There is so much wrong with the political system at this point that gerrymandering, in which politicians shamelessly redraw electoral boundaries to rig the outcome of elections, seems almost quaint. The concept has been around since the early 1800s and now, as director Jeff Reichert explains in Gerrymandering, computer programs are used to carve up neighborhoods so finely that incumbents can pack their districts with supporters down to an individual voter's bedroom. Reichert earns points for remembering that both parties are equally guilty of gerrymandering. He loses points for lack of clarity in certain areas and an overabundance of talking heads. With the 2010 census complete and midterm elections upon us, now's a good time for Gerrymandering, even if its non-partisan approach and lack of fire-breathing indignation might turn off political junkies who prefer to be thrown red meat by cable news propagandists.
Every ten years, the lines that separate one constituency district from another are redrawn to reflect the results of the national census. So every ten years, politicians salivate at the chance to box out opponents and cram districts with guaranteed votes. Reichert's main focus is the 2008 fight to pass California's anti-gerrymandering Proposition 11. Historically, the California legislature carved up the state's 120 legislative districts. That led to all sorts of fox-in-the-henhouse behavior as politicians had their districts redrawn in odd and specific shapes to insure, for instance, that a Republican could rid his district of all Democrats or a Democrat could link areas of geographic support. If Prop 11 were to pass, that system would be replaced by a 14-member commission comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans and four with no major party affiliation. Reichert follows around the measure's author, Kathay Feng, whose supporters include California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Interwoven with the fight to pass Prop 11 is a nationwide tour of cities and towns where gerrymandering has been particularly unfair and obvious. Some of these detours, like the stop in New Orleans, are punchless and add little to the debate. Also, Reichert could have been clearer about the differences between state and local gerrymandering and that, despite all the census talk, state legislators can redraw districts in the middle of a decade.
The Supreme Court ruling that affirmed mid-decade redistricting closed the book on the nation's most heinous example of gerrymandering, which Reichert relates with soft incredulity. In 2003, after winning control of the Texas state legislature for the first time in 130 years, Lone Star Republicans hatched a plan to gerrymander their way into a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Led by House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, a mid-decade redistricting effort began, which so angered Texas Democrats that 51 of them hightailed it to a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma to prevent the measure from coming to a vote. Reichert retells the story with light humor, noting that country singer Willie Nelson had a case of Jack Daniels sent to the liberal legislators squirreled away in their Ardmore hideout.
Reichert's decision to take an evenhanded tone is virtuous, yet it may also damn the project. It lacks the rigor and hard edges of recent efforts by Charles Ferguson (Inside Job) and Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money). In this age of insufferably self-righteous cable news bickering, viewers need their anger stoked and sides need to be taken. Except for the ham-fisted, fight-the-power ending and annoying, snare drum infused score, Reichert never takes that bait. As he should, he damns both political parties. Liberals, as Reichert explains, have gerrymandering to thank for the election of Barack Obama. After his bid for Congress was derailed in the Democratic primary of 2000, Obama took advantage of that year's census to have his district redrawn to include wealthy white liberals living along the Lakefront area. The result was more money, a more diverse constituency and, eight years later, the presidency.
Reichert includes talking head interviews with fifty people, which is entirely too many. Of those fifty, there's not one articulate proponent of the long-held tradition or one opponent of Prop 11. So if everybody hates the practice, why does a majority of states continue engaging in it? Because politicos only hate gerrymandering when it benefits the opposition. When it benefits them, there's no greater system on the planet. Also, most elected leaders depend on the willful ignorance of the American voter, which a noble, mixed-bag effort like Gerrymandering cannot remedy on its own. Indeed, who can be bothered to consider these complicated issues when The Bachelorette is about to choose her made-for-TV husband? Gerrymandering, then, works fine as civics instruction but it won't move the needle against this decidedly anti-democratic process.
Distributor: Green Film Company
Director/Screenwriter: Jeff Reichert
Producers: Jeff Reichert, Dan O'Meara, Chad Troutwine and Chris Romano
Running time: 77 min
Release date: October 15 ltd.