Tag Archives: gerrymandering

Common Sense Democracy

One of the most frustrating aspects of America’s current political dialogue (if our screaming fits can even be dignified by the term “dialogue”) is the importance attributed to  various individuals–looney-tunes and statesmanlike figures alike. It makes me want to amend that famous James Carville adage–“It’s the Economy, Stupid”–with a more accurate one: it’s the system, stupid.

Call. it the “but for” problem.

But for systemic flaws like gerrymandering, Americans would be highly unlikely to elect posturing fools like Jim Jordans and Margery Taylor Green. But for the Electoral College, Donald Trump would never have occupied the Oval Office. But for our current “winner take all” system, we could send many more sane, competent people to Congress.

In a recent article for Time Magazine, two prominent political scientists pointed out that these systemic flaws are fixable.

America’s sharp division isn’t just about policy disagreements or ideology. Much of it comes down to the science of how Congress is elected. Winner-take-all elections have produced a fully-sorted two-party system in America that pits two sides against each other, incentivizes performative conflict, and punishes compromise. With the existing electoral and party system, we may as well invest all our money into a colony on Mars as hope for a bipartisan coalition leading Congress right now.

The silver lining is that America is not stuck with this broken system. Preserving the failing status quo is a choice. Winner-take-all elections are nowhere in the Constitution, and Congress has the power to change them. Multi-party coalitions work well in many other countries, and they can work in America, too, if we are willing to confront the root causes of Congress’s brokenness.

One of those root causes is America’s system of winner-take-all elections.

Winner take all elections do not result in anything remotely like accurate representation. As the authors point out,  all five of Oklahoma’s representatives are Republicans, even though about a third of Oklahoma voters consistently vote for Democrats, and all nine of Massachusetts’ representatives are Democrats, even though about a third of Massachusetts voters are consistent Republicans. But because the minority party doesn’t make up a majority of any one district, they are deprived of any voice in Congress.

That means that primary elections in these states effectively determine the general election outcome, making it easy to win for extreme candidates, harder for moderates, and impossible for anyone in the minority party.

This is one reason why the overwhelming majority of the world’s democratic countries use proportional representation for their elections, where districts elect multiple representatives to Congress in proportion to their party’s share of the vote. In America, it would allow more voters to have a say in who represents them; if a party wins 40% of the vote, it would get about 40% of the seats. Oklahoma liberals and Massachusetts conservatives would have a voice. That would mean more moderates in Congress. Members of the far right and far left would be elected, too – but in accurate proportion to their amount of support.

Proportional representation would also alter the incentive structure for representatives. Reflexive opposition to the “enemy” would no longer be the way to win elections, because voters would have more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. This would allow more ways to form a coalition in Congress capable of compromising and governing with a lot less infighting and chaos. This is one reason why last year, more than 200 political scientists, historians, and legal experts signed an open letter to Congress calling for the adoption of proportional representation.

There is much to love about Americans’ fixation on individualism and personal responsibility, but it is an emphasis that far too often masks important realities. For example, people are rarely poor because they are lazy and unwilling to work–far more often, they can’t work because they are disabled, or because the factory closed, or because the economy tanked. Congress isn’t dysfunctional just because the GOP base prefers angry buffoons –it’s our unrepresentative and obsolete electoral systems that give legislative terrorists the ability to bring the operation of government to a screeching halt.

In our winner take all system, a candidate who wins 49.9% of the vote loses to the one who garners 50.1%–and the people who voted for that losing candidate are 100% unrepresented. Then we wonder why the people who won election feel free to ignore the needs and desires of that 49.9%. After a few election cycles, we wonder why so many voters who find themselves consistently in that losing 49.9% stop voting and participating.

It’s the system, stupid. We need to fix it.

A Case Study

Wisconsin is currently providing us with a lesson about the state of American democracy.

