16 October 2003

The Soviet Republic of Texas

YOU MIGHT THINK America's rigged system of congressional elections couldn't get much worse. Self-serving redistricting schemes nationwide already have left an overwhelming number of seats in the House of Representatives so uncompetitive that election results are practically as preordained as in the old Soviet Union. In the last election, for example, 98 percent of incumbents were reelected, and the average winning candidate got more than 70 percent of the vote. More candidates ran without any major-party opposition than won by a margin of less than 20 percent. Yet even given this record, the just-completed Texas congressional redistricting plan represents a new low.

The plan grabbed headlines as a consequence of the flight by Democrats -- twice -- from the state to prevent its adoption. The Democrats, whose only hope, being in the minority in both houses, was to prevent a quorum, eventually gave in; the legislature has adopted the plan. It's abhorrent on two counts. Texas Republicans, egged on by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, violated a longstanding tradition by redrawing the map in the middle of a census cycle. Their new rule seems to be, why wait 10 years if you can cram something down your opponents' throats today? And their plan is designed to wipe out moderate and white Democrats from the Texas congressional delegation. We don't know whether the plan violates the Voting Rights Act or will survive legal challenge. What is clear, however, is that it will aggravate the triumph of extremes in Washington while further sovietizing America's already-fixed electoral game.

I have long believed we should elect our House of Representatives from multi-member districts. the Australian Senate actually reflects popular opinion better than the House because the use of multimember districts means that fewer votes are wasted on losing candidates.

Once upon a time, (1975) Fred Daly, then special minister of state, drew up a redistribution for the House by flooding his living room floor with cut up street maps bearing his notes of polling booth results. The Senate rejected that distribution and we now use boundaries drawn by the Electoral Commission. The independent distribution, controversial in 1975, is now part of the consensus on how to govern Australia.

The US Centre for Voting Democracy released Monopoly Politics 2002 before the last US congressional elections:

CVD's model of projecting House winners based only on past federal election results and the senior of incumbents had a 99.9% accuracy over the past 3 elections. Out of more than 900 projections over the last 3 elections cycles based, the model made only one incorrect projection. We have applied the model to the 2002 elections and report our findings in a detailed report. Using data available as as November 6, we report on the accuracy of our projections.

Fred Daly did not have a computer. The development of redistricting software makes it extremely easy to create electorates with equal numbers of voters and massive majorities in favour of the incumbent. Consider California, for example. According to the CVD:

Using modern mapping software and redistricting techniques like packing and cracking, a political party in control of redistricting can end up with an undeserved artificial majority or an exaggerated, over-represented majority that allows them to pursue policies lacking support from the majority of voters.

The Electoral Commission insulates us from this kind of rorting, while the consensus between the two major parties continues. If that ever breaks down we will end up in the mess they have in the US. The only permanent guarantee is to elect the House in the same way as the Tasmanian House of Assembly or the ACT Legislative Assembly.

No comments: