Friday, 19 September 2008

The (un)fairness of the other US election

You might not have come across much mention of it in the British media, but there are actually congressional elections in the United States in November too. Many of our American friends will be going to the polls in congressional districts where there is no chance that anyone but the incumbent, or at least the incumbent party, will be elected.

This, of course, happens across the democratic world. Tom Clarke MP (Labour) of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is a rather lucky man with his 19,500 majority, although who knows if even he will keep his seat at the next election given recent polls.

In the UK parliamentary seats are drawn up by the thoroughly independent Boundary Committee and Commissions for the constituent nations. In the US congressional districts are the domain of each state and many state legislatures reserve the right to draw the boundaries themselves.

This has caused huge contentions such as that in Texas in 2003, which actually caused Democratic legislators to flee the state to avoid having to vote on the issue. The Republican-controlled legislature passed the redistricting plan and, despite being disputed at the Supreme Court, it remained largely intact. So we now have districts which look like this.

It seems to me that Texas' redistricting was based purely on a desire to maximise the Republicans' congressional delegation from that state. But in other cases, bizarrely shaped districts have been drawn up to ensure a minority candidate would stand a chance of being elected. This is surely a noble desire, but should we approve of it?

Illinois' 4th congressional district, which is known as the 'ear muff' district due to its shape, Florida's 3rd congressional district, and Virginia's 3rd, for instance were all drawn up to be majority-minority districts; in fact the US Justice Department insists that states do this where there are substantial minority populations.

This does mean that representatives from ethnic minorities are elected, and perhaps such gerrymandering is needed to ensure that they do. But that is a pretty sad state of affairs.

If identity politics is so strong, if people will only vote for a candidate with the same colour skin as them, despite their politics, we should worry. I would have thought America had progressed past such division, but maybe I'm wrong. But if African-Americans will only vote for African-Americans and white-Americans will only vote for someone equally white, and the democratic system must account for those prejudices, that is a huge admission of failure of race relations.

Even if this is so, should a democratic system all but endorse such racial prejudice by taking account of it so heavily? Or is the system doing its best to combat prejudice by making sure minorities can be elected, despite the best efforts of the white majority?

While we don't intend to make it a habit to reserve judgement on this blog, in this particular case, you won't find answers from me, but we would be delighted to hear what our reader(s) think(s) about this contentious issue. In any case, surely we can all get together in believing that an independent commission should draw up the districts, as happens in certain states already e.g. Washington, Arizona and Hawaii, even if a racial element is included in their brief.

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