With yet another ‘most important election in years’ almost upon us, political junkies and solid citizens alike are perusing their voter booklets in search of enlightenment. Which candidates and issues are worthy of their support? Meanwhile, a new documentary entitled Gerrymandering — opening this Friday October 15 at the Shattuck Cinemas — suggests that the system is being gamed by career politicians from sea to shining sea. Who woulda thunk it?
Taking its title, of course, from Founding Father Elbridge Gerry (hard ‘G’, please), Gerrymandering focuses on the efforts of Common Cause activist Kathay Feng to remove politicians from the redistricting equation, and uses the 2008 election as a framing device. Feng led the fight for California’s Proposition 11, the latest in a long line of right-wing funded ballot measures intended to take redistricting out of the hands of legislators and place it in the hands of a board of citizens — none of them, presumably, with political axes to grind. Unlike previous efforts, this one narrowly passed — with huge assists from the bottomless wallets of the California Business Roundtable and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
While the film tries to present a balance of opinion from left to right (a carefully edited John Fund of the Wall Street Journal actually comes across as sane here, an accomplishment I would have previously thought impossible) and from pro-electoral reformers to the ‘it may not be a great system, but…’ crowd, Gerrymandering ultimately feels a bit like either a Common Cause fundraiser or a Tea Party-approved polemic. The frightening visage of Governor Ah-nuld hovers relentlessly, appearing with regularity like a pop-up ghoul in a haunted house — and at times the proceedings feel a bit like a secondary school version of “Schoolhouse Rock”.
Gerrymandering also plays the wide-eyed innocent when it suggests that redistricting in other democracies is an affair far removed from the smoke-filled rooms of the United States.
The film refers admiringly to the British system, but any casual student of UK politics knows that the drawing of constituency boundaries is hardly a thing of beauty (e.g., the recent decision to protect Lib Dem Charles Kennedy’s seat from boundary changes). Parliamentary districts frequently have wildly disparate populations (according to a 2007 estimate by the Office of National Statistics, constituency populations in England and Wales ranged from 42,126 in Meirionnydd Nant Conwy to 146,473 in Regent’s Park and North Kensington), which would be both illegal and unimaginable in the United States.
The elephant in the room, of course, is big money and its pernicious effect on the electoral process, but, according to Gerrymandering, it all comes down to lines on a map.
Nonetheless, there’s a decent amount of food for thought here, including a fascinating but all too brief segment on prison population and the effect it has on redistricting. Director Jeff Reichert also convincingly suggests that redistricting shenanigans gave Barack Obama his first step up the political ladder, and interviews with NYU Professor Sam Issacharoff , Harvard Law’s Lani Guinier, and the Brennan Center for Justice’s Justin Levitt are reasonably enlightening.
Clocking in at a brisk 77 minutes, Gerrymandering is not boring — and, if you’re willing to sit through the Governator’s endless bloviating, you might learn something a bit more substantial than the lyrics to “I’m Just a Bill”.