Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More Gerrymandering! (This Time It's the Legislature)

Apparently taking their lead from a Missoulian column by Will Deschamps,  Republicans at a hearing  of the Districting and Apportionment Commission  in Missoula last night went all out attacking the Community redistricting plan proposed by Commissioners Joe Lamson and Pat Smith. That plan, they said, was gerrymandered! Of dubious constitutionality!  Of all things, political! And, worst of all, Democrat!

Now it’s true that Joe and Pat are the Democratic members of the Commission, and they did prepare and submit the Community plan. And it’s also true that the Republican members didn’t submit a plan of their own.  All they did is ask the legislative staff to prepare plans based on particular basic principles, such as, for example, making districts either urban or rural, but not a mix of the two. So now they are congratulating themselves on their apolitical objectivity and the purity of their intentions, and casting Joe and Pat as devious political operators.

Don’t be fooled.  Republicans aren’t stupid. They certainly were able to anticipate that when they asked the staff to prepare a plan that would cram voters into a few dense city districts, those voters would be most of the Democrats, leaving the non-urban districts theirs for the taking.  

As long as it breaks their way, Republicans have no objection to gerrymandering; they just don’t want you to know it.  But in an ironic moment last night, Deschamps, who is chairman of  the Montana Republican Party, let the cat out of the bag. Noting that 40 percent of Missoula County voters are Republican, he concluded that the county should be districted in such a way that 40 percent of our legislative delegation should be Republican as well.   Let’s set aside the vexing problem of how that dubious principle could be applied in small counties with a single legislator.  What Deschamps was asking for was to draw district lines in the county so that 4 (out of 10) districts have solid Republican majorities. And what do you call it when you draw district lines to assure that you have solid majorities? Gerrymandering!

Redistricting is an inherently political process. That’s why the Legislature made sure that Republicans and Democrats were equally represented on the Commission. They are there to protect political interests – their own and ultimately those of their constituents. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But it’s true that we don’t want gerrymandering. On the contrary: we want as many districts as possible to be competitive.  Competition fosters better, more informative campaigns, with stronger candidates. It means a more engaged and enfranchised electorate. And it makes legislators more responsive to voters. But let’s not judge which plan most avoids gerrymandering and most promotes competition with a lot a finger pointing about how the plans were prepared or who asked for them. The proof is in the pudding. The Commission should look closely at how each plan will actually affect the competitiveness of Montana elections, and that, along with all the other criteria it has to juggle, should help it decide which plan to endorse.


  1. Rep Barrett:

    I attended last night's forum, and have to admit, I LOVED hearing the various concerns/support/opposition/emotionalism/and... frankly, some ramblings. How very cool that this forum was SRO (Standing Room Only). Such interest in the process is a wonderful thing!

    But, I have to admit, I tired (very early on) of hearing the term "gerrymandering"...

    In my view, this redistricting process is about our obligation to Montanans to properly and deliberately (without political consideration) reassess apportionment according to certain criteria. And, the criteria has been clearly defined.

    Because you are my Legislative Representative, I wanted to share with you the comments I forwarded to the Commission earlier today. Please consider the following in the spirit it is offered: As a constituent's opinion, seriously deliberated, under impassioned thought. And so, it reads:

    "TO '':

    "Thank you, all, for the extraordinary effort and thought that you and your staff members have been putting into this important project.

    "I attended last night’s Public Input meeting held at the University of Montana, and in respect for your time and because of the ever-growing line of individuals wishing to speak, I instead opted to submit my comments by eMail.

    "As a resident of the City of Missoula, of course my primary concern is within my own community. As I studied the mandatory districting criteria, and reviewed the five currently available draft maps, it became clear that the map that best fits the key criteria of compact and contiguous districts is the Urban Rural Plan. This plan also respects the discretionary criteria of following geographic boundaries while keeping communities of interest intact.

    "When considering that legislative representatives are elected to, well, represent, I believe it is vitally important that the establishment of these districts take into account the value of the commonality of interests of the constituents within.

    "The plan which least adheres to the above mentioned criteria is the Communities plan. This plan blatantly ignores the discretionary criteria of keeping communities of interest intact by purposely forcing urban centers into oddly shaped and meandering districts that also would serve suburban and rural constituents (each, naturally, with considerably different needs and concerns). In addition, it fails to satisfy the mandatory criteria of compact and contiguous by creating what appears to be a junction of 7 districts or so in the heart of the city of Missoula, creating bizarre geographic and community tracts. This plan contradicts the intention of the mandatory criteria by packing population-stable, largely property-owning outlying rural areas with urban, more transient/mobile voters.

    "Thank you for taking the time to consider all of the varying opinions surrounding legislative districting and apportionment. I’m looking forward to learning more of your progress in the coming months.

    Respectfully, Denise Moore"

    Dick, I reach out to you as my elected legislative representative, and am hopeful that you will receive my concerns in the positive and cooperative spirit that they are offered.

    Thank you for your service, and thank you for taking the time to read this (rather long - apologies!) missive.

    My sincere regards,
    Denise Moore

    1. Thank you, Denise. I don't agree with your characterization of the various plans under consideration, but the point of my post was that regardless of the themes that one emphasizes in drafting any particular plan, it will end up including a larger or smaller number of competitive districts. And its usually possible, when a theme is selected, to predict what the impact on competitiveness is going to be and whether or it will favor one party or the other. I am urging the Commission to assess and compare the impact of all the plans, including the Communities plan, on competitiveness, by which I mean the number of districts around the state that won't end up as automatic shoo-ins for either party. I think the Communities plan will fare pretty well in that comparison, but we'll never know until we ask. That seems fair to me. Dick

  2. Rep. Barrett,

    Perhaps you can share the DPQ or the NCEC DPI figures for the Missouls County map so the commission can (as you suggest) evaluate your party's plan and whether it is competitive for the county. Otherwise, I only can guess that it isn't competitive since there has been no seats flipped in the past eight years and your party always controls nine out of the ten districts totally contained within the county. Feel free to email those figures and I will assure you that I will analyze how competitive the Democrat map is for your area. Thanks in advance,


    1. Thanks for the comment, Jon. The job of the Commission is to design a plan for the entire state. I think that at least one of the desirable features of any plan is that, other things equal, it makes as many districts as possible competitive. But it's obvious that no rationally designed plan can make every district in every part of the state competitive. True, Republicans have a hard time competing for seats in Missoula county, but that's because there aren't very many Republican voters here. On the other hand, Democrats have a hard time competing for seats in Ravalli or Valley or any of a number of other counties. And again it's because there aren't many Democrats living in those places. I think it's a mistake to conclude that just because one party or another has a hard time flipping seats in a particular area, that area has been gerrymandered. And I don't think it would be particularly meaningful for you to analyze how competitive "the Democratic map is for [my] area." If you want to analyze something, it should be how competitive all the maps are for the entire state. But that's a little much to ask you to do; that's why I'm urging the Commission to do it for you (and everybody else). Dick