Friday, August 22, 2008

What could be better?

The Apple 1984 TV commercial is many people's all-time favorite. This week's Forbes includes "DIY Democracy". That's part of it's series on grass-roots innovation. Here is the former.

"The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error."

William Jennings Bryan thundered those words at the 1896 Democratic convention. Wouldn't he be thrilled with the digital revolution? It's snatching power from the establishment and handing it to the little guy.

Citizens with handheld cameras fight police brutality. Bloggers can unhorse a pompous news anchor. In the industrial counterpart to desktop publishing, amateurs are taking on Sony and even NASA.

Someday--maybe--John Q. Public may wrest power away from the political machine in the task of drawing legislative districts. You can see what the insiders come up with when left to their own devices. The public be damned; the objective is to create safe districts that guarantee lifetime jobs to incumbents. Gerrymandering has made congressional elections into a farce in which only one district in seven is competitive. Democracy? A politician from Zimbabwe would be embarrassed to call it that.

Until recently only political parties had the manpower and the tools to redraw boundaries while keeping districts equal in population. Now anybody can play this game, at least as a kibitzer. For as little as $3,500 the geographic analysis firm Caliper Corp. will let you have the software and census data you need to try out novel geometries on a PC screen. Harvard researcher Micah Altman and others have put together a program that draws compact districts. His software is free.

Democratic redistricting could work like this. After a census, a commission in each state entertains proposals from the political parties and any do-gooder group or individual willing to compete. The commission picks the most compact solution, according to some simple criterion. (Say, add up the miles of boundary lines, giving any segments that track municipal borders a 50% discount, and go for the shortest total.) The mathematical challenge might inspire some gifted amateurs to weigh in.

In most states redistricting is now in the hands of state legislators. It's a stretch, but not an absurdity, to think they might be shamed or forced into ceding the power. Iowa has a nonpartisan system to draw districts, and California will get one (albeit only for state legislative districts) if a ballot initiative passes this fall. In nonreferendum states the hacks might be willing to swear off gerrymandering as of a distant future date, like 2030.

Free people create very cool technology. And they use it to challenge an evil system; they unseat the enemies of democracy, aka the hacks and thieves. What could be better?