23 October 2004

debasing political databases

The Democratic Audit of Australia describes how political parties use databases in Australia to entrench themselves in power.

Paradoxically, because political parties are private organisations they are exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests which can only be made to government or quasi government organisations. Political parties can log information about voters without their consent, yet they cannot be made to disclose what information has in fact been logged. Clearly this state of affairs violates core principles on which our representative democracy prides itself.

Political party databases challenge effective representative democracy in Australia in two very important ways: by entrenching incumbency advantage and violating voter privacy. The resources used for databases largely derive from parliamentary entitlements. Staff to operate the systems, telephones to acquire voter information for database entry, and postage allowances to distribute targeted literature, are all examples of the advantage given to the incumbent government and/or local member in operating political databases. Compulsory registration to vote coupled with compulsory AEC handover of voter information to political parties is also a violation of individual voters’ privacy. Political party databases storing voter information are excluded from privacy laws which prohibit the retention of such information by private organisations other than political parties. However they are not subject to freedom of information rules either. Until this situation is remedied, political databases will continue to present a threat to key values of the Australian political system.

The situation in the US is worse, far worse, than in Australia because the state legislatures write the electoral boundaries for the US congress, because they use bipartisan rather than nonpartisan redistribution machinery for state legislatures, because they do not have compulsory voting, because different localities within the same electorate use different voting methods and because their databases are more advanced than Australian parties have yet managed. Nevertheless, Australians should look at the this with alarm, especially as control of parliament gives control of the executive as well. If the US is where this is going then the future looks grim.

Whatever Happened to Competitive Elections?
Nearly 80 percent of all state legislative seats are up for election around the country this year. On paper, legislative politics look as close as they could possibly be. In 2002, Republicans pulled ahead of Democrats in the total number of seats held nationally for the first time in half a century, but by the narrowest of margins - only about five dozen, out of 7,400 total across the 50 states. This year, there are 23 legislative chambers where a switch of three seats or fewer would change the party that holds the majority.

Looking at the country district by district, however, the reality is that true competition exists in only a tiny fraction of places. Even where political strength is closely balanced in the aggregate, the vast majority of individual districts are lopsidedly drawn in favor of one party or the other, engendering no real contest at the polls.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are all battleground states in presidential voting, but they are not battlegrounds in the contest for legislative power. Republicans control them; Democrats haven't a prayer of gaining a majority in any of the chambers in those states. The redrawing of the lines that followed the 2000 Census is the primary culprit.

The ability to create the desired political effect increases every decade with advances in technology, making it easier for legislators and advocacy groups to target partisan precincts and predict their likely voting behavior for years to come. "Dummymanders" - sociologist Bernard Grofman's term for overly greedy gerrymanders that backfire - have become increasingly rare as sophistication about redistricting grows.

Good redistricting software and powerful databases were available during the 1990s - and partisan gerrymanders certainly took place well before the dawn of the computer age - but this time around, mapmakers benefited from a technological advance that at first glance seems trivial: high-quality color printing. The subtly shaded maps that were possible in the latest redistricting round allowed legislative staff to cycle quickly through dozens of permutations until their legislative bosses were perfectly satisfied and the gerrymanders were airtight. One more traditional element of uncertainty was thereby removed.

The new gerrymandering has political significance that goes far beyond the fall campaign. To an increasing extent, it governs the relations between the two parties when the legislature is in session. "You have more and more non-competitive and very liberal or very conservative districts where the only threat comes in a party primary," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor. "Therefore, there is simply less centrism, less moderation and less encouragement for legislators to compromise, just as we've seen in Congress."

Florida is electing a state legislature this year. The same article reports:

How lopsided? Of 22 contests for the state Senate, only six feature candidates from each of the two major parties, and just 34 of the 120 House races will have two-party competition. Even where there is nominal competition, it doesn’t amount to much. Two years ago, the average margin of victory in both House and Senate races was 21 percent. Incredibly, the winning margins were, on average, even higher in open districts, showing more clearly than anything how much the districts themselves favor one party’s chances.

We do not want to become Florida. before we congratulate ourselves on how much better our election machinery is, we should think about the postal vote system. The parties, not the electoral commission, administer postal votes. That should change and the electoral act should be amended to provide competitiveness as a new criterion for redistributions.

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