A Political “To Do” List

Pretty much everyone I know is absolutely obsessed with this bizarre Presidential race. In one sense, that’s good—people paying attention are unlikely to break for Trump. But the intense focus on the national race means that the 2016 down-ticket elections aren’t getting the attention they deserve—not just the Senate, which is critically important, but also the House and especially state-level offices. A decent-sized Hillary victory is likely to tip the Senate. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: If Hillary wins big, could Democrats take the House?

Conventional wisdom says no. After the 2010 census, Republicans dominated state governments in a significant majority of states, and they engaged in one of the most thorough, most strategic, most competent gerrymanderings in history. If you have not read the book “Ratfucked”—buy it and read it. (And yes, that’s the real name of the book.) The 2011 gerrymander did two things: as the GOP intended, it gave Republicans 247 seats in the House of Representatives to the Democrats’ 186. That’s a 61 vote margin– despite the fact that nationally, Democratic House candidates received over a million more votes than Republican House candidates.

But that gerrymander did something else; it destroyed Republican party discipline. It created and empowered the 80+ Republican Representatives who comprise what has been called the “lunatic caucus” and made it virtually impossible to govern. That unintended consequence has now come back to haunt the GOP and frustrate the rest of us.

The structural advantage created by the gerrymander was big enough to put the House out of reach for Democrats in any normal Presidential year. But this is not a normal Presidential year.

The author of “Ratfucked,” says that GOP control of the House was designed to withstand a Presidential-year loss “up to and including” 5% nationally. If Hillary Clinton were to win by more than 5%, Democrats could theoretically swing enough seats to control the House. Obviously, that depends on turnout, on the political culture of various districts, and on the quality of individual candidates, but theoretically, at least, it’s do-able.

As endlessly fascinating as the current electoral horse-races are, we need to pay more attention to the systemic problems that are at the root of our increasingly undemocratic electoral system; if we don’t address those, we will never regain a level playing field, and there will be no incentive for the Republican Party to grow up and abandon its current reliance on appeals to racial grievance. Both America and the Democratic Party need an adult, responsible center-right opposition.

Gerrymandering is the practice of partisan redistricting. The desired outcome is as many safe districts as possible: Pack as many members of the opposition party into as few districts as possible, and create less-lopsided but also safe districts for the party in charge.

Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when it doesn’t matter?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with no meaningful choice.  We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency. Political scientists suggest that it may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places may NOT include the voting booth.

In a safe district, the only effective way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even when those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended,  we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side.

Lawmakers who are elected from safe deep-red or deep-blue seats respond almost exclusively to incentives from their districts. They are perfectly willing to ignore their party’s leadership if they think that will get them points back home, or help them avert a primary challenge. As a result, the ability to demand party discipline is a thing of the past. (Just ask John Boehner or Paul Ryan, if you don’t believe me.)

Even worse– reduced participation in the political process, and the feeling that the system has been rigged, diminishes the legitimacy of subsequent government action. Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the eligible voters in the district?

It isn’t just gerrymandering. Money in politics has always been a problem; Citizens United unleashed torrents of dark money, prompted the creation of SuperPacs, and added to the perception that America is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy.

Particularly worrisome, at least to me, are the persistent efforts to suppress the vote of likely Democratic constituencies. Indiana has the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a voter ID law. Voter ID, as you know, was justified as a measure to prevent in-person voting fraud—a type of vote fraud that is virtually non-existent. Voter ID laws are really intended to discourage poor people and people of color from voting.

The Voter ID law recently struck down in North Carolina is a case in point: as the court noted, photo IDs most used by African Americans, including public assistance IDs, were removed from the list of acceptable identification, while IDs issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles—which blacks are less likely to have—were retained. Cutting the first week of early voting came in reaction to data showing that the first seven days were used by large numbers of black voters. Other changes made voting harder for people who had recently moved, and blacks move more often than whites.

Indiana not only has Voter ID, we are also one of only two states where the polls close at six, making it more difficult for working people to cast a ballot. We need to change these and other systemic disincentives to democratic participation.

  • We need to work for a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United.
  • We need to establish election day as a national holiday.
  • We need to work for redistricting reform, so that voters choose their representatives instead of allowing Representatives to choose their voters.
  • We should also look at alternatives to the way we conduct primaries, and
  • We need to investigate ways to mitigate the effects of residential sorting.

All of those reforms would help reinvigorate American democracy.

