Note: Screening at the Philadelphia Film festival this week, Gerrymandering is also opening in limited release around the country this weekendand will be having a number of other one-off presentations in various cities until after the current mid-term elections next month.
Gerrymandering has been called the “bloodsports of politics.” The act of redrawing voting district line in response to new census data, in theory it supposed to allow for better demographic representation of a population on the city, state and national level. But it is a double-edged sword, often being used by politicians to insure their own incumbency and to negate as much as possible the voices of those registered to the opposition party.
First-time director Jeff Reichert’s documentary takes a look at the practice and its implementation in modern American politics and it is hard not to come away from it amazed at how it has been used and perhaps more than a little angry and disgusted. Granted the topic certainly sounds like it could appeal only to hard core political wonks, and the movie does skate close to that edge at times, does manage to keep it fairly accessible to the average Joe. Reichert gives us some historical context though a bulk of the material centers on the past twenty years or so.
We learn that the practice of gerrymandering knows no political bias. Both sides have used it to try and gain an advantage. District lines were redrawn to his benefit when a young Barack Obama was just beginning to dip his toe into the water of local politics. In Texas in 2003 there is the famous case of Republicans leading a charge to redistrict under Tom Delay causing Democrats to flee to just over the Texas/Oklahoma boarder in an effort to bring attention to the fact that they felt the move to redistrict was illegal as it did not proceed from a judge’s order or from new census data.
And there are certainly anomalous situations that could only come about due to gerrymandering. Take for example the case of Danny Young , who was elected to city council in Anamosa, Iowa on the strength of just two write-in votes, his wife’s and his neighbor’s. As it turns out, Young lives in a district that is mostly made up of a prison, its inmates counting towards the population of an area and thus the determination of representation, but are ineligible to vote. Although not popular with voters, having a prison in one’s district can be very desirable to a politician.
At just under an hour and a half in length, Gerrymandering never overstays its welcome, though there are a few things that could have gotten some more in-depth examination. The film could have stood to spend more time following the movement in California to turn the process of district realignment over to a non-partisan committee, a move which finally passed in 2008 after six failed attempts, especially as it appears that this is supposed to be the backbone of the film. Also, Reichert could have extrapolated a bit more on his pronouncement that Iowa has the best redistricting policies in the country.
Through the film, Reichert builds a case that an overhaul of the gerrymandering process is desperately needed. Other governments who used to allow politicians to draw their own district lines such as England (on whose Parliamentary system much of our representational democracy is modeled), France and Germany have all reformed their systems to avoid the abuses chronicled here. H e makes a compelling argument, without ever letting the film become a polemic. Unfortunately, it may be too late to reform the process before it starts up again next spring, following the delivery of finalized census data to the executive branch which in turns hands over apportionment numbers to the legislative branch for the next round of district realignment.