Last weekend I saw the documentary “Gerrymandering” at the Tribeca film festival. It was interesting, boring as hell, too long and a little confusing. It reminded me of a paper I could have written; the filmmaker brought up too many points without really explaining any of them thoroughly. The most clear point of the film was that gerrymandering is harmful to the democratic process because incumbent politicians draw the district lines to which they are elected. Some politicians finagle district lines by as little as one block in order to exclude a challenger from voting for himself.
The documentary addressed the issue of why redistricting is necessary (e.g. why aren’t districts just defined graphically according to population density). To this point, the documentary drew discussed racial gerrymandering, “The drawing of districts to create opportunity for minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice” which is based on census data – and actually should not be called gerrymandering according to the definition on the movie’s homepage. It is important, alleged the film, that neighborhoods dominated by a particular race (not ethnicity) are represented accordingly by their state legislators. The documentary illustrates the point as such:
1. Each district must be equal in population
2. There must be an equal opportunity for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice
So, every ten years, each state is forced to redraw district lines to account for both adjustments in the size of their overall congressional delegation, and variance in the populations of their already-drawn districts.
Maybe this is why the odd check-box choices on census under the race question are what they are… But I’m not sure that it makes them any better. I wholeheartedly agree that minorities should have a voice in choosing their legislators- but wouldn’t socioeconomic concerns be more important? Socioeconomic distinctions are generally more indicative of shared experience. Something about this leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it is the fact that a legislature defined by race seems undemocratic- I think that everyone should be fairly represented, but for the most part I don’t see how the dictates of the census race question can accurately account for racial distinctions that are relevant to this effect. If neighborhoods are defined by a particular ethnic group, wouldn’t this be unnecessary? If neighborhoods are not defined by race, isn’t that a good thing? and wouldn’t it be regressive to evaluate racial information in drawing the lines? Especially if it would require crossing socioeconomic groups who are likely to have the most shared needs from their legislators. I think I just have trouble wrapping my head around these sorts of definitions, based the negative track record of anything that seeks to define people based on racial and ethnic identity.