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Gerrymandering reminds citizens of the dark side of politics

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 5:27 p.m.

Ronald Regan once said, "In 1984, there were 367 elections contested by both parties. In the races, Republicans won half a million more votes than the Democrats. The Democratic Party won 31 more seats."

"As a consequence of the gerrymandering in congressional districts, people aren't being illogical when they stay at home. Because the result is a foregone conclusion," said Barack Obama.

"This form of voter discrimination must end," said George H.W. Bush.

Some have called it the most effective way of manipulating elections outside of outright fraud. Those folks may be right, and the documentary film "Gerrymandering" (written, produced and directed by Jeff Reichert) is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves keen to the political process.

While many have heard the term "gerrymandering" on the news every now and then, no real substance has been devoted to the practice. Political power in America is based on population. This explains why states like California and Texas have lots of representation in Washington.

Because of constant population changes, the government deems it necessary to conduct a census every year. Those numbers determine the process of reapportionment and determine how many congressional seats each state receives.

Once that is done, the state must redraw the boundaries of the district to account for the new population. This tends to happen in many democratic countries, but the difference with America is that here, the politicians participate in the redistricting process directly--no matter if it's for state assembly, Senate, city council or a school district.

Reichert's film touches on that particular aspect, which helps keep incumbents in power and lower the chances of a different political voice seeing the light of day in a specific district. "Gerrymandering" shows districts redrawn at will, making the absurd reality. Districts shaped like earmuffs, telephones, hair wigs, etc., were and are still the norm.

One of those citizens taking a stand against the practice is Kathay Feng, the executive director of California Common Cause. She has worked on Prop 11 in California, which would take the power of redistricting out of the politicians hands and give it to an independent commission consisting of citizens who would be held accountable. Her story, which is featured prominently in the film, had a rather interesting beginning.

"In 2001, I had a particularly pleasant experience with an assembly member [in San Francisco] who, during the redistricting process, called me up," said Feng.

"She said, 'Kathay, you're not gonna put another effin' Asian in my district.' In San Francisco, by the way, one in three people are of some type of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, so you can't move a block without putting another 'effin'' Asian in her district.

"It was that type of arrogance and, frankly, racism that drove me to ask the question, 'Does this make sense for the incumbents to be drawing lines?'"

Another featured story in "Gerrymandering" has local relevance. It involved current New York State Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries and his race in 2000 against Roger Green for assemblyman in District 57.