Redistricting: Silencing Voters?

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I have little sympathy for one line of argument currently being advanced [hat tip: SCOTUSblog] against the Texas redistricting that the Supreme Court is currently considering. This argument takes it to be an unconstitutional maneuver because it silences voters. It gives those who vote Democratic less voice by lumping them in with a larger group that turns out to be more Republican-leaning. Mark Veasey, in the above-linked article, complains that his district, which is majority black and majority Democratic, was moved to a district that is largely white and largely Republican. He wants his district back so that all the people in the district that happen to be inclined to vote Democratic won't be drowned out by those who vote the other way.

I grew up in RI. Voting Republican in RI in most elections is equivalent to not voting. I now live in a city in NY, where it's much the same. Most of the state of NY is red. If you look at the county map, you'd think it's a red state. I'd love for New York City to join northern New Jersey and Philadelphia as some new state that will always vote blue, so that the rest of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York can have their votes counted for a change. If every single voter in New York outside New York City voted one way, I'm pretty sure it would have no effect if everyone in the city voted the other way. Maybe that's wrong. I'm not checking populations. But if you add in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester I think it's clearly going to be true. That means the collective total of the rest of the state has no vote, effectively. And this isn't just pointing out that lots of people live in New York City and posing a potential issue if there were going to be a political split between the city and everyone else. There is such a split. To use Veasey's language, the political views and values of residents in most of New York are remarkably different from those who live in the the cities and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Under the current plan, our voting strength has been destroyed and our voices silenced.

Some would argue, and Veasey does, that it's different when it comes to a racial minority. How? Voting considerations directed toward minorities are for the purpose of restoring a balance, toward bringing minorities who had been denied the vote to a place where they have as much right to vote as others, toward vote-counting that treats each black vote as important as any vote from anyone else. Well, these problems occur for largely white populations, so not being allowed to have a vote in the same way that certain largely white populations don't have their votes counting doesn't mean that we haven't achieved equality in voting. It means we have indeed achieved it. So welcome to the club. Your votes now count enough that political machinations and arbitary lines will affect you too. They've been affecting me all my life, and they've been affecting white voters for long before I've been around. That they affect black voters who live in communities that tend to vote one way but are part of a region that tends to vote another way just means black voters have arrived at the same place white voters have been for a long time. Maybe there are problems with redistricting, and maybe there are issues unrelated to race that have a bearing on this, but I just can't see how this argument can even get started without revising every voting district so that it reflects voting blocs much more exactly. Even then those who are the minority within their district will be silenced, but even without that problem I very much doubt this is what Veasey wants to propose.

8 Comments

I saw someone once propose a radical solution to this sort of problem, namely returning district size to the original number of constituents per representative as we had in the first congress. This would mean that districts would be of a size where the constituents would actually expect to know their representative and vice versa.

The problems with such a proposal are merely technical, but I could picture a lot of benefits, not the least of which would be that individual representatives would be quite a but less powerful.

The biggest problem I see with that is that there wouldn't be enough room in the Capitol Building for them to be present for votes and discussion, and it would make debates endless if everyone had an opportunity to speak.

But this doesn't solve the problem anyway, because it occurs in the Senate, in governor and presidential races (especially with the electoral college), and so on. At best it would remove the problem in U.S. House races.

If you conceive of "the problem" as simply one of representation, then it provides that. You would share a representative with fewer other folks and it would be much more likely that your small community, however you define it, would have a vote.

Of course the "merely" technical problems would keep this idea from ever being implemented, and they might be insoluable problems. But perhaps that leads us to the question of whether a nation the size of the US is actually workable at all as a democracy, which was an issue also raised by the article I mentioned (I think it was in National Review about 4 years ago or so). Perhaps democracy only CAN function with a smaller number of people.

Just thinking about things (imagining) in terms of how different politics would be with much smaller units leads me to think that there really isn't any meaningful sort of democracy in the US.

You'd be represented in the U.S. House of Representatives, yes, provided that you agree with the bulk of those who vote in your community. I think there are related problems that aren't solved by this, and I'm not sure they're any less important.

I think it's important to raise the question of whether we should think ourselves as a democracy at all. I don't think we should. We're a representative republic, and the representatives represent large enough people that the ordinary individual is completely disenfranchised by standard democratic concepts of disenfranchisement. Those who have those concepts and think we need to overcome the ways we disenfranchise people with our system don't realize how radical their revisions would need to be. They make it sound as if it's a problem with one community or something. That's what I was really objecting to in the post.

I don't think we should have that attitude at all. A representative republic is really all we can hope for with a government of a nation this size. I'm not sure absolute democracy can work even with smaller groups. Congregational churches that have to have the whole congregation vote on what copy machine to buy just waste so much time. There's a reason for representative government. The representatives can then evaluate things that we don't have time to evaluate, and they can make the decisions as they see best. We have to do some work to make sure we're holding them accountable, but there's a reason why we shouldn't be doing all their work for them, and a true democracy would make everyone do all that.

Fully agreed on the illusion of democracy.

I'm not sure how you think it is possible to "hold them accountable" though. At least within something resembling our current politics. Why not just call our system oligarchy? That strikes me as the most accurate term for what we actually have. Any sort of political system is "representative" in some way or other. I guess the only real question is that of whether the system acts on the good. This is particularly problematic in our society, though, since we imagine that there IS no common good, but rather we assume that the good will somehow come out of the balance between various interests and forces.

BTW, are you familiar with Jay Rosen's blog? He hs done some terrific stuff on the nature of political journalsim. I think you'd enjoy going through some of his archived entries. Jay teaches at Columbia and was something of a protege of Neil Postman.

If someone does something that the majority of the electorate in the district gets mad enough about, there's no chance of reelection. This can happen on the large scale with people like President Carter or the first President Bush, or it can happen on the smaller scale with people like Tom Foley or Gary Condit. That's what I mean by accountability. There's at least some of that. I don't think it always happens. Assuming Tom DeLay is guilty of what he's charged with, he may deserve not to be reelected, but his district seems to want him there anyway. But that doesn't mean there's no accountability. If enough of them didn't want him there, they'd vote him out.

I don't think I know about Jay Rosen. I'll have to take a look.

mmm it's cool! thanks.

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