It isn’t just the arrogance of Republicans who are threatening to overturn the expressed will of the voters with a trumped-up impeachment of a state supreme court judge; the state is a case study for Democrats elsewhere whose voters face similarly manufactured limits on their ability to win elections.

Last December, just after the midterms, the Guardian ran a report on how Democrats had managed to fight back in what the article called “the nation’s most gerrymandered state.”

Ben Wikler spent so much time poring over polls ahead of the midterm elections that it eventually became too much to bear.

“I was throwing up with anxiety,” Wikler, the chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic party, confessed to the Guardian.

It wasn’t merely out of concern, common to Democrats nationwide in the run-up to the early November vote, that voters were set to give their candidates the traditional drubbing of the party in power, powered by Joe Biden’s unpopularity or the wobbly state of the economy.

Rather, Wikler feared that in Wisconsin his party was on the brink of something worse: permanent minority status in a state that is crucial to any presidential candidate’s path to the White House.

What the party faced in Wisconsin was dire: if Democratic Governor Tony Evers lost re-election, or if the state’s GOP achieved supermajority control of Wisconsin’s legislature, the GOP could have ensured that its electoral college votes never helped a Democrat win the White House.

As Wikler said, Wisconsin is “a state where Republicans have tried to engineer things to make it voter-proof.”

According to several studies, Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country, and the fourth most difficult state in which to cast a ballot. It also has laws that make it practically impossible to conduct voter registration drives.

But Wisconsin’s Republicans are looking to tighten access to polling places further, and passed a host of measures to do so, all of which fell to Evers’s veto pen. With a supermajority in the legislature, they would have been able to override his vetoes. In a speech to supporters, Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor, made it plain that if he was elected, the GOP “will never lose another election” in the state.

Amazingly, despite being faced with enormous structural barriers,  Evers was re-elected, and Wisconsin Democrats narrowly managed to keep Republicans from a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. Democrats’ success at standing their ground in Wisconsin was one of the most pleasant surprises the party experienced in the midterms.

What accounted for Evers’ robust win?

The fact that statewide races can’t be gerrymandered is obviously key. And according to various news sources, Evers had a clear advantage over Michels among those age 18 to 44 years old, an age cohort that made up more than a third of voters in Wisconsin.

Evers also had stronger support for the issues he ran on than Michels did.

The AP VoteCast survey showed the most important issue facing the country for Wisconsin voters was overwhelmingly the economy and jobs. However, Evers focused much of his campaign on abortion, which was only slightly more important to voters than the issue of crime, something Michels made a prominent theme of his candidacy.

Voters who cared most about the economy split their votes between the parties–but Wisconsin voters who said the abortion issue was very important to them were lopsidedly pro-choice. Evers attributed the strength of his win to that issue.

There is a lesson here for Indiana in next year’s statewide elections.

As with Wisconsin, Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering will be irrelevant in the upcoming statewide races. And–mirroring the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest–the Hoosier electorate cares about economic and public safety issues, but is divided on which party is best able to address those issues.

As in Wisconsin, however, Hoosiers who care about reproductive rights are lopsidedly pro-choice.

All but one of the five Republicans running for Governor are running ads professing their “pro-life” and “Christian faith” credentials. The already-endorsed Republican Senate candidate (Indiana’s male version of Margery Taylor Green) is a flat-out culture warrior who supports a ban on abortion with no exceptions, along with a multitude of other far-Right positions. (He recently called President Biden the “most corrupt person to ever occupy the White House.”  No kidding.)

I will grant that Indiana’s state Democratic party structure ranks somewhere between weak and “where the hell are you?” but the party has lucked out with strong and appealing statewide candidates–Jennifer McCormick for Governor and Marc Carmichael for U.S. Senate. Both  are on the right side of the issues Hoosier voters care about, and–if adequately funded– both can win next November.

We can learn from Wisconsin.

Thank Goodness They Went Home…

Can you stand one more diatribe about the pathetic Indiana legislature that has finally and mercifully departed? 

