Amid America’s demographic changes, Republicans have exploited every trick they can think of to stave off actual democracy, where every vote is respected and equal. One scheme has been to modernize the old practice of “gerrymandering,” as Beverly Bandler explains.
In Election 2012, Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234-to-201 margin. Thus, the second-biggest GOP majority in 60 years was not the will of American voters. It was gerrymandered.
Or, as Republican strategist Karl Rove has said, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
Gerrymandering has become the preferred way for Republicans to defy the principle of majority rule – or democracy – in an era in which whites are declining as a percentage of the electorate. In other words, it’s a way to reduce the political influence of people of color as well as that of white demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic.
“Politicians, especially Republicans facing demographic and ideological changes in the electorate, use redistricting to cling to power,” said Sam Wang, co-founder – along with Andrew Ferguson – of the Princeton Election Consortium blog. “It’s up to us to take control of the process, slay the gerrymander, and put the people back in charge of what is, after all, our House.”
As Wang points out. “gerrymandering is not hard,” nor is the concept particularly complicated: “The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as ‘packing.’ Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, ‘cracking’ opposition groups into many districts.”
The word “Gerry-Mander” dates back to 1812 and the efforts of the Massachusetts legislature to favor Gov. Elbridge Gerry and Democratic-Republican party candidates over the Federalists through redistricting. The word “gerrymander” was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812.
The principal opportunity for gerrymandering comes every ten years when the national census is taken, and city council, state legislature and congressional district boundaries are redrawn to reflect the growing and shifting population.
Though redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote, it is possible through artful drawing of district boundaries to thwart the democratic process by making sure that large groups of voters are on the losing side of every election.
“Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of district lines to protect or change political power,” states the Brennan Center for Justice. “Any change in district lines affects politics but a gerrymander is a deliberate and, according to opponents, unfair attempt to draw district lines to increase the likelihood of a particular political result.
“Incumbents, for example, have an incentive to create districts that are likely to re-elect them, sometimes dividing communities among one or more districts when a single district containing the entire community would better represent their interests.”
This redistricting process currently takes place behind closed doors by legislators, politicians and political consultants. The United States is the only advanced democracy in which politicians directly participate in the redistricting process, although some states, such as California, have turned the process over to non-partisan commissions.
Across much of the country, however, redistricting “artists” work with political partisans, corporations and other special interests to creatively shape districts to thwart the will of the people. It is an anti-democratic game that both Democrats and Republicans have played, but the unabashed ruthlessness of the GOP in recent years has been chilling.
“Gerrymandering” also has gotten more scientific. In the old days, it relied on the judgment of politicians to gauge the leanings of each community. In modern times, computer analyses have allowed politicians to become much more precise in how the districts can be best arranged for electoral advantage.
Over the past few years, as the Republican Party has gained control over more state legislatures than Democrats, the GOP “has turned redistricting into a finely-honed, well-financed project that has virtually insured their control over the House,” said Bill Berkowitz, who reports on right-wing strategies.
That has meant that – in many states — the once-a-decade redistricting process has let lawmakers choose voters, not voters choose lawmakers. On the national level, to a troubling degree, American voters no longer collectively select the make-up of the House of Representatives. Rather, the state legislators who design the districts do.
Then, by combining sophisticated gerrymandering with “voter ID” laws and other “voter suppression” efforts, the Republicans ensure that their voting “base” is represented disproportionately in the halls of government – a fundamental violation of the core principle of democracy that each vote should count equally.
In this way, Americans are given the optical illusion of a democratic process. Elections are held; votes are counted; victors are declared. But the contest is essentially rigged at the start by meticulously crafting the congressional or other district.
Feeding the Base
Most districts now are one-party fiefdoms. The real battles often rage in primaries, which pull congressional representatives to the ideological fringes and leads to a House of Representatives that does not reflect the values of the general population.
“Every postelection poll, with the possible exception of any conducted in Dick Morris’s bunker, finds that voters favor the Democrats’ positions, on virtually every major issue,” noted New York magazine essayist Frank Rich, “usually by large margins: immigration reform, gun restrictions, abortion rights, gay marriage, climate change, raising the minimum wage, and the need for higher tax revenue to accompany spending cuts in any deficit-reduction plan.”
