You Either Want to Change the System or You Don’t

Tom Perez and Michael Steele

by Brian Cannon

On a recent panel at the Aspen Institute (starting at 51:30), Tom Perez (DNC Chair) and Michael Steele (former RNC Chair) touched on the issue of redistricting reform. Perez said one of the most important things we need to do is engage in redistricting reform. Steele agreed. He also applauded Governor Larry Hogan’s (R-MD) efforts to create a new redistricting system in Maryland. In doing so, Steele made the salient point that Perez and those in the audience should also get behind the Maryland efforts on reform. “You either want to change the system or you don’t.”

Amen. Talking about North Carolina’s need for redistricting reform but leaving out Maryland’s should raise everyone’s suspicions. Steele nailed it, and we should all listen carefully.

This sounds a bit like Governor Jon Inslee (D-WA) remarking that America needs redistricting reform on Pod Save America (at 38:10). He started out so well. Gov. “Stop gerrymandering,” Inslee said. “Start giving people adequate representation in districts.” But then he had to finish with this:  “the key to stop gerrymandering is to elect Democratic governors as soon as we can.”

What?! The idea that this issue is partisan is laughable. It’s about power and whether the people are loud enough to take that power back from the incumbents – whether from Democrats in Maryland, Republicans in North Carolina, or, as in Virginia in 2011, from both parties. No party has a monopoly on virtue here.

As Steele said, governors around the country are pushing for redistricting reform, but the efforts of Republicans Kasich and Hogan are just as worthy as those of Democrats Inslee and McAuliffe. The R or D next to their name doesn’t change a thing.

Michael Steele is right — you’re either for reform or you’re not. Perez is right that the system is so broken that there is no incentive for either side to come to the middle. But you can’t be for reforming that system in North Carolina but not in Maryland. That’s hypocritical. Voters can sense this, too.

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

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13 responses to “You Either Want to Change the System or You Don’t

  1. Good post! Yes.. there are folks on both sides who would be just fine in their side got to set the rules for who voted… and a truly objective organization for reform – points this out – for BOTH sides bad faith behavior!

    there are also people in the middle who just want a fair and scrupulous process that insures that everyone who is eligible to vote -can vote – easily – while insuring that those who are not allowed – don’t.

    We should want both – equally – true reform!

    I’m totally ok with picture ID .. and I’m totally okay with any/all feasible means to determine who should not vote… including the use of E-verify, but I also want to see more compact voting districts and EASY ways for everyone to vote – far easier than now. Mail-in ballots… for anyone that wants them.. without the hoops they have to jump through right now.

    Any group that pursues only one side of this – is not an objective group – they are instead a political group.

    You’d think that ANYONE who truly believes in Democracy would want this to start with but looks at our current maps and election rules that seriously restrict voting – at the same time they also fail to prevent illegal voting… it’s like the worst of both worlds!

    I support OneVirginia2021 … AND… ANY GROUP that aspires to the same principles… they support…

  2. “You either want to change the system or you don’t.”

    I agree.

    Gerrymandering is the institutionalized theft of elections. It’s a direct and intentional assault by political leaders on the most basic rights of their citizens, their right to determine elections by having their votes counted.

    Gerrymandering is no different from illegal aliens voting so as to hijack our political system and to destroy the rights of those who are entitled to vote and thereby hijack the constitutional system on which our republic depends, save only for the obvious fact that Gerrymandering today is a far greater problem than illegals voting, as it is a monstrous and intentional act by political leaders to interfere with the rights of their citizens.

    Its been going on since the founding of our republic. But that is no excuse.

    Why should we have any respect whatsoever for politicians who refuse to fix this problem?

    Why should we harbor nothing but total contempt for politicians in office who actively work to continue, refine and enhance Gerrymandering so as to preserve their own power year after year by actively stealing votes from their own citizens?

    We can blame only ourselves for allowing this theft of elections to be a long term bad habit. One that for far too long has been a national pastime that amounts to an epic crime spree waged in plain sight by politicians against their own country and its people.

    The sad truth is that most of the American people don’t care enough or know enough or want to know enough to insist on their rights by stopping those who abuse them.

  3. I am fine with legislators changing the law to institute redistricting reform. However, having served on a redistricting advisory committee, I’m not sure nonpartisan redistricting is possible. If Virginia were to adopt such a plan, it should contain a way for the legislature to reject a plan as is done is Iowa. First, anything less is unconstitutional. Second, each Party needs a way to stop partisan redistricting in the form of nonpartisan redistricting.

    I am totally opposed to courts creating districts based on a theory that partisan redistricting is unconstitutional. That approach would unconstitutionally allow judges to make political decisions. That totally takes the process away from voters. We can turn against those who represent us in the next election. Not so with judges.