During the past session, I posted several times about the GOP super-majority’s deliberate rejection of evidence about the state’s woeful performance in education. (I could have focused on a large number of other deficits, but who has the time…?) 

The GOP’s persistent efforts to privatize education–while ignoring the state’s increasingly critical shortage of the public school teachers who teach 90% of Hoosier children–required legislators to ignore the years of highly credible academic research rebutting justifications for vouchers. 

I have previously posted about the many problems with privatized and other forms of “alternative” schools that researchers have identified. Among those numerous problems is the distressingly high percentage of such schools that close within 4 years of their founding. A May 4th article from the Indianapolis Star confirms that Indiana is not exempt from such closures. It appears that a third of charter schools close each year.

Proponents of charters and vouchers claim that these closures are a “feature, not a bug”–that the closures are evidence that “the market” is working. Tell that to the distraught parent for whom these closures are disruptive at best. As the article notes, those disruptions create yet another barrier for students who are already vulnerable to low student outcomes, and particularly for students of color.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle took a look at the legislature’s education policy failures during the just-completed session–and published an analysis with which I entirely agree.

As demonstrated by the 2023 session of the Indiana General Assembly, the Republican supermajority is more concerned with creating problems rather than solving them. 

If we are not able to attract and retain teachers and education support professionals because of low pay, lack of respect and inadequate funding, it’s the students who lose out.  

Too many students are in schools where decision-makers have driven away quality educators by failing to provide competitive salaries and support, disrespecting the profession and placing extraordinary pressure on individual educators to do more and more with less and less.

Additionally, too many potential educators never go into the classroom in part because of appallingly low starting salaries and record wage gaps between teaching and professions that require similar education – gaps that get worse over the course of educators’ careers.

So, what did our elected leaders do to solve these problems? 

    • They silenced teachers by eliminating a 50-year right to discuss students’ learning conditions with school administrators. 
    • They threatened educators with a level-six felony and two-and-a-half years in jail if they recommend certain books to kids. 
    • They trampled on the ability for local schools and educators to work collaboratively with parents addressing individual students’ mental health needs. 
    • They continued to drain public schools of scarce funding by siphoning a billion dollars to wealthy Hoosiers so their kids can attend private school for free.


As the commentary pointed out, it was Republican lawmakers who ignored testimony from educators and parents, and doubled down on what has become a GOP “anti-woke”  obsession. They focused on appeasing the Republican culture warriors who are determined to attack teachers and librarians in our public schools, employing misinformation and lies.

They listened to wealthy corporate donors who gave their campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars to privatize our schools.

This agenda may benefit their political donors, but it hurts local communities which cherish and rely on their local schools – where 90% of Hoosier kids attend. 

It wasn’t just education, of course. The GOP super-majority ignored environmental concerns, thwarted efforts to improve building codes, spit on medical professionals and went to war against trans children–among many, many other things.

To call them “representatives” is to misuse the term.

Poll after poll confirms that Indiana’s legislature does not represent the policy preferences of Hoosier citizens. Thanks primarily to gerrymandering–which is the most effective of the GOP’s various efforts to suppress the votes of rational Hoosiers–Republican members of the General Assembly represent the most extreme elements of the Republican base. 

Since the Supreme Court has refused to notice that extreme gerrymandering is inconsistent with democracy and “one person, one vote,” the only way Hoosiers will ever get a truly representative legislative body is by massive turnout. Redistricting lines, after all, are based on turnout numbers from prior elections; if the people who have given up going to the polls because they’re convinced they live in a district that is “safe” for the other party were to vote in sufficient numbers, a lot of those “safe” districts wouldn’t be so safe.

I wish I knew how to get that message across.

I wish we didn’t have a legislative super-majority fixated on making Indiana the peer of a third-world country.



Suppressing Hoosier Votes

The World’s Worst Legislature is coming to the end of this session, and we are beginning to see just how much damage it has inflicted and on whom.

