Tag Archives: gerrymandering

A Bit Far Out…But…

Anyone who follows politics in today’s U.S. of A. is aware that gerrymandering is at the root of much of what ails us. There’s a reason Democrats have a chance to retain Senate control in the upcoming midterms: Senate races cannot be gerrymandered. (Okay, the fact that several GOP candidates are wacko has helped.) If voting majorities decided the composition of the House of Representatives, Democrats would easily hold that chamber–but political scientists tell us that barely a handful of House districts are currently competitive. They’ve been gerrymandered by both parties, but mostly by the GOP.

I’ve written (a lot) about the issues raised by gerrymandering, and I won’t repeat the litany here (although I encourage you to read my academic paper analyzing those issues–and weep…).

Thus far, our highly politicized U.S. Supreme Court has declined to get involved, piously declaring gerrymandering to be “a political question.” So a recent ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court wasn’t just a breath of fresh air–it was a light at the end of a dark tunnel. (Okay, I’ll quit the hokey metaphors, but I really, really loved this court’s conclusion!) Here’s the lede:

In a remarkable decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday that because the state legislature was unconstitutionally gerrymandered, Republican lawmakers may have lacked the power to approve amendments to the state constitution and put them before voters.

The decision, which the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority issued along party lines, stopped short of granting the plaintiffs’ requests to strike down two amendments passed by Republicans in 2018—one to require photo voter ID and another to cap any state income tax at 7%. The justices instead returned the case to the trial court for further findings, though its framing of the dispute indicates that there’s a strong likelihood the state courts will ultimately invalidate the amendments.

The court’s conclusion was buttressed by the fact that a large number of the state’s legislative districts had been struck down in 2017; the federal courts found they had been racially drawn to discriminate against Black voters.

However, Republicans who had been elected under the unconstitutional maps used their supermajorities to place their amendments on the ballot the following year, when they were ultimately approved by voters.

The heart of the argument was the legitimacy of actions taken by illegitimate lawmakers:

The plaintiffs, who are backed by the NAACP, made the unusual—but not unprecedented—argument that the GOP’s widespread illegal gerrymandering rendered the legislature a “usurper” that legally lacked the power to amend North Carolina’s foundational governing document because it had “lost its claim to popular sovereignty.” A lower court agreed in 2019 by striking down the two amendments, but a 2-1 Republican majority on the state Court of Appeals reversed that ruling along party lines in 2020, leading the plaintiffs to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The decision sending the case back to the trial court instructed that court to consider three questions: whether the amendments that were subject to the protest  would “immunize legislators … from democratic accountability,” whether they would “further the exclusion of a particular class of voters from the democratic process,” or whether those amendments were  intended to discriminate against the same type of voters who had been discriminated against by the illegal gerrymandering. If the trial court found the answer to any one of these three questions be “yes,” s/he would be “require[d]” to strike down the amendments.

I was particularly struck by the first question, addressing “democratic accountability.” 

In Indiana, it is a given that our statehouse is occupied by lawmakers lacking that “democratic accountability.” A number of academic studies have ranked the state among the five most gerrymandered in the country. It’s been a long time since I studied Indiana’s Constitution, but I do recall that Part Two, Section 1 declares that  “All elections shall be free and equal.” I also remember the (very strained) decision in Bush v. Gore to the effect that voting must pass an “equal protection” standard.

How equal are the votes of gerrymandered Hoosiers? How “democratically accountable” are the lawmakers who hold their positions thanks to the very denial of that equal protection?

In gerrymandered Indiana, we have plenty of evidence that rural ballots count more than urban ones. The citizens who reside in “blue” cities have less voice in state government than the citizens who live in the “red” exurbs and rural precincts of the state. How is this situation “free and equal”?

Calling on the Hoosier state’s creative lawyers…

Getting Out The Vote

Several years ago,  my husband and I took a week-long cruise on a small boat that accommodated only eleven passengers. One of those eleven, as it happened, was a retired professor of public administration from Australia, and we had several fascinating exchanges about policy differences between our two countries.

One of those differences involved elections.

In Australia, the law requires  that every citizen vote. I initially recoiled at that suggestion; surely, people too disinterested to go to the polls  unless required to do so would cast uninformed ballots…but the more I thought about  it, the more Australia’s system appealed to me.

Many democratic countries evidently require people to vote, and fine those who don’t.  (Actually, as I understand it, what is mandatory is appearance at the polls. In many systems, there is apparently something akin to a “none of the above” option that will fulfill the legal obligation.)

Requiring citizens to vote would help ensure that election results mirror the preferences of the entire population, not just those sufficiently motivated to express those preferences at the polls. At least some percentage of the currently disengaged would take more interest in government and politics–knowing that they would have to cast a ballot, at least some Americans might make an effort to know something about the people on that ballot and (gasp!) even the system within which they aspire to operate.

