I chatted today about the election results and redistricting with Jeff Reichert, writer and director of the new documentary Gerrymandering, which was screened by the Salt Lake Film Center Wednesday at Salt Lake City's Main Library.
Reichert's powerful film argues that allowing lawmakers to draw their own district boundaries has a corrosive effect on U.S. democracy, protect incumbents and divides communities. He starts the film with footage of both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama complaining about the impacts of redistricting, takes numerous local examples from the across the country of how gerrymandering has made many elections either ridiculous or forgone conclusions.
After each 10-year census, lawmakers across the country begin to redraw the boundaries that define which voters are in their district. The most common strategy is for the party in power to dilute the opponent's influence as much as possible, but some gerrymandering is done for no better reason than ensuring the candidate's mother--who lives across town--is in the district. Often the boundaries are drawn behind closed doors without public input.
Gerrymandering is filled with colorful characters and experts, it's well paced, keeps a lid on the outrage, but still firmly indicts the status quo in which lawmakers choose their voters as opposed to voters choosing their lawmakers.
The most impactful revelation for me contained in the film is that our system of redistricting was received from British common law and that all the other countries that inherited similar traditions--namely Canada and Australia--have joined Great Britian in reforming their systems. The U.S. remains the last country with this antiquated and inarguably problematic system.
California and Florida voters, Reichert says, each voted in favor of redistricting reform in last night's election.
Utah's Fair Boundaries campaign failed last year to get enough signatures for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission for Utah.
For more information, try playing the Redistricting Game, which demonstrates how devious boundaries can be far more powerful than popular political campaigns.
As Utah gears up for redistricting in early 2011, residents can access the Public Mapping Project to make their own proposals for how the boundaries should be drawn.
Reichert also recommends further reading at endgerrymandering.com