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Redistricting: something Canada does better

The other day, I caught a bit of an interview with Reince Priebus, the new, clean-cut chairman of the Republican National Committee. Though much of the interview was as expectedly boring as the man himself, I was struck by one casual exchange near the end.

“You Republicans have a lot to be proud of,” said the interviewer, or something along those lines. “You’ve taken control of the House, made great gains in the Senate…”

“And don’t forget state legislatures!” Reince piped in. “Republican control of the state legislatures is going to be critical as the states enter their redistricting seasons this year!”

On this blog, I write a lot (to some, a nauseating amount) about problems with the Canadian system of government, and often contrast the failings of our country’s parliamentary regime with the congressional model of the US, which I believe to be undeniably superior.

Undeniably, but not universally. For all its virtues, the American system is still man-made, and thus flawed in the way any political regime that gives a couple hundred politicians the power to govern 300 million people would inevitably be.

The nakedly partisan and undemocratic American method of crafting legislative districts is easily one of the US system’s ugliest warts, and one of the few cases where Canada has, in fact, come up with something better. For all the iron-fisted partisanship that characterizes Canadian governance, the sort of unapologetic, cruel glee Chairman Priebus expressed over his party’s coming era of vindictive gerrymandering is something largely without precedent in Canadian political culture, and I think we’re quite better off for it.

A quick comparison of North America’s two contrasting systems of legislative redistricting should quickly illuminate the reasons why.

THE CANADIAN SYSTEM

In the bad old days, the boundaries of the 200-something single-member districts of Canada’s House of Commons were set by a partisan committee of the House itself. This, of course, resulted in predictable partisan corruption, as whatever party happened to be in the majority (i.e., the Liberal Party) would happily re-draw the lines in whatever self-serving manner would best shut out their political enemies. Indeed, when people talk about John Diefenbaker as one of the great “prairie populists” of the 1940s and ’50s, it’s worth noting that a significant source of his populist ire was the chronic gerrymandering of the federal Liberals during their mid-20th century epoch.

Increasingly unpopular, partisan redistricting in Canada finally ended in 1964 with the Peason government’s passage of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. Under the terms of the new legislation, parliamentary ridings could henceforth only be modified by special non-partisan committees residing in each province. Each redistricting committee would consist of one provincial judge and two individuals appointed by Canada’s apolitical Speaker of the House, and their decisions could only be overturned by parliament in the case of exceptional, and provable, concern.

The Act further prescribed that parliamentary ridings were to be drawn in conformity with some clear “community of interest or community of identity” already existing in the province, and set limits on the degree to which borders were allowed to deviate from their historic status quo.

Today, most Canadian ridings are simple and uncontroversial, chunky and geometric, and usually conform to the vague borders of some existing geographic / civic region knowable to the average citizen who lives there. Ridings are given descriptive titles to reflect their geographic reality, for example the “Scarborough Southwest” riding, or “Calgary Centre.”

Canadian parliamentary districts are not perfect, of course. Due to a weird clause in the Canadian Constitution that mandates all provinces must have as many MPs as they have seats in Canada’s arbitrarily apportioned Senate, there are a few “rotten boroughs” in Canada, mostly Atlantic Canada, that simply should not exist in a truly representation-by-population legislature. But overall, Canada’s parliamentary districts are respected, legitimate, and uncontroversial. Of the many matters Canadians have cause to grieve their government for, corrupt redistricting is not one of them.

THE AMERICAN SYSTEM

In America, the partisan redistricting traditions that Canada abandoned nearly half a century ago are still plugging along. Lacking a national law to govern the practice, once per decade, states are given free reign to jigger their own Congressional districts however they see fit, with the borders usually drawn by ordinary committees of the state legislature. What results is predictable, party-line votes to craft districts in predictable, party-line shapes.

In the 21st century, state-of-the-art polling, survey, and census data collection means we have a clearer idea than ever as to precisely what sorts of people do and don’t vote for this-or-that party — and where they live. Neighbourhood, religion, income, education, occupation, family size… all can be used to predict any household’s likely voting intentions within a margin of error of which previous door-knocking generations could only dream. Computer mapping software likewise offers a mathematical preciseness for bordering-in the desirables and shutting out the unwanteds that eliminates nearly all human error from redistricting’s cunning artisanship.

Such clever craftsmanship has ensured many American ridings are now hideous Frankensteinan abominations that ignore any readily apparent principle of geography, history, or identity that one might assume important in representative democracy. Completely artificial “communities” that brazenly exist only for the purpose of politics, they lack even the decency of an organic name to tie them to the real world. Chances are, a man who describes himself as living in his state’s “sixth district” is offering no useful geographic information about himself whatsoever, other than in which Congressman’s fiefdom he happens to reside.