Arguably, universal turnout would require candidates to craft more inclusive messages, since targeting an ideological sliver would no longer be the path to victory. (Targeting one’s base is one reason for our currently polarized politics.) Candidates and parties would also save a lot of money and effort currently spent on get out the vote efforts.

So what are the cons, the arguments against mandatory voting?

Requiring people to vote would assure the participation of low-interest, arguably uninformed people, “alphabet voters” who would simply check a box in order to avoid a fine. (You can lead a voter to the polls, but you can’t force him to think.) Even a token fine would fall most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged–the very people who have difficulty getting to the polls in our current system.

At least one scholar has suggested that–rather than making voting mandatory (which America will do when pigs fly)–we should work to make elections more competitive, because turnout increases when voters have meaningful choices. Gerrymandering currently makes that solution untenable.

Gerrymandering is also a huge disincentive to voting; when you are convinced your vote won’t count, you are understandably less likely to make the effort. And because Republicans have been far more successful in gerrymandering (not that Democrats don’t try–they just aren’t nearly as good at it), the people who are least likely to vote are the people most likely to vote Democratic.

A recent study of turnout should be filed under “read it and weep.”

A new study from BYU and the University of Virginia analyzed 400 million voter records from elections in 2014 and 2016 and found that minority citizens, young people, and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than whites, older citizens, and Republican Party supporters. Moreover, those in the former groups were also more likely to live in areas where their neighbors are less likely to vote.

“We’re finding that the circumstances of other citizens who live around you plays an important role in voter turnout,” said Dr. Michael Barber, BYU professor of political science and co-author of the study. “Much of the country is segregated—especially by race and partisanship. Minorities are more likely to live around other minorities who are also less likely to vote. The same is true of voters of both parties. These patterns can create a situation that results in persistent patterns of lower turnout in certain communities for a variety of reasons.”

The study found that, in 2016, White citizens voted at a rate of between 9 and 15 percentage points higher than Black citizens, Asian citizens, and Hispanic citizens. In 2014, the gaps were even higher, with Whites voting at a rate 9 to 18 percentage points higher than minority groups. There were similar gaps in political party turnout, with Republicans  more likely to vote than Democrats.

Unsurprising but depressing, the data also confirmed that the voting rate of citizens 60 years old or older was roughly 40 percentage points higher than that of citizens 30 years old or younger.

If those demographic gaps in turnout narrowed–or, with mandatory voting, disappeared– a significant number of districts that have been gerrymandered by partisans would no longer be safe–after all, the people drawing district lines must depend upon previous turnout data. They have no way of knowing the political preferences of the people who didn’t bother to vote.

Increased turnout could save American democracy.

 

A Concise Diagnosis

In an aside in a recent column about the January 6th hearings, Jennifer Rubin really summed up the current crisis (or more accurately, crises) in American governance.

Trump utterly failed the country; his successor is stymied by a radicalized opposition determined to see him fail. The Senate is gridlocked by a minority party wielding the filibuster to, among other things, preserve voter suppression and subversion laws. The Supreme Court has been overtaken by rank, radical partisans whose decisions cannot be defended on the merits and whose public utterances and tone lack any semblance of “judicial temperament.” We seem stuck because structural advantages for the minority (the Senate, the electoral college, the right-wing Supreme Court) make real reform impossible.

Rubin’s main thrust was the meaning of the very real heroism displayed by poll workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. (The column was written before the even more impressive bravery displayed by Cassidy Hutchinson this week.)

Unlike a number of the witnesses called by the committee, these two women–mother and daughter–weren’t high-ranking members of the administration or Department of Justice, people who might lose a current job but would have little trouble finding new ones. Freeman and Share are ordinary citizens who were doing some of the low-paid jobs essential to the operation of democratic elections. Rubin is certainly correct in lauding the courage they displayed both in doing those jobs accurately and in testifying; her point was that they served the country just as surely as our military does, and that we need civilians “like Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss in public life if we are to muddle through a dangerous and disturbing period in our history.”

I don’t disagree, but I remain fixated on the quoted paragraph, because it succinctly sums up the challenges we currently face–and their magnitude.

I’ve written several times about the filibuster, and how its current use differs substantially from its historic one. The wrongheaded protection of what the filibuster has become allows a minority of lawmakers– who have been elected by a minority of voters– to veto the demonstrable will of the great majority of American citizens.

I need not reiterate the evidence showing how drastically the current Supreme Court has deviated from what was thought to be settled jurisprudence. To use a term beloved by a former vice-presidential candidate, the Court’s majority has “gone rogue.” To the extent that Americans were relying on the judiciary to protect fundamental rights, the Court’s current majority has signaled repeatedly that such reliance is misplaced–at least, so long as that majority fancies itself a religious tribunal rather than a court of law  bound by precedent and serving a theologically and ideologically diverse population.

