Election Watch

Promoting democracy in Namibia

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Preventing gerrymandering

When attempts are made in the delimitation process to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by modifying district boundaries to benefit the party in power, this is called “gerrymandering”. This is an illegal practice both in terms of international norms and as noted in the Namibian Constitution. However, it has reared its head in a number of countries, including In the United States, for example, three techniques to gerrymander districts have been used, all creating districts that have a goal of encompassing a certain percentage of voters from one political party. They are the ‘excess vote method’ which concentrates the voting power of the opposition into just a few districts; the ‘wasted vote method’ which dilutes the power of the opposition across several districts; and the ‘stacked’ method, which involved “drawing bizarre boundaries to concentrate the power of the majority party by linking distant areas into specific, party-in-power districts.”

In Namibia, accusations of practices of gerrymandering have been flung at the Delimitation Commission in the past, and news coverage on the current process shows that some towns and constituencies still feel affected by previous boundary setting decisions.

In a recent news article, for example, DPN’s interim president, Salomon Isaacs noted that “There are clear examples of where this has transpired, as with Khomasdal (in Windhoek), which was thrown in together with Katutura’s Single Quarters to silence that area’s voice. Another is Kronlein, outside the Keetmanshoop Urban Constituency, but which pay rates and taxes to the Keetmanshoop municipality,” he said.

Critics of gerrymandering note, most importantly, that gerrymandering can have a deleterious effect on the principle of democratic accountability, because it often sets the outcome of electoral processes to favour incumbents or a certain political party. They note that with uncompetitive seats/districts reducing the fear that incumbent politicians may lose office, they have less incentive to represent the interests of their constituents, even when those interests conform to majority support for an issue across the electorate as a whole. Incumbent politicians may look out more for their party's interests than for those of their constituents.

Others further argue for the depoliticisation of the redistricting process, claiming that partisan redistricting is responsible for declining electoral competition and increasing legislative polarisation, although this position has been disputed by some researchers.

It is partly for this reason that the announcement of the 2013 Delimitation Commission ignited some debate within and outside the National Assembly, with some politicians cautioning against creating new regions and constituencies due to the cost and limited socio-economic impact of such moves, calling for an increased focus on decentralization efforts instead. News reports quoted APP President Ignatius Shixwameni as stating that the demarcation of constituencies was being politicised, and that there was a perception that the Ccmmission was a “Swapo Party commission” instead of a “commission of the Namibian State.”

Origins of gerrymander

The term, gerrymander, was inspired by the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), who in 1812 signed a bill that legalised the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district in Massachusetts allowing his party to win The boundaries of the district had been so distorted that it had assumed the shape of a salamander (Gerry’s salamander), therefore the word gerrymander.

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Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.