Of course, if Donald Trump becomes President, none of that will matter. The world as we know it won’t be the world as we know it; Canada will probably build the wall and pay for it, and I plan to volunteer for that mission to colonize Mars.


  1. Yes, as you say… keep your eyes on the prize. If Trump loses these Untied States will take a large step forward in all areas. Otherwise…
    The down ticket will follow in line with the Presidential vote (I believe)
    This is a nail biter and much closer than most think.
    Vote, vote, vote.

  2. This entire country is in dire straits at this time as never before since the Civil War. I keep preaching – to the choir on this blog – that the state elections are as vital as the wacky presidential election between two people who are basically disliked and distrusted by many voters.

    Dana Black is campaigning for the state Representative seat in the 88th district; held by Brian Bosma for THIRTY YEARS with no one running against him before. Per Dana, he isn’t even bothering to campaign he is so sure of maintaining his stronghold in the Indiana House. How many others in red states are in this position and what are the chances they are correct in their assumption? The 88th district straddle the Marion County line near the upper northeast corner. Dana is a Black, lesbian, Democrat who sincerely wants to support all constituents who have had no representation in that area for 30 years.

    Trump’s “pivot” lasted less than two days and now he is cancelling rallies and speeches with no explanation – of course this “legend in his own mind” believes he does not have to give reasons for any of his actions – or inaction. When will the GOP “fess up” that they have made a monumental error in putting this uncontrollable non-Republican in total control of the presidential election? Will they make that admission and, if they do, what can be done to rectify it at this point?

    Will the current gerrymandered district residents recognize the current state and national election reality and will they take action at the polls to change the current out of control, control of their lives? Do they fully recognize the importance of this election – the total election. Republicans being Republicans leaves me in doubt of this happening, the few I have spoken to who do not support Trump say they will not vote. Listen closely to Trump’s campaign workers as they try, in vain, to convince us he is not “pivoting” and has not returned to his original tactics within hours and he continues to add cancellations. He does not play well with others; even his own campaign workers and the GOP who have given him full support.

    The future of this country rests on the success or failure of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. How have we, as a nation and state-by-state, allowed it to happen?

  3. JoAnne,

    “How have we, as a nation and state -by-state, allowed it to happen?”

    That’s the advantage of a ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS. Both of us know that Donald Trump is just a figurehead in something much larger and more dangerous to American democracy than he is and that it has to be identified as much as it hurts to do so.

  4. Anyone expecting miracles if Trump loses needs to curb his/her enthusiasm. Even in the best of circumstances, Government moves slowly. The question today is whether it will move slowly forward, or slowly backward.

    I doubt there will be any kind of landslide, therefore I doubt that the House will change much. Spending bills come from the House. Only Speaker Ryan can determine whether he will follow the “Hastert Rule” that demands a Republican Speaker not bring any bill to the floor of the House unless it is favored by a majority of his own caucus. There are many pieces of legislation that would have passed with bi-partisan support, if Boehner had let the House vote.

    Let’s hope that the Speaker decides that the best statement he can make about Mr. Hastert is to eliminate his name from the daily conversation in the House.

  5. Sheila,

    Could you expand on these two thoughts in your post? If doing so today would be too time consuming, could it be done in tomorrow’s blog?

    *We should also look at alternatives to the way we conduct primaries, and
    *We need to investigate ways to mitigate the effects of residential sorting.

    Many thanks!

  6. Marv; I will respond to my own question and your referral to ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS with this comment: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    Peggy; no thinking voter in this country expects miracles if Trump loses the election; we do expect NOT to experience “boots on the ground” here in our own country or nuclear destruction world-wide. I lost enthusiasm when Hillary was nominated; no matter how many of Bernie’s issues she agreed to include in the Democratic campaign foundation to receive his full endorsement. With the POSSIBILITY of Bernie Sanders as the nominee, I did maintain hope that would mean voters would move on down the ballot to vote for the Democrats at state and national levels. If Hillary wins; all I can hope for is some level of damage control from whoever fills the Congressional seats in the Senate and the House. I know not to expect miracles…other than the possible miracle of a Democratic Congress to curb the 1% which currently controls this country.

  7. JoAnn,


    1st: I apologize for the (e).

