Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Redistricting Montana's legislature

It seems that the legislative redistricting wrangling isn't quite done. The process has been relatively quiet, and as I understand, the heavy lifting (the House districts) has already been completed, with the remaining task being to pair up the 100 House districts to create 50 Senate districts. We've waxed eloquent on this general topic many times before, but why not a little more?

As per usual, the general breakdown is this:

a. Montana Republicans want districts to follow traditional dividing lines like county boundaries, school district boundaries, and city limits as much as possible and to have districts be relatively homogenous, allowing representatives to be more likely to be truly representative of their districts.

b. Montana Democrats want the goal of redistricting to be to give Democrats the best possible chance of gaining a majority.

To be fair, Republicans also want to be in the majority, but really, all they need to do to achieve that in a state like Montana is:

a. Don't gerrymander the districts.

b. Don't act like idiots (either personally or politically) once they get to Helena.

Since item "b" is by no means out of the question, Democrats can still gain majorities in the state legislature without gerrymandering the districts like they did 10 years ago with the connivance of the Montana Supreme Court, but I can certainly see why they would prefer not to have to depend on Republican screw-ups to have a shot at controlling a legislative body.

Still, that is the reality of life for Republicans in heavily Democratic states, so in my opinion, that's life. Democrats have completely dominated Montana's U.S. Senate elections in the modern era -- should we adopt rules that make it equally likely for a Republican to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Montana? We could call it the "Dan Cox rule." In one election, a Libertarian candidate would run, with his campaign quietly funded by Democrats. In the next election, conservative third-party candidates would be banned, while we would have a Green Party candidate who is quietly funded by Republicans.

Alternatively, we could have a law requiring Democratic and Republican U.S. Senate candidates to say and do one equally off-putting thing for anything off-putting that the opposing candidate does. Democrats can take a turn berating forest fire-fighters or suing a local government for a change. Sen. Baucus could be required to take contributions from Jack Abramoff (oh, wait, he already did that -- maybe the law would also have to require the Montana press to run stories about it on a daily basis.)

Senator Baucus could be required to pay a "Finance Committee Chairman Tax" whereby he is required to give half of his Wall Street and K-Street donations to his Republican opponent. Republicans running for the U.S. Congressional seat could be required to wear funny hats at every public appearance until a Democrat finally wins again.

Or we could just skip elections entirely and just have the opposing parties choose the Senators every other term -- and Libertarians could choose the Senator 5% of the time (doing the math in my head, about once every 110 years?) That sort of thing.

Am I being facetious? Of course. But mandating such things makes no less sense than does mandating gerrymandered districts with the sole goal of giving Democrats a better chance of winning majorities in Helena.

On philosophical and historical grounds, I think that Republicans have by far the better argument. A classic example of redistricting gone bad is Taylor Brown's old district, which stretches from the outskirts of Miles City through to Billings suburbs. What interests do Carbon County ranchers, Billings suburbanites, and Rosebud County union members have in common? When you design a district like that, you are maximizing the chances for a Democratic win in that part of the state, but you are minimizing the chances that the winner (of either party) is going to be a zealous representative of the interests of as many residents as possible.

The whole point to representative government is that the diversity is to be found in the legislative body itself, not within each district. The representatives are, we hope, as representative as possible of their constituents. You don't achieve that by throwing urban voters in with rural ones or by similar redistricting stunts.

It is true that even next-door neighbors can have dramatically different political opinions, but they are likely to have more interests in common than are political opposites in different parts of the state.

If we were to take Democratic logic to its logical conclusion, why not have non-geographical districts? Voting patterns could be analyzed to try to make the breakdown as close as possible. In order to even things out in a Flathead County district, why not throw in a precinct from around Crow Agency? Or to even things out in Butte, pair a couple precincts from there with a couple from southeastern Montana. Really, if we don't care about whether the eventual representative really represents the district, and only about giving Democrats the best chance of winning a majority, why bother with district boundaries at all?

So far, the process has been going far better than ten years ago, when the parents (the Montana Supreme Court) handed the keys to the teenager (Democrat gerrymandering expert-extraordinaire Joe Lamson) and said in effect, "have fun, come home whenever you want, and don't worry about being safe -- in fact, here's some extra money for booze!"

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