Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Redistricting and Collecting Ballots

This post is long, boring and mostly about local politics. I don't recommend reading it. For pictures of local girls playing volleyball, click HERE.

In the last 36 hours I've been asked to sign petitions on open government and runoff elections and I've read Supreme Court No. CV-07-0015-OA, a request for Amicus Curiae briefs and a scheduling order for hearings on redistricting.

I can't find the wording of the petitions online, so let me just pretend that I can remember what they said.

The first petition seeks to extend the Open Government Act to the Legislature, which exempted itself a few years back. Seems like a good idea to me. The Saipan Blog endorses this petition. Sign the petition and vote YES!

(please ring the victory bell)

The petition to force runoff elections is a different story. Although at first glance it seems like a good idea, I have a few issues with this petition. It deserves some discussion.

This petition is popular because of what happened in the CNMI gubernatorial election in 2005. The winner, Ben Fitial, garnered less than 30% of the vote. Second place was only 99 votes behind Ben and Third place was only 100 votes behind Second. This did not give Ben the mandate that would have made his time in office a whole lot easier...theoretically.

The group gathering signatures argues that if this Amendment gets on the ballot and passes, this situation, where the winner does not have a clear mandate to govern, would be avoided in the future because a runoff election would be declared in races where the winner does not get 50% + 1.

I don't know if that is a very strong argument. A good politician would be able to mend the fences with his political rivals. I'm not convinced that voter remorse has that much effect on the running of the government once the elections are over. Take a look at George W. Bush, for example. Even though he lost the popular vote and stole Florida in 2000, he was able to paint himself as a leader in the wake of September 11 and was polling a 90% approval rating for several months (until he blew all that good will on Iraq. Oops!)

There is also no way of knowing if we'll ever have such a close election again. What if next time the top vote getter garners 49.9% of the vote, while the rest is split between three or four candidates. Is it really worth spending taxpayer money on another election?

I know that Fitial's 28.1% of the vote left some people with the impression that he did not deserve to win. Well, what if he had won 35%, winning by 10 points? Or how about 45%, winning by 20 points? Would that count as a mandate? Would that put the people's nerves at rest?

I think this initiative is a good start. I endorse signing the petition to get it on the ballot. That will give us several months to debate and discuss, then we can vote in November. If it has merit, we'll vote YES, if there are problems, then maybe we can come up with something better in time for 2009.

The major challenge for both petitions, though, will be collecting enough signatures in time for the June 6 deadline, which is in exactly three weeks. They need 7000 signatures for the runoff initiative and 3000 signatures for the Open Government initiative. They'll need to collect about 350 and 150 signatures for each petition respectively per day for the next 21 days in order to get their initiatives on the ballot. Good luck!

Alright, that's enough babble about the petitions. What I really want to talk about is the Redistricting initiatives.

This is something that I'm familiar with. In 2005 I was working with a non-profit that was trying to amend the Florida Constitution's redistricting laws. I chaired a steering committee of volunteers, consisting of Democrats and Republicans, that gathered over 45,000 individually signed petitions in a seven county area in only a few months. This was part of a state wide effort that eventually collected over 3 million petitions, only to have them all thrown out on technicalities.

Redistricting is a hot issue in the US. I won't get too deep into the details, but the Voting Rights Act of 1964 legalizes gerrymandering to help get minority candidates elected. What this means in the South is that districts are created with ridiculous shapes, encompassing every Black and Hispanic neighborhood, and only the Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, spanning several counties. This has put the Democratic Party at a perpetual disadvantage. While it guarantees that a minority candidate will be elected to office, it ensures that every surrounding district will be Republican.

That system is not fair. It gives Republicans an unfair advantage, but try taking away that easily reelected minority vote and well, you probably see where I'm going with this.

Alright, that's enough about Florida. I'm just trying to point out that Redistricting is a hot button issue and that efforts to change the rules usually fail. It failed in Florida three times. It failed recently in Ohio, too.

Saipan is a little different. Gerrymandering currently isn't a problem here. They don't have the type of GIS data that they have in the mainland (but they will someday), but even if they did the CNMI constitution states that districts have to be "contigous and compact."

The problems identified by the group pushing this initiative are that Saipan is overrepresented in the House, that the districts weren't redrawn after the 2000 Census, and that Saipan has multicandidate precincts.

They are seeking to do several things:

1. They want to redraw the districts on Saipan.
2. They want Saipan to have less representation in the House.
3. They want to reduce the total number of seats in the House.
4. They want each district to have only one Representative.
5. They want it done next year.

First of all, it is going to be difficult to keep this from being painted as a waste of taxpayer money. Not only is the group asking the government to foot the bill for their attorney fees, but they are asking that this be done in time for the 2009 election. That would mean that a lot of money would be spent to redraw the districts for just one election. They'll have to be redrawn again after the 2010 Census. Some will argue that due to our current economic situation, now is not the time for this. You'll have to argue that it is Constitutionally mandated that this happen, Freedom, Patriotism, and so on and so on.

As for #2 and #3, good luck with that. I would drop it. You want this issue to be about redrawing lines, not reducing the size of the legislature and Saipan's influence. Let those be two separate issues. (I would like to see the Senate cut to 3 seats and the House cut to no more than 7 seats)

What you really need to focus in on are #1 and #4, redrawing the districts so that each district only has one Representative. The way the system is set up now, where Precinct 1 and 3 have over 20 candidates per election cycle, is an invitation for disaster. There is no way a voter can make an informed choice when he has so many candidates to choose from. My bet is that most people probably vote for the candidate that they know best (or are most closely related to) and check the rest of the boxes next to the names of that candidate's fellow party members.

This system allows bum candidates to ride the coattails of good candidates. In the end, the voters lose. Creating a system where only one person represented a district would have a myriad of benefits. During elections there would be fewer candidates for the voter to choose from, because of the smaller districts the candidate would be more likely to live near all of his constituents, and best of all, he wouldn't be able to pass the buck onto the other Representatives in his district.

The Supreme Court is accepting briefs until June 1 and there will be a public hearing on June 12. Good luck!

1 comment:

KAP said...

Politicians here don't need fancy statistics to gerrymander. The existing districts take a few strange turns to include some and exclude others. Not a big thing, but it's very doable.

I don't understand why they don't just include a second choice if there are more than two candidates. It's been done in other jurisdictions.