A terrifically amusing example of how even the best-laid plans of political manipulators can come apart at the seams reaches us from Columbia, Mo. That’s where property owners along a commercial strip plotted to create a voting district without voters, only to discover belatedly that the boundaries they drew actually included one lone voter--and she’s not in favor of their political goal.
Gerrymandering, or the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to benefit incumbents or their parties, is one of the most discreditable features of the American political system. Although district lines sometimes have been drawn to ensure that minority voters who are numerous but scattered can’t be deprived of representation, more often the aim is to disenfranchise the already powerless or to lock incumbents into place.
That’s what happened in the 2012 congressional election, when GOP control of key state legislatures, where congressional districts are drawn, gerrymandered the party into control of the House of Representatives. As Lee Fang of the Nation Institute reported, Democratic House candidates received 50.59% of the vote nationwide, but landed only 201 of the 435 House seats, or 46.2%.
Gerrymandering isn’t always completely foolproof, however. Consider the stunt that gave the practice its name, the effort by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry to redistrict the state legislature in 1812. One district north of Boston was designed in a convoluted, sinuous shape that resembled a salamander, hence the neologism. Although Gerry’s work kept the Massachusetts Senate in the hands of his party, Gerry still lost his job and the Massachusetts House to the rival Federalists.
In Columbia, the business community’s best laid plans have also gone awry. Commercial property owners along a roughly 1.5-mile strip of Business Loop 70 designed a Community Improvement District without registered voters so they could unilaterally impose a sales tax to pay down development debt and finance capital improvements on the strip.
Under the law, a sales tax can be imposed only by the voters within a jurisdiction, unless there aren’t any. Then it can be enacted by a vote of the property owners within the district. The sales tax is the property owners’ preferred option, because it imposes the costs on outsiders, namely shoppers. Without the sales tax, the property owners have to shoulder the costs themselves.
The owners discovered belatedly that their district did include a single voter. She’s Jennifer Henderson, 23, is a student at the University of Missouri and a resident of a university-owned residence within the district. As things stand at the moment, she has sole power to enact or reject the sales tax, and she hasn’t sounded too amendable to the deal, especially since the tax would be applied to food purchased by neighboring low-income residents.
“Taxing their food is kind of sad,” she said, pointing out that the executive director of the district, Carrie Gartner, will earn $70,000 a year. “These people make a quarter of that. They can barely afford to go buy food, and you’re taxing their food.”
Gartner and district representatives haven’t helped their case by attempting to pressure Henderson into voting their way or withdrawing her voter registration. She’s told them she’s keeping her vote.
“I intend to... cast a vote that I believe is in the best interest of my neighborhood,” she told the property owners in an open letter; that includes not only the businesses within the district, but the consumers who spend their money there. At a meeting today the Community Improvement District board will decide whether to go ahead with the vote at all. No wonder they’re nervous.
UPDATE: Citing the “anomaly” of a voting district with only one voter, the CID Board decided Monday to postpone the election.