In the final sentence of that quoted paragraph, Rubin alludes to what has become my most pressing–and depressing– concern: the obsolescence of much of America’s electoral and governing systems.

I doubt we can ever do anything about the fact that electing two senators from every state, irrespective of massive disproportions in population, means that very soon 70% of the Senate will represent 30% of the population. So long as our rogue court continues to protect partisan gerrymandering, lawmakers in both houses will continue to be answerable primarily–indeed, overwhelmingly– to rural Americans. The difficulty of amending the Constitution means we are probably saddled with the Electoral College for the foreseeable future–I don’t hold out much hope that the National Popular Vote Compact will be ratified by states having the necessary 270 electoral votes. (I would love to be wrong!)

The only remedy I can see would be a massive turnout in November repudiating the GOP –turnout large enough to allow Democrats  to get rid of the filibuster and pass a number of remedial measures–most importantly, the voting rights act. That law  would–among other salutary consequences– outlaw gerrymandering. Congress could also add Justices to the Court, diluting the power of the Court’s radical theocrats.

Are the Democrats perfect? Certainly not. But they’e a thousand times saner than the cult that is today’s GOP. If that cult loses badly enough, it will either be reformed from within, by genuine conservatives like Adam Kitzinger and Liz Cheney, or go the way of the Whigs.

Either way, We the People could then go back to arguing over our policy differences, rather than the survival of the republic.

In a very real way, Rubin was right: America’s future depends on ordinary citizens–those who do their jobs, and especially those who cast their votes to rescue the Constitution and Bill of Rights from the autocrats and theocrats. I’m clinging by my fingernails to the hope that there are enough of those citizens…

Gerrymandering Abroad

I’ve posted numerous times about the  equally numerous ways in which American gerrymandering distorts elections. Although it hadn’t previously occurred to me, it turns out that  American politicians aren’t the only ones who’ve figured out how to draw lines to do an end run around democracy and ensure continued control by a political minority.

I was commiserating with one of my sons over the results of the election in Hungary. I had hoped that the opposition to Viktor Orban would prevail–the pre-election reporting suggested that there was significant support for that opposition. My son directed me to an analysis in the Economist showing how the Hungarian version of gerrymandering had packed opposition votes into small districts, and–given the Hungarian system–how that tactic guaranteed a victory for Fidesz, Orban’s Neo-fascist, pro-Putin party.

In an upcoming election a populist conservative party is poised for victory. It leads polls by mid-single digits. It is also aided by gerrymandered districts, drawn after it won an election in 2010, which should secure its majority today even if its opponents get more votes. The party is not America’s Republicans, who lead polls by just two points and whose advantage in gerrymandering has dwindled. Instead, it is one that some Republicans cite as a model: Fidesz in Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, which faces voters on April 3rd.

Hungary has a mixed-member parliament. Just over half of mps represent geographic districts; the rest come from party lists allocated in proportion to the national vote. Academics often praise this method. But Hungary’s version is warped.

First, rather than having independent experts draw districts, Fidesz drew them itself. Legislators in many American states do this, too. But in America, constituencies must have nearly equal numbers of people. In Hungary, by contrast, their populations can vary by up to 35%. This lets the party in power pack opposition voters into a few heavily populated districts, and spread out its own among lots of less-populous ones.

Here in the good old U.S. of A, we’ve seen how much game-playing can be accomplished by partisans even when districts must be numerically equal. The key would seem to be the line-drawing role of those partisans–the American rules that allow parties in control of  state legislative bodies to draw that state’s districts, and the Hungarian rules that allow the Fidesz party to do so in Hungary.

In both countries, the goal is the same: to use the line-drawing power to pack opposition voters into as few districts as possible, and to spread out its own voters among a greater number of districts where they maintain a majority, albeit a thinner one. In Hungary, where districts can vary in population, it’s easier to do–but the approach is the same.

Fidesz has deployed this tactic deftly. When it took power in 2010, it fared similarly in the least- and most-populous districts. At the next election in 2014, after it re-drew the borders, its vote share was six percentage points higher in districts with fewer than 70,000 eligible voters than in those with at least 80,000. As a result, Fidesz won 91% of constituency seats and a two-thirds supermajority overall, despite getting just 45% of the vote. In 2018 it won 67% of seats again, with 49% of the vote.

The Economist calculated that– thanks to gerrymandering–Hungary’s opposition would need 54% of votes to control parliament.(Members of parliament vote for the President.) It also calculated that Fidesz could hold on to power with just 43%. “By contrast, at the peak of American Republicans’ gerrymandering in 2012, they needed 48% to win the House of Representatives.

