Elections and geography

Some time ago I confessed that I read American court documents for fun. I cited the quality of some judges' writing as a reason for that, but a side benefit is some indirect insights into the half-continent of madness that is the United States of America. And sometimes, by contrast, into little old Denmark too.

Consider this recent case, Gonzalez v. Aurora. Several people from a western suburb of Chicago sued their city council, demanding that its voting districts be revised such that their particular racial group would be likely to get more seats on the council. Plaintiffs lost in the lower (district) court, and now they lost in the appeals court too. The court's opinion does not have the kind of dazzling rhetoric I wrote about earlier. But it made me think, about the differences and similarities between the political system it describes and the one I'm used to.

It probably ought to startle me that this matter is considered something that a court should decide at all, but it doesn't. In USA, it seems, everything is a potential matter for court intervention. Everyone who doesn't live in a cave probably heard about the 2000 presidential election.

What does trouble me a bit is that the plaintiffs' argument seems to assume that the voters in Aurora decide who to vote for using candidates' race as their first and final criterion. Such voter behavior is not unheard-of – in semi-failed post-colonial states suffused with mutual distrust between clans and ethnicities who find themselves sharing political structures by way of historical accident rather than sharing a functional society. But in a modern democracy with everybody integrated in a common economy? I know that when I go to vote, I try to vote for the candidate who shares my political views the most, rather than one who shares my complexion.

It might seem equally troubling that the appeals court willingly accepts this strange theory. But the court did find against the plaintiffs, and it makes for a stronger and more persuasive opinion if the court goes along with the losing party for the sake of the argument until the critical point where the loser's case breaks down. Implicitly, the court says "even if you were right about all this, you'd still lose because so-and-so".

But what really got me thinking was the unquestioned baseline assumption that most councilmen have to be elected in single-seat wards. Voters who happen to agree with the majority in their local ward get to be represented. Voters who are in a local minority become virtually, or nearly, disenfranchised. It doesn't matter if some political stance has a uniform 49% following everywhere; it gets zero electees because its popular support is insufficiently clumped.

I have heard people trying to justify such a system, but I've never been able to grasp their arguments. Why should geography matter? When I go to vote, I try to vote for the candidate who shares my political views the most, rather than one who by some quirk of the housing market happens to live close to me.

This would be quaint and amusing if is was a specific rarity of Aurora, Illinois. But it is sad that it is actually quite common. Most famously, perhaps, with the electoral college by which Americans chose their president. It is not a particularly American phenomenon, though. The UK House of Commons works the same way. And the way we elect the European Commission is perhaps the most indirect, convoluted and opaque of all, closely followed by the Council of Ministers which has the final political say in all matters EU.

Closer to home – in Denmark municipal councils are elected directly and proportionally, simple enough. But elections to our national parliament the Folketing, use a weird mix of geographic and proportional methods. Some members are elected in regional districts, with a number of additional at-large seats distributed afterwards such that the final party make-up of the parliament will get as proportional as possible. Then there are complex and elaborate rules for simultaneously distributing the at-large seats to ensure approximate geographical proportionality in the parliament as a body, as well as within each party.

Active politicians care about this system, because it decides which among each party's candidates win a seat, a matter of paramount importance among those running. Almost nobody else does, and look only to the final party breakdown (which, being guaranteedly proportional, can be understood without resorting to geography). When I've been a poll worker at general elections, some voters were obviously confused because the political leader of their choice was not on the ballot – he or she were running in a different district. Again, why should geography matter here? A smart voter tries to vote for the candidate who shares his political views the most, not one who happens to live in the same part of the country.

And, adding to the confusion, the district a candidate runs in does not have to be the district where he or she lives. In fact, for top politicians it is the exception more than the rule. Each party selects the running districts for its top candidates tactically, to maximize their chance of election given the above-mentioned rules that ostensibly exist to equalize the geographic origin of the MPs. Except that what it really equalizes is virtual pseudo-origins chosen solely based on the rules themselves.

Excuse me, but I fail to see that society at large benefits at all from this convoluted system.

(... now where was I? Something about a court and a city council in Illinois, I think. You mean I was supposed to have a point about that? Sorry. Still new to this blog thingie).

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