Governor Holcomb has already signed the bill he described as “clear as mud,” depriving trans children of critically-important medical care. (That the measure was harmful and mean-spirited was clear.)

House bills still in the works will further enrich private (overwhelmingly religious) schools at the expense of the public schools that educate some 90% of Indiana children, although the Senate appears to have reconsidered.

And the Republicans who owe their seats to gerrymandering are passing measures to further suppress the vote.

According to the Cost of Voting study conducted by Northern Illinois University in 2020 Indiana’s restrictive voting laws make casting a ballot in the Hoosier state more difficult than most others. Our ranking was 41st in 2020 and if House Bill 1334 passes, it adds hurdles that are sure to get worse.

Sponsored by Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, the bill puts additional restrictions on voting by mail in Indiana, even though we already have laws in place that strictly limit access to a mail-in ballot.

The legislation’s worst section has been billed as an attempt to bring consistency to our voting laws by putting the same voter ID requirements in place for absentee-by-mail voting as those for in-person voting. In reality, this legislation is yet another attempt by the Republican supermajority to put additional hurdles in place before voters can access their ballot.

House Bill 1334 would require anyone using a paper form to apply to vote absentee by mail to include a copy of their Indiana driver’s license or include their voter identification number, which the form will suggest is the last four digits of the voter’s social security number.

That’s the first new hurdle that voters will have to scale because many of us don’t know what voter ID number is on file for us and it’s not always the last four digits of our social. This is particularly true for voters who have been registered at the same address for many years. That’s because Indiana didn’t start requiring voter registration applicants to provide any ID number until the early 2000s, when the statewide voter file was created and hundreds of thousands of voters were assigned a random voter ID number.

The author of the article goes on to explain that she is one of those “hundreds of thousands.” She’s been registered at the same address for over 20 years, but has no idea what her “randomly assigned number” might be. Under the just-passed bill, in order to complete all the information that will now be required on an application for an absentee ballot, she would need to contact the Marion County Election Board and get that information from them, inserting another step into the process.

Because I’m hyper-familiar with Indiana voting laws, I’ll know to make that call but most voters won’t have a clue. Instead, they will write down a number that may not match what’s on file for them, and their absentee ballot application will be rejected.  the legislation even anticipates that this problem is going to happen, because it requires a process be in place to “cure” defective applications.

The “cure” requires county voting officials to call the voter, explain the issue, and offer them the necessary information. But as the article accurately notes,

It’s important to remember that because our state puts limits on who can vote by mail, most Hoosiers who cast a mail-in ballot are elderly or disabled. They are least able to jump over new hurdles like providing a copy of a driver’s license or playing guess my Voter ID number with county officials.

That, of course, is the point.

Our Hoosier “Vote Suppression Is Us”legislature isn’t taking any chances. One of the least-understood consequences of gerrymandering is vote suppression– voters who live in districts that are considered “safe” for the party they don’t support are far less likely to cast a ballot. (If they all did, some of those districts wouldn’t be safe.) But just in case grandpa can’t get to the polls in his wheelchair but has the nerve to want to cast a ballot anyway, this legislation will make it much less likely that he will be able do so.

As usual, legislators piously claim that suppression efforts, like Voter ID, are meant to reduce “voter fraud”–a claim that is demonstrably bull****.  All credible evidence–including repeated academic studies–confirms that voter fraud is vanishingly rare.

Members of Indiana’s super-majority are simply intent upon retaining the ability to choose their voters, rather than acquiescing to a basic premise of democracy– the right of voters to choose their representatives.

They’re shameless.


Gerrymandering And The Tennessee Three

I’ve repeatedly inveighed against gerrymandering on this blog. (Anyone who wants to revisit the multiple ills that flow from that nefarious practice need only put “gerrymandering” into the search box and re-read those periodic rants.) I wouldn’t test the patience of my regular readers by returning to the subject, but for the vivid and shocking example provided by lawmakers in Tennessee.

