Painful Truth: U.S. could take a lesson from Canada’s gerrymandered past

Democracy is better when politicians don’t draw the lines on the maps.

One of the most significant results of this week’s U.S. midterm elections wasn’t much reported up here north of the 49th, but it deserves more attention.

Michigan voters approved a measure to end gerrymandering in their state, by a whopping 60-plus per cent of voters.

Not every Canadian reader will remember how gerrymandering works, since between the 1970s and 1980s, it was largely wiped out.

When electoral districts are drawn up, if elected officials have a chance to move the lines around, they have a tendency to favour their own party.

In some U.S. states, this has gone to ludicrous extremes. Though Democrats have been guilty of it, most of the worst modern gerrymanders were created by Republican administrations at the state level. They will pack as many solidly Democratic voters as possible into one district, often leaving it a bizarre, unnatural shape. That district will return a democrat with 70 to 90 per cent of the vote.

The surrounding districts, having removed many of their most democratic neighbourhoods, will return two, three, four Republicans by comfortable margins of around 60 per cent.

Before we got rid of gerrymandering, we saw similar shenanigans here in B.C. The most infamous, and last, was Gracie’s Finger.

Veteran Social Credit cabinet minister Grace McCarthy’s Vancouver riding saw slowly sliding support for her party.

So during an open-door session of the electoral boundaries commission in 1978, someone (it’s never been clear who) suggested a change – a protuberance that jutted out of her riding into solidly-Socred Point Grey.

By the time the next boundary commission was formed in 1987, things had changed. A non-partisan commission held all its meetings behind closed doors, without input from lobbyists, MLAs, or political hangers-on.

Locking in these laws is one of the best ways to preserve meaningful choice at the polls. Unfortunately, short of a referendum, voters often have to beat a gerrymandered government to make the change.

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