Definitions first: “Gerrymandering” is the process of re-drawing the districts for state and federal legislatures. In the House of Representatives, for example, the census might determine that particular body’s seats have to be redistributed because of population shifts; gerrymandering is the re-drawing of those lines. But it’s done at a state and local level too, and because the United States is basically the only civilized government that lets the politicians themselves re-draw the lines, well, they’re often re-drawn to the advantage of that politician and/or their party. It’s a crooked, dirty process, and early in Jeff Reichert’s documentary Gerrymandering, we see clips of presidents from JFK to Obama decrying the process. But it’s not stopped, because it’s in the best political interests of whoever is in enough of a majority to stop it—and, in many cases, it’s a quick and easy way to rig the process in your favor. Or, as one commentator puts it, “Why stuff ballot boxes when you can draw districts?”Reichert’s film uses, as its framework, the 2008 California ballot measure “Prop 11,” designed to remove politicians from the process and allow re-districting to be done by an independent panel. The movement is backed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who appears at rallies and comes to the offices of California Common Cause; while there, he sees the documentary crew and ends up giving them structural advice for their film (they should come to the election night party so the picture has “a beginning, a middle, and an end… then it will be like a real movie.”)
One of the film’s centerpiece sequences is centered on the Texas state legislature; there was a big hullabaloo in 2003, when fifty-some Texas Democrats fled across the state line to an Oklahoma Holiday Inn (Jon Stewart is seen having a great time at the lawmakers’ expense). Much hay was made of the state legislators fleeing their responsibilities, but we finally get some context here—Tom Delay had coordinated an out-of-nowhere re-drawing of the lines to pick up extra Republican seats, and the Democrats were attempting to push the vote past a deadline. Delay won; that November, Republicans picked up six more Republican seats.