Reading between the lines
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 29, 2010
"Gerrymandering" makes a pretty convincing case for the reform of laws allowing incumbent politicians to redraw the boundaries of voting districts in order to produce an electoral outcome more favorable to a single group: themselves. The process - known as gerrymandering after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who reconfigured a voting district so wildly in 1812 that the outline on a county map was said to resemble a salamander - is a fairly obvious example of gaming the system. It just isn't fair, except in the eyes of the people who are already in power and want to stay there.
Few lawmakers (at least the ones currently in office) support change. A rare exception is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 2008 promotion of the redistricting reform measure known as Proposition 11 forms the backbone of the film. The lead-up to that election, and its dramatic results, give the film a bit of nail-biting suspense, not to mention a beginning, a middle and an end. "Like a real movie," as Ah-nuld jokes to the camera at one point.
Documentarian Jeff Reichert's film openly acknowledges one big problem for the reform movement, however. Most people's eyes tend to "glaze over," as another interviewee puts at, at the mere mention of the word "reform." It's an issue without a lot of traction, it seems, especially because many Americans don't even know what gerrymandering is. (For them, the film starts with a helpful, short prologue called "Gerrymandering 101.")
Unfortunately, Reichert's film suffers, to a small degree, from the same eye-glazing problem as the reform movement itself. It jumps around from California to Texas to Iowa to Louisiana and back, quite literally all over the map, with lots of numbingly repetitive cartographic visuals. In the process, it's not that we lose sight of the film's strongest point - that gerrymandering is cheating - but potential solutions tend to get lost in the sauce.
Is there any hope? There's no silver bullet, the film tells us. Redistricting reform can take one of several approaches: setting up an independent commission; implementing stricter rules for politicians; or eliminating voting by district entirely.
So which was Prop 11? Oddly, the film never says. It stirs you up about the problem, which is commendable, without telling you how to fix it.
For that, the film's closing credits are thoughtful enough to send the rabble it has roused to www.endgerrymandering.com.
Contains nothing objectionable, unless you count rampant cheating.