The new documentary Gerrymandering tackles one of the least sexy aspects of the modern political age.
It’s easy to run wild with intern affairs and other office misdeeds, but redrawing voting districts is only appealing to the wonkiest of political wonks. Even radio talk show hosts, who demand a constant flow of controversial topics, often ignore gerrymandering.
That’s a grievous error, the film says, since the practice helps ensure politicians aren’t held fully accountable for their votes and often makes a mockery of the democratic process. It still doesn’t make for an arresting documentary feature, at least in the earnest hands of director Jeff Reichert.
The film offers Gerrymandering 101 for the uninitiated, describing how population shifts and voter reapportionment have been the norm for American politicians. Incumbents often draw the most exaggerated shapes imaginable to keep out a constituency they can’t win over, or divide up a challenger’s district into easily defeated segments.
Redistricting can be done along racial and partisan lines, and the finished product can be so narrow as to only include the middle of a particular street. Presidents starting with John F. Kennedy through Barack Obama have tried drawing attention to gerrymandering, but few could boast tangible results.
“This form of voter discrimination must end,” declared President George H. W. Bush, while one talking head calls the practice “the most effective way of manipulating elections short of outright fraud.”
Yet other Western countries, like England, have taken steps to reform the practice and take some of the political maneuvering out of it.
“Gerrymandering is America’s best-kept secret,” we’re told.
The film is so nonpartisan it aches. For every Democrat slapped with the gerrymandering label, there’s a Republican hot on his or her heels, and political cheap shots are left to other firebrand docs.
And the talking head roll call affirms the film’s bipartisan meme, spreading the R and D labels to include the likes of Howard Dean and Ed Rollins and former Calif. Governors Gray Davis and Pete Wilson.
The narrative through line involves Kathay Feng with California Common Cause, and her passionate attempt to help pass Proposition 11 in the Golden State.
The measure would curb the redistricting laws and, its proponents hoped, alleviate some of the dirty politics within the state. Vocal Proposition 11 supporter Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen both in news clips and in interview segments bolstering the cause.