In October, the budget and deficit negotiations were in full gridlock, with each side vehemently blaming the other. I know the actual culprit: the relational database system. It’s one of technology’s unintended consequences that has had a tremendous impact on American politics and a story worth noting in today’s ever-changing technology landscape.

The relational database is a type of database first defined in the early 1970’s by IBM. Previous types of database systems were fairly rigid and were typically designed for a single, explicit purpose, e.g., keeping track of bank balances, and even small changes such as changing a zip code from five to nine digits could take months on programming time. The more advanced relational database saved everything in types of online tables and had the capability of doing a wide range of ad-hoc “queries” on the fly, making it extremely powerful. The first true production relational databases emerged in the early 1980’s, led notably by Oracle Corporation.

What does this have to do with politics? Previous to the late 80’s local political redistricting — done every ten years — was mainly based on a combination of political sampling, guess work while looking to appear politically fair in protecting minority votes. However, with advent of the relational database literally every single household could be loaded into an electronic “map,” and this information used to draw incredibly precise political districts. Savvy politicians who controlled the redistricting process could then create seeming neutral, but fully and safe districts, ensuring their party was likely to receive at least 55 percent of the vote, for example, because they could now track every single known voter.

It was the advent of the relational database that drove this precise and effective gerrymandering of districts. The real political contests shifted from the general elections to the primaries. Nearly always the winner of the primary from the party favored in the redistricting was likely to win.  Primaries typically draw fewer voters, and those that do vote generally tend to be either farther left or right on the political spectrum. This had the effect of appointing either more liberal or conservative candidates, which typically won in these safe districts, and also greatly increased their chance of reelection as an incumbent.

The results is that we now tend to have more hard-lined candidates both in state legislatures and in Congress who are less likely to work together or compromise, and surprise, we have gridlock. I don’t believe this is so much a reflection of popular culture or media, rather the root cause is simply the power of relational database technology when applied effectively in the redistricting process. Some states are changing how they choose candidates in their general election, selecting, for example, not a candidate from each party but rather the top two voter-garnering candidates in the primary, regardless of party. Others are moving the redistricting process to “independent” commissions.

What’s the lesson in-house counsel can take home? Technology can be terribly impactful, for both good and bad, and should be understood and monitored.


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