Monday evening, I spoke to the League of Women Voters in Ft. Wayne about women, the midterms–and the effective disenfranchisement of voters in Indiana. I’m posting an abbreviated version of my remarks below.
The results of the 2022 midterm elections stunned political observers who had anticipated a politics-as-usual rout of the party in control of the White House—especially this time, when the omens for the Democrats were very negative.
As we know, that Red wave failed to materialize. Democrats held the Senate, and lost the House by a margin small enough to complicate Republican plans to thwart Biden’s agenda. To say that these results were unprecedented is an understatement. And while it is never accurate to attribute the outcome of an election to a single cause, the data clearly points to the overwhelming importance of women voters, and their anger over Dobbs.
The Republican Party’s war on women’s autonomy is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I ran for Congress in 1980, I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, and I decisively won a Republican primary here in deep-Red Indiana. Since then, the GOP has become the party of fundamentalist Christians, cultural conservatives and Christian Nationalists, and in response, women voters have shown a growing preference for Democratic candidates. The Dobbs decision, overruling Roe v. Wade, supercharged what was already a substantial gender gap.
Dobbs attacked the doctrine of substantive due process, often called the right to privacy. That’s shorthand for the principle that in a free society, there are personal decisions that should not be made by government. The doctrine draws a line between the myriad issues appropriate for resolution by majorities acting through government, and decisions that government in a free society has no business making.
The constitutional question is “who gets to make this decision?”
The deeply dishonest ruling in Dobbs would allow fundamental rights–to bodily autonomy, to the choice of a marriage partner, to decisions about procreation– to be decided by legislatures that have theoretically been chosen by “democratic” majorities.
I say “theoretically because in states like Indiana, gerrymandering allows lawmakers to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.
The decision in Dobbs is part of a larger problem—one that the League is clearly aware of. I think it is fair to say that, if American democracy was working properly, it is unlikely we would be here. Our governing institutions would reflect the policy preferences of large majorities of voters. But our democracy is not working properly, and gerrymandering may be the single most destructive element of our multiple electoral dysfunctions.
Partisan redistricting undermines democracy and voter choice; in a rapidly urbanizing country, it has given rural voters—who reliably vote Republican—vastly disproportionate political power. Thanks to gerrymandering, for example, the last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.” Gerrymandering has insulated lawmakers from democratic accountability. In the run-up to the 2000 election, the nonpartisan Cook Report calculated that only one out of twenty Americans lived in a genuinely competitive Congressional District.
Gerrymandering has also weakened the GOP and abetted its takeover by extremists. Thanks to the Republicans’ very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– many of the candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities. Former Speaker John Boehner dubbed those Representatives the “lunatic caucus”–they knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.
It is important to recognize that the erosion of democratic self-government– making a mockery of the ideal of “one person, one vote”– also poses a threat to women’s continued economic and political progress. That is because, as democratic systems falter, it is the theocrats and rightwing populists who stand ready to assume control. The growth of populism over the past decade has been global; in the United States, its appeal is based largely on nostalgia for an imaginary past in which “those people”—Black, Brown, female, gay–knew their place and no one questioned the rightful dominance of the White Christian Male. To say that such a worldview threatens women’s progress is to belabor the obvious.
Just over 100 years have passed since women finally secured the right to vote. The recent midterm elections made it very clear that most women in America have no intention of relinquishing the hard-won rights that followed enfranchisement– including the all-important right to control our own reproduction.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that in November of this year, the votes of American women saved democracy.
But then, of course, there was Indiana. We were the only state to elect an election-denier as Secretary of State, and Indiana kept its legislative Republican super-majority
The reason Indiana is deeply uncompetitive? Gerrymandering.
I served on the legislative study committee formed in response to the efforts of the League and Common Cause, and watched as most Republicans on that committee ignored data and evidence and the huge turnout of Hoosier voters at every public meeting who demanded reform. It became very clear that the beneficiaries of gerrymandering will never voluntarily give up the power to keep themselves in control.
Other states have combatted gerrymandering via state constitutional amendment. But Hoosiers will never have the opportunity to vote on such an amendment. Indiana has no referendum or initiation process. Amendments to Indiana’s constitution can only be put on the ballot through referral from the legislature, and the legislature must pass precisely the same language in two separate sessions. In other words, the super-majority that benefits from gerrymandering would have to vote—in two separate legislative sessions—to put the matter to a popular vote.
That will happen when pigs fly. (Pigs may fly first…)
Gerrymandering results in voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Thanks to the lack of competitiveness, Indiana’s turnout in the midterms was abysmal.
The creation of safe districts makes it very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal opposing candidate. In many statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor runs unopposed.
So–what can Hoosier voters do?
We can certainly hope for passage of the federal “For the People Act,” which would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, ban partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders.
In Indiana, we can work through organizations like the League to get out the vote—encouraging people who have concluded that their votes won’t count to reconsider, and especially encouraging them to vote in the primaries, which are dominated by the ideological extremes in both parties. A high turnout would demonstrate that a number of supposedly safe districts aren’t so safe when more people vote..
We can try to recruit candidates in both parties who are willing to run on an anti-gerrymandering platform.
We can continue efforts to educate voters, and explain why gerrymandering is so pernicious.
And we can lobby for the right to initiate constitutional amendments.
But the reality is, in the absence of federal action, Indiana citizens who want change are effectively disenfranchised.