    2nd: I wish it was as simple as $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. Dollars are a major cause, but are not the root, even though the deviant elite provides the necessary fertilizer for the growth of the vast fields of political “wild” flowers that are inundating America.

    in-un-date (in’ en dat’) vt. -dat’ed, -dat’ing [<L in-, in +unda, a wave] to cover with or as with a flood; deluge–in'un-da'tion n.
    ~Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus

  8. It probably will not happen but we should have Federal Laws governing the Primary Elections as well as the General Elections such as voter, ID., and the ability to declare in confidence the party you intend to vote for in the primary when you walk in the booth. A National Holiday for Election Day, and longer hours at least here in Indiana to actually vote. Also make absentee ballots available for all, after establishing voter ID.

    I think also all states should have a system similar to Indiana that is paper ballot fed into a machine, that way you have paper trail in the event a machine fails.

    We have a third party in the Libertarians, but we need to break the hold of the two major parties with greater ballot access to fourth or fifth parties.

  9. Louie,

    “We have a third party in the Libertarians, but we need to break the hold of the two major parties with greater ballot access to fourth or fifth parties.”

    You’re right. The two-party system in the U.S. is no longer working. But, the European models are not very effective either. Unfortunately, democracy is not in an ascending arc right now. That’s for sure.

  10. Excellent and thought-provoking as always. I haven’t read “Ratfucked” and don’t know if I can force myself to, because I’m almost done with Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”. (FYI, I’m listening to the audio, available for download from IMCPL.). Reading two in a row would be ulcer inducing. I don’t think there’s a shred of hope for taking back the House, because the Koch network has nearly a billion $$$ to spent on this election, and they’re apparently not spending any on Trump. So it all goes down ticket and to state races. How soon will they control all 50 states?

  11. We don’t have a candidate to defeat but a cause. A cause that appropriated the guise of the GOP. It’s really plain old common ignorance pursued by oligarchs.

  12. Louie, I would have thought that if libertarianism worked some country in the history of the world would have employed it. I know of none.

  13. Elections are held to make people think they have a say in government. In poll after poll americans overwhelmingly want a balanced budget, immigration reform, and gun loopholes closed…yet congress has failed to act on any of those wishes. It could be argued that this country was an oligarchy from the beginning since only property owners were allowed to vote. At any rate we are militarily and economically the strongest country in the world so perhaps the corporations are doing a pretty good job. Whats good for wall street is good for all. Besides, the american people aren’t about to start paying congress more than the NRA or other lobbists.

  14. Pete,

    “We don’t have a candidate to defeat but a cause. A cause that appropriated the guise of the GOP. It’s really plain old common ignorance pursued by oligarchs.”

    Exactly right. That’s the issue. But, it is a lot easier to target the candidate. Unfortunately, the failure to deal with the CAUSE will more than likely turn out to be a political disaster for everyone.

  15. Ij have predicted all along that we will win big with Hillary and re-take the Senate. I am unsure of our chances in the House because of the way it has been so criminally gerrymandered. There is a good chance that it will remain Republican, but even so, perhaps the Republican survivors will be chastened for future reference. As to causes, of course candidates stand for much beyond their personal attributes. Thus we know from history that Republicans in general are for the rich and comfortable and that Democrats are for working people, minorities et al. (though lately the DLC and such travesties as Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall give one pause to so proclaim). (I have written a blog just today which questions so-called “New Democrats'” allegiance to New Deal idealism under the guise of transitional economics.) My predictions are, of course, dependent upon every election’s bugaboo – turnout.

  16. Pete, I would agree if Libertarian-ism was viable it would have many more adherents and elected representatives. I have spoken to some Libertarians over the years, I do not know how they expect a modern civilization to operate. Even Hunter-Gathers have some form of organization. I guess we are supposed to be like a wildebeest herd and wait for the predators to cull us out.

  17. Voter ID law:
    1. Who do you know that doesn’t have, or can’t get the documents to vote?
    2. Vote early
    3. Absentee ballot by mail

    Disingenuous and dishonest.

    Democracy? Your own party nominates your candidate with 15% of the delegates being super delegates, who can vote for who ever has the best bribe.

    And your electing Hillary is as disgusting as electing Trump.

    Quit acting like that would be a good thing

  18. I don’t know if Hillary has stated a position on gerrymandering but she DOES want to reverse the Citizens United decision. If everyone reading this blog will convince 25 independents or Republicans to support Hillary and a Democratic Senator and congressional candidate, the vice grip of big money in undisclosed federal contributions will be broken.

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