My Turn: Reapportionment

  • By JERRY SMETZER
  • Monday, July 18, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Reapportionment. The word itself stirs the blood; … well, actually, no. It doesn’t. Most eyes in a room will roll whenever the word is spoken aloud. Bureaucratic, boring, and technically complicated, Reapportionment is ignored by the press mostly because it only happens once every 10 years following the national Census. It is a collection of obscure legalities, big money power plays, deep intrigues among political insiders and cheesy PR that only political hacks, geeks, and stand-up comics can appreciate, and only the US Supreme Court can resolve. The only reason others need to pay any attention to it in the several years between the last Reapportionment and the next Census is because America’s founding fathers put the idea of it in the US Constitution under Article 1, Section 2.

Section 2 makes the discussion of Reapportionment essential in understanding what America’s democracy is really all about. Basically, it says that “… Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned …” among the people in the states based on the population of all people as counted in the Census. As with all the ideas in the U.S. Constitution, our founding fathers knew that each word must honor the blood of patriots spilled in the seven-year war of revolution that followed our Declaration of Independence in July, 1776. The revolutionary rag-tag army of colonial American farmers, working men and women, small-town merchants and craftsmen, rabble-rousers like Tom Paine and Sam Adams, and radical thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington used guerilla tactics and a gritty perseverance to disrupt and eventually destroy the occupation of the American colonies by the redcoat army of the British Monarchy.

Today, the idea that apportionment should be based on a Census of the whole population is under serious threat. Through a series of case studies of Reapportionment processes in 9 states, David Daley, author of: “Ratf**ked. The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.” describes how the Republicans, beginning with the Reapportionment of 1991, have managed to take control of the Congress, and of many, if not most, state legislatures even though Democrats had previously won large majorities of voters in those states. If you have ever wondered how Obama can be elected and re-elected President of the US with high voter turnout and heavy majorities in 2008 and 2012, while the Democratic seats in Congress drop from 256 in 2008 to 188 in 2014, read Daley’s book.

Computerized mapping systems running against large population and voter databases are essential in this. In the summer of 1990, at the beginning of Alaska’s 1991 Reapportionment cycle, I was assigned to work with Governor Cowper’s Reapportionment Board as an IT specialist working with a then new GIS data-based district mapping system. Once loaded with Census data the ESRI mapping system made it possible to create, adjust, and publish proposed election district boundaries within a state at the block, lot, and residence address level.

Today, personal and preference information on whole populations of individuals is available for a few cents per name. The data comes already digitized for integration with Census data using computerized mapping technology. Election district boundaries can now be hand-crafted (ie., “gerrymandered”) to almost guarantee a majority vote for selected candidates. Nowadays, if the Republicans can control the Reapportionment process in a state, they can — and routinely do — virtually guarantee Republican majorities in state legislatures and Congressional delegations no matter how many popular votes are cast for Democrats or candidates from other parties. “Mapitude,” discussed in Chapter 9, is another GIS mapping system optimized for Reapportionment. “Mapitude” costs about $700 per seat.

Today, Alaska’s path through the 2020 Reapportionment is not clear. Relevant current litigation at state and federal levels is unresolved. Worse, possible outcomes of the 2016 election cycle may have ugly side effects. Read “Ratf**ked” and weep for how bad it could be if Alaskans fail to keep up with the major players, lobbyists, and political insiders.

There are hopeful signs. California and Arizona work with citizen-based Reapportionment boards; Ohio Restructured its Board by citizen’s initiative in 2015; it passed with a 70 percent vote. Structuring Alaska’s Reapportionment Board for 2020 will take a lot of work. Stay focused, and don’t let your eyes roll.

• Jerry Smetzer lives in Juneau.

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