Compare this elegant, clean map of Texas’ counties, for instance, to this wonky and gross map of their Congressional districts. There is no shortage of legitimate municipalities, burgs, and regions to be represented in Congress. Sad then, that so many Congressmen wind up representing made-up ones.

Though such nakedly partisan chicanery in a nation whose Founding Fathers hoped to do away with political parties altogether feels instinctively unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly (though admittedly softly) ruled that partisan gerrymandering is indeed legal. Most recently, in a 2006 case involving opportunistic Republican redistricting led by Texas’ GOP godfather, Tom DeLay, Justice Anthony Kennedy espoused sadly that for all the circumstantial evidence of abuse, the judicial branch lacks a “workable test for judging partisan gerrymanders.” There is a sort of tired, American resignation to this whole debate that reflects a somewhat parochial view of the world. Despite North American (and even US) precedent to the contrary, it’s often assumed that gerrymandering is simply an inescapable fact of life in modern politics. At best, you can just hope that both sides get a turn.

America’s gerrymandering fetish is not all motivated by crass partisanship, of course. An equal lot of damage has been done by some well-meaning clauses in the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which, for whatever their original noble intentions, have simply not aged well.

In an effort to get more blacks (and later, Hispanics) into Congress, sections 2 and 5 of the Act have been understood to enshrine a right to “minority-majority” districts, that is to say, districts where minorities will always be able to vote in “one of their own.” Of course, the whole point of being a minority is that you are demographically not in the majority; many M-M districts thus have to be wildly gerrymandered to snag pockets of blacks or Latinos in surrounding communities, often through long, thin, lasso-like land columns that glide carefully through white neighborhoods, avoiding as many Caucasians as possible along the way.

The result has given America a legislature with entrenched racial quotas, the sort of thing we rarely see outside fledgling third world democracies emerging from civil war. Race being the defining taboo of American politics, racial gerrymandering seems even less likely to be rendered unconstitutional than the partisan style, though considering the massive racial cleavages in American voting preferences, both practices are almost equally corrupting to fair and competitive elections.

Does it matter?

Of course, distasteful as the American practice of partisan redistricting may be, when we look at its practical consequences on America’s political culture, in contrast to that of Canada, it’s not immediately obvious what bullet we are dodging.

Cynical Americans are fond of blaming gerrymander-happy politicians for their country’s absurdly high rate of re-election for incumbent Congressmen — a figure which often floats around 90% — but even with our less partisan districts, Canada is hardly an inspiring counter-example. In the most recent 2008 general election, for instance, 88.6% of incumbent members of parliament were safely re-elected to their seats, a number that has held pretty much steady for the last several decades (only in the crazy meltdown election of 1993, and the Mulroney sweep of 1984, did the number dip below 70%). A fawning loyalty towards one’s incumbent representative seems to be a North American cultural phenomenon that transcends the comparative honesty or crookedness of the political system itself.

Similarly, though rigged solid red or solid blue American districts are often blamed for fostering ideologically extreme candidates prone to triggering legislative deadlock, Canada is no stranger to such things, either. Though it can be argued that Canadian MPs face more pressure to “campaign to the center” as a result of their less dogmatically-defined ridings, once in the House of Commons, the power exerted over their voting habits by Canada’s strong party bosses ensures that our votes are just as rigid and party-line as those in the States, if not more so.

It’s also important to note that the American strategy of rigging elections as a path to building mini ethnic client-states is actively envied by some sectors of the Canadian political establishment, particularly as a path to consolidate the dwindling demographic power of French Canadians. The Charlottetown Accord, for instance, promised to guarantee a perpetual quarter of seats in the House of Commons to Quebec, regardless of population, just as America’s “minority-majority” districts have increased black and Hispanic representation in Congress at a rate completely disconnected from the actual growth of those communities.

Canada’s closed, backroom candidate nomination process has likewise often been used as a sort of backdoor way for the parties to create M-M districts by stealth, and thus mobilize minority turnout in their favor. The practice of using quotas to guarantee the nomination of ethnic candidates is already the established practice of the British Columbia NDP, and there have been situations in which the party bosses have aggressively sought the uncontested nomination of (or just outright installed) minority candidates simply for diversity’s sake.

Political systems are important, don’t get me wrong, and much of the practical differences between America and Canada are due to the different ways we have chosen to govern ourselves. But we also share a largely identical culture, and neither side of the border possesses politicians that are fundamentally more ethical, or less conniving and manipulative, than those on the opposite.

As the years progress, I think the inescapable impulses of North American politicians (more partisanship, more control), and the political culture we share, increases the likelihood that Canadian and American politics will come to resemble each other more and more. Unfortunately, it will be a mostly one-way street, with American governance getting more parliamentary and party-boss centric, without any corresponding Americanization of Canada’s system.

If the United States is to resemble Canada, however, let’s at least hope that our superior practice of redistricting is one tradition that accompanies the evolution.