly represented in Sacramento. Does it really matter if the primary election is the more interesting battle?

The belief in balanced districts misconstrues the process of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering for political gain is not accomplished by creating lopsided districts. It is accomplished by creating nearly balanced districts.

For example, California has significantly more Democrats than Republicans. If someone wanted to gerrymander in favor of Democrats, they could create every single district with 55% Democrats and 45% Republicans. The 10% margin would be enough to keep almost every district safe, and the Democrats would hold almost every seat, far surpassing their actual proportion of the population. Not a single imbalanced district is needed.

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On the other hand, if you want to gerrymander in favor of Republicans despite the Democratic majority, you shape as many districts as possible with 55% Republicans and 45% Democrats. The remainder of the Democrats get lumped into a small number of heavily Democratic districts. That gives a small number of safe seats to Democrats, but it leaves the majority of seats for the minority party.

Similarly, gerrymandering for racial discrimination has been accomplished by ensuring that no district has a substantial proportion of minority voters. African Americans, Latinos, and others have seen their votes diluted by having them spread across many districts. All of the districts have a racial balance, which causes the minority to be denied their fair representation.

Gerrymandering thus works by diluting the minority's vote and thus making them come up just a bit short in many districts. It works by forcing large numbers of the opposition into districts in which their views are not properly represented by those who get elected.

If every district were made out of nothing but like-minded people, every group would have representation corresponding to their proportion of the general population. That would much better serve the interests of all of the people.

Central city voters should find themselves in districts with other central cities, even if that means gerrymandering the district to connect to nearby cities. Rural voters should find themselves in districts with other rural voters, even if it means gerrymandering should be used to wind the district around various cities. Democrats together with other Democrats. Republicans together with other Republicans. Every group would be fully empowered and fairly represented.

We do not know yet how well Proposition 11 will work. It puts more power in the hands of Republicans and independents than their share of the population, but whether they use that power for our benefit or our harm is yet to be seen. It puts the power in the hands of novices, who we must hope have the wisdom to see through the mirage created by "fair" and balanced districts.


Richard M. Mathews

Richard M. Mathews is an Elected Member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee and Vice President of the North Valley Democratic Club. He is an Executive Board Member of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, which presented him with the 2008 Truman Award for Outstanding Volunteer of the Year.