Starts with you: How to get your democracy back

I’m no genius; anyone who knows me will confirm that. If you asked me to explain why our economy has been shot to hell over the past few years, I’d be hard-pressed to explain what happened. I know it has a lot to do with the lack of banking industry regulations, and maybe that’s enough. Enough to get me talking about it and writing to my elected officials about it.

Because if the voters aren’t paying attention, then what’s the point of voting? What’s the point of democracy? But the path to retaining crucial information and to good citizenship isn’t a smooth or straight one. Not for me and my pathetic Teflon brain, anyway.

So often, the simplest, most personal duties are the ones I screw up.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, my husband asked me to pick up some milk at the grocery store. As I am notorious for my lousy memory, Harry said, “Maybe you’d better write it down.”

As it happened, immediately before this discussion, we’d been listening to an NPR story about the most effective way to learn something and recall it later. It involves engaging several parts of the brain.

Read about it, write about it, discuss it, and, most important, engage in an activity related to it. It turns out that engaging in an activity related to the subject under study results in a 90 percent retention rate of the target information.

So, I jotted down “milk,” held it up and proclaimed, “This says ‘milk’!” And Harry said, “Milk is good for you. It comes from cows.”

Okay, we could check off nearly everything on the NPR list. But what about an activity? I raised my hands over my head, twirled around and said, “A dance! To milk!”

It worked: I remembered to pick up the milk.

So now I’m thinking: If this works for grocery lists, surely it could work for more complex issues.

While chatting with one of Charlottesville’s political cognoscenti, Bob Gibson, a few weeks ago, we agreed that the paralyzing polarization in American government today has a significant cause: (I hesitate to type the next two words because I’m afraid you’ll stop reading. Stay with me, folks. Here it comes.) Partisan redistricting.

Bob and I agreed that the biggest obstacle to changing the way we draw the lines for our legislative districts is the fact that it is all so "inside baseball," this redistricting stuff. How do you get anyone to care? (Eyes here, people!)

Well, we certainly do care about the polarization thing. We watch as news and commentary shows become ever more inflammatory and intellectually dishonest in order to pull in the highest ratings. Apart from ignoring those shows, there’s not much we can do to change the media.

But there is this other phenomenon we should learn about, so we can take control of it. In most states, including Virginia, when it comes time to redraw the boundaries of our political districts (and we’re Constitutionally required to do so every 10 years) the task falls to whichever party happens to be in power at the time.

Whether Democrats or Republicans, you can bet that they will use the opportunity to draw a meandering line, like a net, around the populations they know will vote for them.

What, you ask, is the consequence of this? It’s bad. Really bad. Democracy-killing bad. You may have seen the result of this when you entered the polling booth on November 8th.

In the Virginia State Senate races, three Democratic and 11 Republican incumbent Senators ran without anyone to challenge them.

When I ducked under the curtain in the polling booth and saw that my state senator was the only candidate to choose from, I thought, “Why did I bother to show up?” The outcome was assured before Election Day. So what was the point of Election Day?

Our district lines have been drawn such that the opposing party knows there is no point to mounting a campaign because the deck has been stacked against them.

It boils down to this: The candidate has chosen the voters, rather than the other way around.

And the other way around, i.e., the voters choosing the candidate, is what is known as democracy. When there is only one candidate, what you lose is democracy.

When that winning candidate goes to Richmond or Washington to represent the district, his or her objective is to please the voters in that rarified home district in order to win reelection. Because it’s all about reelection.

So, why would the elected official compromise with any of his or her legislative colleagues? The hard line–the uncompromising stance–is what will please the homogeneous voters back home in the gerrymandered district.

Apparently, we have a whole lot of legislators like that in our government, because ain’t nobody compromising.

And the small group of partisans who redraw the lines of our districts every 10 years are counting on us not paying attention to what they’re doing. They are counting on it being too "inside baseball."

It is their fervent hope that the mere mention of “non-partisan redistricting” will cause your eyes to glaze over and make you want to update your Facebook status or check your email. Anything to direct your attention somewhere more interesting.

(I’m the one writing this essay, and my Teflon brain is yearning for me to check email or do anything but think about political policy.)

Wouldn’t it be swell if someone would redraw our legislative districts in a way that would foster competition and encourage opposing candidates to run for office? This is a job, not for Republicans or Democrats, but for an independent commission.

Several states, including California, switched to non-partisan redistricting when they recently redrew their legislative boundaries. It’s time for us in Virginia to turn our attention to this subject. Redistricting won’t happen until the next census takes place in 2020, which gives us a decade to lobby for this change. We can do this.

Is it a cure-all for our polarization problem? No. But partisan districts are a significant contributing factor in the red/blue standoff that is paralyzing our country. The good news is that we can change the structure of our legislative districts. But we can’t change it until we focus our attention on it and demand change.

So, now that we have read about non-partisan redistricting, and discussed it, the next step in boosting our retention of this information for the exam (which will take place after the next census) is to engage in a connected activity.

On your feet everyone! Hands over your heads and twirl: A dance! To non-partisan redistricting!
Janis Jaquith assures us that she's never sought statehood for her adopted hometown of Free Union.

Read more on: gerrymandering


So what are the results in the non-partisan districts in Ca.? More competition? Did the same people win as usual? How do we know it is really non-partisan? Who would be doing the districting?

I for one like being in a district with a percentage of like minded people. Small minds maybe but at least we get a voice.

Ms. Jaquith can applaud the fact that Sen. Jill Vogel of Winchester has already submitted a bipartisan redistricting commission bill to be considered in the 2012 General Assembly. Sen. Creigh Deeds attempted for many years to get the General Assembly to agree to bipartisan redistricting. Ms. Jaquith and the thousands who agree with her need to contact members of the House of Delegates Privileges and Elections Committee where the legislation is always killed. All the unfortunate results she cites are very true--no competition, gerrymandered districts, too many localities for legislators to adequately represent and, consequently, diminishment of the democratic process. The Virginia Redistricting Coalition, greatly disappointed by the outcome of the 2011 redistricting and awaiting the Congressional redistricting decisions, will be supporting Sen. Vogel's bill. This will be an opportunity for all those who agree with Ms. Jaquith about being disenfranchised to help prevent a re-occurrence of the 2011 redistricting misfortune. Bob Gibson of the Sorensen Institute has been invited to join the Coalition's effort. Thank you, Ms. Jaquith, for your comments. And, indeed, there WILL be dancing if Sen. Vogel's bill can get through the General Assembly.

Carrot and stick, carrot and stick. No one does anything, certainly no politician does anything, without a reward for doing it or threat of punishment for not doing it. This proposal offers the politicians in charge a punishment for doing it and no reward. It may be the best-bred horse in the race but I wouldn't place a bet on it.

Our votes are nothing more than an exercise in futility. A bygone notion that our votes actually meant something. We have been outbid.