Some political scientists argue that gerrymandering isn’t really a major contributor to  America’s less-than-democratic outcomes–that the urban/rural divide has produced the “packing and cracking” that gives us minority rule. But early results from states that have enacted  redistricting reforms suggest otherwise.

Academic researchers have found–somewhat to their surprise– that redistricting reform moderates the partisanship of Representatives. Studies have also confirmed that the use of neutral institutions such as commissions produces fairer and more competitive elections.

Gerrymandering has been shown to depress turnout– after all, why vote when redistricting has evidently neutered you? In a 2008 study, a researcher calculated that truly competitive House districts could generate up to eleven million additional votes, and that those votes would come disproportionately from states with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices, like Indiana.

The Economist analysis of Hungary’s system suggests that illiberal politicians everywhere will use gerrymandering to retain control and thwart majoritarian choices. (Of course, in Hungary, there’s the depressing reality that Orban remains popular, which makes it easier.)

Here in the U.S., absent solid Democratic control of Congress and/or passage of the election and voting reforms currently stymied by Joe Manchin, our system will continue to discount the clear desires of the American majority.

 

A Problem? Or A Solution?

A columnist from Yahoo News has pinpointed what he describes as a “big problem” for Democrats. My reaction to the headline was along the lines of, “so what else is new”…every time I turn to an opinion page, someone is outlining yet another reason that Democrats are headed down the toilet, and taking the country with them.

When I read the essay, however, I was struck by the irony. Here’s the basic argument:

New Census data analyzed by the American Enterprise Institute shows that eight of the 10 states losing the most residents from April 2020 through June 2021 have Democratic leadership, while nine of the 10 states gaining the most new residents have Republican governors. The numbers measure net domestic migration, which is the net change in the number of people moving in or out of one state, from or to another. That isolates people choosing to move, whereas population growth alone would also include births and deaths….

This is a big problem, according to the author, because…

Population determines the size of each state’s delegation in the House of Representatives, and red states are gaining while blue states are losing. Following the 2020 Census, three seats moved from blue states that went for Biden in 2020, on net, to red states that voted for Trump. That shift might seem small, except Democrats have only a five-seat majority in the House now. The next reapportionment won’t take place until after the 2030 census, but it could bring an even bigger tilt in favor of Republicans.

Or not.

What if the people moving from blue to red states are mostly moderates or liberals? (Granted, there’s no way to estimate their politics). Isn’t it possible that an influx of more moderate and/or liberal folks will change the social dynamics of their new environments? I still remember an article urging Democrats to move to places where their votes might make a difference, rather than staying in deep-blue states like New York or California where they simply add to already massive Democratic majorities.)

One might also point out that the addition of a sufficient number of non-Rightwing voters to the electorate of a red state makes it harder for the Republicans of that state to gerrymander districts. We are seeing a related phenomenon in Indiana–where the emptying-out of rural areas has complicated GOP line-drawing–and the problem isn’t limited to the Hoosier state.

If you can believe some good news on the gerrymandering front, Greg Sargent recently delivered some via the Washington Post.

The long-awaited, long-feared Gerrymandering Apocalypse of 2021 has not materialized for Democrats after all.

Throughout last year, many analysts and panicked Democrats alike concluded that Republicans would win the House in 2022 because of their outsize control over the redrawing of district lines. Some suggested Republicans could take the House on the strength of extreme gerrymanders alone.

But that conventional wisdom just took a big hit with the release of a new analysis by the Cook Political Report. It concludes that the redistricting wars are shaping up as a wash and that the map may be somewhat better for Democrats than during the past decade.

The analysis confirms that Republicans will still retain a significant edge, thanks to their redistricting shenanigans, but that edge will be somewhat less than before.

Why is that? What restrained them? (Hint: it wasn’t a sudden attack of ethics.)

This time around, Republicans have had to shore up their safe seats, and the need to do so has limited their ability to gerrymander as aggressively as they otherwise would have done. (Also, to be fair, in Democratic states, the Democrats gerrymandered too.)

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report is quoted as explaining that there are several places where  demographic shifts benefit Democrats, particularly in suburban areas, forcing  Republicans to “play keepaway. A number of their own districts have become more vulnerable over the past 10 years. They’ve had no choice but to focus on shoring those districts up.”

Demographic shifts are the result of more moderate and liberal people moving in, as well as the changing voting patterns of sane people already living there. Those voters are steadily leaving the GOP, recoiling from the Republicans'”out-and-proud” racism, vaccine denial, and other cult-like behaviors.

The bad news, of course, is that when the GOP’s already-safe seats are “shored up,”  Republicans representing those deep-red districts have an increased incentive to go full MAGA. We aren’t likely to see fewer members of what has been dubbed “the lunatic caucus.”

Bottom line: It’s always more complicated than the pundits want to make it–but there are more rational Americans than MAGA crazies, so turnout is still the name of the game.