By Hillel Aron
Update: Before Nov. 2, read about shadowy Michael Berman, a map-making guru who was paid $1.3 million to gerrymander California here, read about a billionaire's son at Stanford who dropped $10 million to stop him here, read how filthy-rich Haim Saban got snookered by the Berman boys here, read why it's "the perfect crime" here, and view absurdly gerrymandered "voting districts" like Rabbit on Skateboard here.
Nobody normal ever asks any questions about gerrymandering, the subject of California Propositions 20 and 27. But if they did ask, here's what the FAQs would be:
Q: What the #&*! is gerrymandering?
A: The word gerrymander, or gerry+mander, was coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 to describe the bizarre shapes Governor Elbridge Gerry drew for new Massachusetts state senate districts. The "mander" comes from the word salamander. Get it?
Q: Not really. Why would you want to draw a district shaped like a salamander?
A: For the same reason a politician does anything -- to desperately cling to office past his or her prime.
Say you had a bunch of heavily Democratic streets and blocks scattered around a city. If the voting districts were drawn in squares, or followed the natural lines of a compact community, your constituency might naturally be half Republican. But what if you drew some weird-ass shape to purposely include Democratic streets and blocks and exclude Republican ones?
Q: And this is legal?
A: Legal? It's practically the law of the land. But the thing is, we are the only westernized democracy that allows its politicians to draw the lines for voting districts. Districts all over the U.S. look like they were scribbled out by second-graders.
This one in Illinois is the Pair of Headphones: It's drawn that way to connect two heavily Democratic Hispanic neighborhoods so the Democrat Luis Guitierrez would never get less than 80 percent of the vote.
And they call this one the Rabbit on a Skateboard. To some it looks like a surfer, but it's kind of a Rorschach test.
You can play this online game and draw your own screwed-up maps!
Q: Does this help Democrats or Republicans?
A: Neither. It helps incumbents and sticks voters in the eyeball. Remember, gerrymandering doesn't add Democratic voters or Republican voters or make their vote count for more.
It falsely packs districts with voters from one party so there's no competition for ideas. And independents and "decline to state" voters are screwed. Come November, the fix is in -- in all but a handful of districts.
So you get stuck with 80-year-old congressmen who've been in office since the Eisenhower administration, or 80-year-old congressmen who get flown out to the Caribbean by corporations. Or, if there's an open seat, you get force-fed the party's new, hand-picked candidate and/or Tea Party wingnut.
Q: Okay, okay. Why are there two related measures, Proposition 20 and Proposition 27?
A: Prop. 20 is an historic assault upon the gerrymandering that protects incumbents in the 435-member U.S. Congress. In 2008, only 19 incumbents lost the general election because of gerrymandering.
Prop. 20 puts an independent committee in charge of drawing the districts. It's similar to voter-approved Proposition 11, which created a citizen group to draw the 120 California state legislative districts.
But Prop. 27, written by pols who love gerrymandering, comes from the exact opposite camp: It would undo voter-approved Prop. 11, giving the power of gerrymandering back to California's legislators.
Q: What if both of these warring propositions pass?
A: That's a good one: If both pass, whichever gets more total votes will go into effect.
Q: Why are some big-name Democrats fans of gerrymandering?
A: Politicians such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Diane Watson and Congressman Howard Berman want their fellow Democrats (and themselves) in power.
Whichever party is in power in a given state fights hardest to continue gerrymandering. In Florida and Texas, the Republicans make sure the fix is in each and every November.
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For further reading:
Check out the crazy maps the politicians are drawing, here.
See how many California newspapers side with Prop. 20, and how many with Prop. 27.