constituent, n. 1. a member of an area which elects a representative to a legislative body 2. a component part of something
Every ten years, Americans are reminded of the meaning and origin of the word “gerrymander.” In case you’ve forgotten, a Boston newspaper derided the 1812 voting district designed by Governor Elbridge Gerry. The odd shape happened to resemble a salamander. The newspaper added claws, fangs and wings to illustrate its point.
Voting districts are redrawn every ten years to account for population shifts. That’s the law. No politician can resist shaping a district to suit his own or her colleagues’ electoral fortunes. Without exception, if they tell you politics didn’t figure into their proposal, they are lying. If you could pick your bosses, wouldn’t you? Of course you would.
The Lane County Board of Commissioners will soon decide how the county’s five voting districts will be divided. They have several options on the table. The first makes almost no changes, because the population shifts have been slight. The others “plans” claim to “correct” past “mistakes” — which can no doubt be attributed to the great quotation mark shortage of 2000.
Two sitting commissioners intend to run for reelection next fall. They will be the first to test the new district lines.
As we watch our commissioners “picking their bosses,” we must ask, “Who are Commissioner Rob Handy’s ‘bosses’?” Are they only the 50.24 percent of voters in District 4 chose him in 2008? Commissioner Pete Sorenson received 23,658 votes in 2008, but 16,724 voters left their District 1 Commissioner ballot blank.
What about those who didn’t vote for them, or stayed home and didn’t vote at all? Are they also their bosses? The dictionary would argue they are. Even children are “members of the area” these men represent. Economics would suggest that every tax-paying family in Lane County is the boss of all five commissioners. That’s who pays their salaries.
Do they govern that way? Will they campaign that way? These are important questions, and district lines ought to be drawn accordingly. If only winners are represented by our politicians, then we may have a democracy, but not quite a civilization. We all want our voice heard, not just on each election day, but all the time. Each of us wants to be “a component part of something.”
Although the Lane County Commissioners are are officially non-partisan — no political labels attached — everybody knows different. Buying your pimento loaf at the deli doesn’t allow you to brag that you avoid packaged meats, even though you skipped the packaging.
There’s been talk about gathering “like-minded” people into districts, but isn’t that a formula for political comfort? If that’s our goal, then all five commissioners should run at-large, allowing all their like-minded citizens across the county to vote for them.
Some believe that all Lane County liberals are adequately represented by the more liberal commissioners. Likewise, conservatives across the county can ask for constituent services from one of the commissioners that is more like-minded, regardless of who was elected as their district’s representative.
That’s not how the system is supposed to work. Each commissioner should learn the nuance and peculiarities that make his or her district unique, while continually learning how that uniqueness contributes to the whole that is Lane County. Unfilled holes are measured differently across the county. In Santa Clara, you could lose a quarter down one. In Goshen, you could lose a heifer.
Redistricting mandates require that “communities of interest” be considered, but let’s not forget the “community of the whole.”
We could draw lines to have two very red districts, two very blue ones, and leave the last district up for grabs. Most of us would then enjoy a peaceable kingdom of lawn sign freedom every four years. Only the designated swing district would be fiercely contested.
Or we could fill each district with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, so that every commissioner works to be effective for all their constituents. They shouldn’t mind this proposal, because the commissioners are all non-partisan, right?
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. He applied for an at-large position on the Lane County Redistricting Task Force, but was not chosen. He also has worked with a local company that makes redistricting software, though his work was unrelated to that product.