Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not One Human

When I was a high school student in Kansas City, Missouri, our history class included a great deal about the importance of Missouri in the Civil War. To hear my teacher tell it, Missouri is where the outcome really was determined. During my time in the Show Me State, I spent a couple of weeks in Columbia ... long enough to know that "Cruisin' the Loop" was the main weekend activity.

These Missouri memories came together for me today, as I learned about a very geographic scandal in the capital.

The scandal involves a peculiar case of gerrymandering, an all-too-common phenomenon by which politicians try to choose their voters instead of risking the opposite. I have written about the practice extensively on this blog, especially in the 2010 post Article One: Enumeration.

This quasi-governmental business district includes just one voter.
But its goal was to include zero.
The Columbia case goes far beyond the usual tricks in which geographic skills are put to sinister uses. The usual idea is to create legislative districts that will maximize the numeric advantage of incumbents. This is reprehensible and counter to the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. It turns elections into a game, a game in which the odds are stacked in favor of the house. But at least it is a game that allows humans to vote.

The Missouri scheme tried to go a step further. Business "leaders" along the Loop in Columbia conspired to draw a boundary around a "community improvement district" in such a way that humans would not be able to vote at all. If they could achieve that, Missouri law would allow the right to vote to transfer to the businesses themselves. The fact that Missouri allows voting to default to businesses if no humans are available suggests that this scheme might have a precedent.

The reasons for the scheme were complicated, and apparently they hoped nobody would notice. They formed the district in order to make some shared capital improvements. They even used it to levy a small property-tax surcharge on themselves.

The bulk of the improvements, though, would be paid (or more accurately, repaid -- they already spent the money) by a special sales tax. In addition to shifting the cost of capital improvements to retail customers in this way, the businesses (some of which would not even have customers affected by the tax) would be able to pay an executive director with those funds.

It was because they feared voters would not approve such a regressive form of taxation -- Robin Hood in reverse, really -- they conspired to make sure no humans would get to vote on the matter.
Taxation without representation. We had a little set-to about that in Boston a while back.
It is that executive director who comes out looking the worst when they discovered that the evil clever geographers involved in this scheme might have been evil enough, but they were not clever enough. They allowed a single, pesky human to be included in the district. Jen Henderson is a student renting an apartment in the district who is not only a voter, but also an informed voter. She was pressured to disenfranchise herself so that "voting" would revert to businesses. (Scare quotes used because I still believe voting is something that only human citizens can do.) Once she learned what a serious game she was now part of, this young citizen took her civic duty very seriously and learned all she could about the issues involved. She has not announced how she will vote, but she has made it very clear she WILL vote.

Politicians who seek to disenfranchise voters are sometimes called "conservatives," but they really have no interest in conserving "American values" of democracy. Rather, they eschew Lincoln's words about the purpose of the Civil War, which was to ensure

"that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Although the Columbia case could be dismissed as a quirky story with only very localized impact, it is indicative of a political climate in which the humanity of individuals is systematically separated from what they can provide in practical terms. The rights to vote, express opinions, organize, and peaceably assemble are essential aspects of our humanity.

They are increasingly separated, however, from our ability to provide work or, as it turns out, pay taxes and fees. My essays on immigration and the human sieve describe this phenomenon in the arena of immigration policy, in which labor somehow crosses the border, but civil rights remains on the other side.


  1. Hi Professor,
    While I enjoy reading your blogs I was surprised to have come across a glaring inaccuracy (minor in the scheme of things) regarding the state capital of Missouri which you stated as Columbia. Perhaps you had a long night without coffee, but meant to write Jefferson City instead. Although my intention to correct wasn't to embarrass you I figured it needed your attention.

  2. Indeed -- I guess I've been away from the Show Me State for far too long!


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