    And finally, once again, both Parties are hypocrites; they oppose Gerrymandering only when they cannot do it.

    • I agree with your comment. There is a lot more subtlety needed to unravel this problem than a blog allows, but the base solution rests with the people.

      Our second President John Adams had more insight into this problem than anyone of his time and our time too. He studied for decades the issue of how to keep in check what then was called the ‘aristocracy’ after he first recognized the problem of its corruption when he served on the Revolutionary War Supply Board. And later when he experienced from abroad the vast corruption at work in America’s government under the articles of Confederation.

      By the early 9th century, in his correspondence Ben. Rush, John Taylor of Caroline, and Thos. Jefferson, Adams had concluded that the problem encompassed a broader segment of the American population than the earlier colonial definition of ‘aristocracy’ allowed. That the elite made up of mercantile and other special interests of elitist of all sorts were the main threat to America’s republican government. What he called The Few now worked against the Many and threatened to overwhelm the one (executive) of government. (Note: in my view Adams missed the concurrent threat posed when the Few ally with the Executive against the Many (the people).)

      Here is a sampling of John Adams comments. For accuracy I have substituted Elite to get at the true meaning of his word Aristocracy:

      In a Dec. 10 1810 letter to Rush:

      Every Government is elite in fact. the despotism of Genghis Kahn was elitist. The government of the most popular French … national assembly was elitist. The most democratic canon in Switzerland was elitist. The most leveling town meeting in New England was elitist. The empire of Napoleon was elitist. The government of Great Britain is elitist. But as they, The Elitists, are always ambitious and avaricious, the rivalries among them split into factions and tear people into pieces. The great secret of liberty is to find the means to limit (the) power of the elitists and control their passions.”

      In July of 1893, John Adams began the long process of educating Thomas Jefferson on the elitist threat to good government:

      “Your elitists are the most difficult to manage of anything in the whole theory and practice of Government. They will not suffer themselves to be governed. They not only exert with all their own subtlety Industry and courage, but they employ Commonality to knock to pieces every Plan and Model that the most honest Architects in Legislation can invent to keep them within bounds. Who are these elites? Who shall judge? Who shall select these choice spirits from the rest of the Congregation? Themselves? Who are they? The Greek Poets (answer was good as any): Nobility in men is worth as much as it is Horses Asses or Rams: but the meanest blooded Puppy in the world, if he gets a little money is as good a man as the rest of them … But Birth and Wealth together have prevailed over Virtue and Talents in all ages. The many will acknowledge on other elites.”

      Later in the Spring of 1914, writing to John Taylor of Caroline, John Adams warned against what he considered the naivete and posturing of Jefferson and his ilk:

      “That all men are born to equal rights is true. Every being has a right to his own, as clear, as moral, as sacred, as any other being has. This is as indubitable as a moral government in the universe. But to reach that all men are born with equal powers and facilities, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people as ever was practiced by … the Brahmins … or the self styled philosophers of the French Revolution.”

      Here some 200 years ago John Adams warns us of the greatest threat that America’s system of government and institutions face today. This is the major problem that infests American institutions, ranging from its system of higher education, to scientific research, to politics, to finance, to large commercial enterprise ,particularly those of national and global scope.

      Gerrymandering is only one of its many manifestations that are tearing apart the health, wealth and happiness of the American people.

      These quote are found in the very find book “John Adam’s Republic” by Richard Ryerson published in late 2016. Andrew, are you listening?

    • I disagree. The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond should have no part in establishing the districts. You say it’s unconstitutional. I assume you refer to the Virginia State Constitution. Fine, amend the state Constitution. As you can see from Arizona’s experience, the legislature can be “cut out” of setting their own districts ….

  4. I would suggest the following three criteria for any redistricting effort that I’ve summarized as 3 “C’s:”
    1. Complete: Each district should consist of only complete localities. No splitting a locality into pieces. This allows for a finite set of outcomes and reduces the propensity for abuse.
    2. Contiguous: Each district should consist of only localities that directly border each other. In the case of areas separated by water, allow only localities that can be directly accessed from one another to be in the same district, e.g. the Eastern Shore could be in the same district as the City of Virginia Beach because of the CBBT, but not the same district as the City of Norfolk without VB.
    3. Compact: Use an algorithm to maximize compactness based on least square distance from the centroid of each locality.

    It’s possible to develop an algorithm that optimizes compactness while maintaining relatively equal population across districts.