The bare-bone facts are these: Three members of the Tennessee legislature joined an estimated thousand protesters who had marched to the statehouse in the wake of that state’s school shooting, demanding gun reform. According to several reports, they had bullhorns, and disrupted the order of the assembly. The protest itself was described by the media as peaceful–giving the lie to the hysterical Republican lawmakers who compared it to the January 6th insurrection.

Tennessee has a Republican supermajority–courtesy of gerrymandering–and that supermajority responded by voting to eject two of the three–the Black ones.

The three lawmakers did violate House rules, and a reprimand of some sort would have been appropriate. They could have been censured, or removed from committee assignments. But as the Washington Post noted

Republicans charged them with breaking House rules of conduct, which they don’t deny. But the protests, while raucous, were peaceful, and according to the Tennessean, no lawmaker has ever been expelled for breaching decorum rules….

All of this mirrors a larger story. Red states are sinking deeper into virulent far-right culture-warring — banning books, limiting classroom discussion of race and gender and prohibiting gender-affirming care for transgender youth. GOP legislatures passing these things were of course legitimately elected by majorities, though in some cases gerrymanders increase their power.

I would amend that last sentence to read “in most cases, gerrymanders increase their power.”

Those legislatures are also finding onerous ways to use power to tamp down on the unexpectedly ferocious dissent their culture war has unleashed among numerical minorities, largely concentrated in cities and suburbs inside red states. As analyst Ron Brownstein argues, this often pits an overwhelmingly White, older, rural and small-town Republican coalition against an increasingly diverse, younger and more urban coalition.

“These Republican legislatures are stacking sandbags against a rising tide,” Brownstein told CNN. Call it the GOP retreat into Fortress MAGA.

As the article notes, Republican-dominated state legislatures are pushing “preemption” laws that restrict cities and counties from making their own policy choices. It listed examples from DeSantis’ Florida, and from Georgia (and could easily have found similar ones from Indiana)

Yet this retreat into Fortress MAGA faces a problem: Whenever state-level Republicans undertake another reactionary lurch, it often goes national in a big way. Attention has poured down on everything from insanely broad book bans to shockingly harsh proposed punishments for abortion to anti-transgender crackdowns with truly creepy implications.

The Tennessee super-majority expelled these lawmakers simply because they could–because their supermajority (courtesy of gerrymandering) allowed them to demonstrate their rejection of democratic norms and to display their animus toward colleagues who were young, Black and Democratic.

As the AP has reported

A growing chorus is pushing back against Tennessee Republicans seeking to oust three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber, while the GOP has previously resisted removing its own members even when weighing criminal allegations.

Most recently, the Republican-controlled Statehouse declined to take action against a member accused of sexual misconduct, as well as those who have faced indictments or came under pressure for liking nearly nude social media posts.

Ah–but those members were White Republicans.

The Hill interviewed one of the two legislators, Justin Jones of Nashville, who said his race played a role in his expulsion from the state House on Thursday.

“I basically had a member call me an uppity Negro,” Jones, who is Black, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid after the 72-25 vote that expelled him….

“What we saw in Tennessee yesterday was an attack on democracy and very overt racism, as you can see that the two youngest Black lawmakers were kicked out, but our colleague, my dear sister, Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was not,” he said. “And we see clearly, the nation has seen clearly what is going on in Tennessee.”

What this incident very clearly underlines is the critical importance of systemic reform. It isn’t enough to elect better people–although that would certainly be helpful.

We need to reform the institutions that are not working properly. We can start with the Supreme Court, which has declined to notice that gerrymandering is incompatible with fair elections. The recent confirmation that Clarence Thomas’ corruption extends well beyond his refusal to recuse from cases implicating his wife’s political activities should provide a wake-up call.

Then we can move on to the Electoral College….