  5. yes .. it’s entirely possible to develop algorithms like those advocated by Kosciuszko and put them into a computer program and have it generate a truly non-partisan district.

    do it once.. look at the results.. make tweaks to the algorithm that have no relationship to partisan motives… and re-run it – and do that until it looks like truly compact districts with wholly intact communities of interest.

    You could actually start with Virginia Planning Districts which I’ve never heard anyone accuse of having political driven boundaries…

    the point here – is that we CAN come up with a non-partisan process if we really want to.

    and if we do that – the same supporters of that will totally support stricter voting requirements to assure that only qualified folks actually vote.

    Call it a genuine compromise proposal.. for those who are truly interested in reform.. and lets see who gets on board and who does not…

  6. More on hypocrisy – I hear some of my Democratic friends squawk about Gerrymandering in the Virginia House of Delegates and not the Senate because the former was done by the GOP and the latter done by the Democrats. That’s part of my skepticism that true nonpartisan redistricting is possible.

  7. LG’s example of the VA “planning districts” is wonderful. Yes redistricting can be done sensibly, especially if politics doesn’t seem to be at stake. But we all know, “1 man 1 vote” demands districts that divide existing jurisdictions, sometimes into tiny portions, and once you entrust politicians with making judgment calls about politics and neighborhoods and the factors in an election, you get — well — what we’ve got. And I despair of ever getting common sense out of a bureaucrat, even an agency full of bureaucrats, reporting to politicians.

    • re: “don’t divide”.. and that might make for districts that are not exactly compact but that kind of irregular boundary is okay and can be put in the algorithm.

      to give a bit more background on planning districts:

      ” In 1968, Virginia was divided into planning districts based on the community of interest among its counties, cities and towns. A Planning District Commission is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth chartered under the Regional Cooperation Act by the local governments of each planning district. As such they are a creation of local government encouraged by the state. The Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions helps its members meet their responsibilities to local and state government and coordinates inter-PDC functions.

      There are 21 PDCs in Virginia. They are made up of elected officials and citizens appointed to the Commission by member local governments. The Commission selects an Executive Director responsible for managing daily operations. Commission offices are located generally in a central location for the region as determined by the Commission charter. Meeting schedules vary, and meetings are open to the public. Persons needing additional information are encouraged to contact your local PDC .


      “…to encourage and facilitate local government cooperation and state-local cooperation in addressing on a regional basis problems of greater than local significance. The cooperation resulting from this chapter is intended to facilitate the recognition and analysis of regional opportunities and take account of regional influences in planning and implementing public policies and services.

      The planning district commission shall also promote the orderly and efficient development of the physical, social and economic elements of the district by planning, and encouraging and assisting localities to plan, for the future.”

      I see no partisan political stuff in the words.. and I’m amused.. because probably if we tried to do planning districts today – it WOULD get “political”.

      but clearly if one looks at the planning districts and reads the words that defined their creation – one would be hard pressed to try to make it political.. there just are folks out there that would try.

      • According to the Census Bureau, the 2010 result was around 711,000 constituents per US Congressman, on average. And, the US Supreme Court says you can’t stray far from the average. Now then, how divide up Virginia (and the other States), without dividing jurisdictions, especially in denser areas like NoVa? That is the problem. Fairfax County alone is over 1,100,000 today

        • Isn’t it also beyond US Congress.. the Va Delegates and Senate?

          yes.. the PD is not a perfect analog by a long shot but is does show well how true compact areas with communities of interest can be drawn… without partisan influence and perhaps adopting the current PDs as a start is to way to keep them from from being “gerrymandered” by requiring that re-drawn political districts maintain some relation to historically drawn PDs.

          Most of Virginia has the opposite problem from NOVA – i.e. you’d have to find ways to essentially combine PDs… to get to Congressional size.. though at the VA GA level there might be more logical analogs.

          but my essential point is that PDs.. PROVE that you CAN draw non-partisan boundaries if you really want to concentrate on the fundamental demographics and communities of interest that PDs used.

          Sometimes I think some folks who are opposed to re-drawing gerrymandered districts just don’t want true non-partisan districts..they secretly LIKE the gerrymandered..

          At the end of the day – the CONCEPT of re-jiggering the Congressional Districts per new census – is corrupted by the spectre of WHOEVER is in charge of it – purposely drawing bad districts – to the point where it gets legally challenged then a judge does it.

          this is truly something a computer could do with a basic algorithm stipulating compact districts and communities of interest (harder to define with preciseness but still can be done without partisan influences) .

          The folks that SUPPORT this OUGHT to go ahead and do computer-generated districts and show them to the public and sell the non-partisan re-drawn districts.. that can be done.

  8. How can a state gerrymander for racial reasons and not have other gerrymandered districts? This is especially true in states like Virginia that have large African-American populations.

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