Why do we have a regressive House that fights what the general population reportedly wants? In part, because when voters gave Republicans temporary control of a number of state legislatures in 2010, those GOP lawmakers drew legislative maps that locked in Republican gains in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
Many of President Barack Obama’s 2008 voters didn’t show up at the polls in 2010 because they thought only presidential elections were worth the effort, or they were discouraged by the government gridlock that the Republicans had cynically engineered to thwart much of Obama’s agenda.
The result of the 2010 election was to give Republicans across the country the reins to control much of the redistricting process – and they seized the opportunity with a vengeance. In Ohio, for instance, the GOP legislature fashioned a congressional district that began in Cleveland and stretched narrowly along the shore of Lake Erie across the length of the state to Toledo, thus dooming the congressional career of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (of Cleveland) by matching him up against Rep. Marcy Kaptur (of Toledo), both Democrats.
The Republican skill at gerrymandering has been an art form that the party has been refining for years. In the 1990 redistricting cycle, a Massachusetts Republican named Dan Winslow, a lawyer (legal counsel to Gov. Mitt Romney between 2002 and 2005) and politician (State Representative, 2011-2013), recognized the potential of redistricting, reported ProPublica.
Winslow pursued permission from state election officials for a group called the Republican Redistricting Committee for unlimited and undisclosed corporate donations. He drew strategic lessons that were undoubtedly shared with other party operatives. The GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census.
According to Republican strategist Rove, without those seats, Republicans would not have won control of the House in 1994. Since then, Republicans have honed their skills and developed a long-term strategy of winning statehouses in order to control each state’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
The year 2010 was pivotal. The Republican redistricting strategy for that target year was spearheaded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which began to work in 2002.
Between 2002 and 2010, the RSLC was primarily a vehicle for donors like health care and tobacco companies to influence state legislatures, key battle grounds for regulations that affect corporate America,” according to ProPublica.
“Its focus changed in 2010 when Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, was named chairman. His main project: redistricting,” ProPublica reported. Soon after Gillespie took over, the RSLC announced an effort to influence state races throughout the country, the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP. Fundraising soared. The group raised $30 million in 2010, by far its best year. By contrast, its Democratic counterpart raised roughly $10 million.
The GOP approach paid off. In 2010 state races, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining complete control of 12 state legislatures. As a result, the GOP oversaw redrawing of lines for four times as many congressional districts as Democrats.
Thus, House Republicans are significantly shielded from the will of the American majority. They can lose the popular vote – as they did in 2012 by 1.4 million votes – and still retain a substantial majority of congressional seats.
“Despite the fact that Republican Congressional candidates received nearly 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates,” said political reporter Tim Dickinson, “the Republicans lost only eight seats from their historic 2010 romp, allowing them to preserve a fat 33-seat edge in the House. Unscrupulous Republican gerrymandering following the 2010 census made the difference, according to a statistical analysis conducted by the Princeton Election Consortium.”
Had the 2012 elections been run in 2008 congressional districts, the Democrats would have won the House back, former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, pointed out to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Then, by using extreme legislative tactics – everything from a record number of Senate filibusters to extortion over raising the debt ceiling – the Republicans blocked legislation that most Americans favor, from comprehensive immigration reform and common-sense gun laws to a higher minimum wage and investment in job-creating infrastructure projects. Ignoring their lack of a popular mandate, Republicans even have taken aim at progressive reforms that were enacted in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Partisan gerrymandering skews not only the positions congressmen take but also who the candidates are in the first place,” said American law professor Samuel Issacharoff. “You get more ideological candidates, the people who can arouse the base of the party, because they don’t have to worry about electability. It’s becoming harder to get things done, whether in Congress or in state legislature, because partisan redistricting goes on at the state level, too.”
As for the 2014 elections, only a relatively small number of the 435 House seats are considered competitive, the effects of both gerrymandering and incumbency. A majority of House members — 262 out of 435 — are considered in such safe districts that they are expected to win by at least 16 points. It appears that basically only 45 House seats (25 Democratic seats; 20 Republican seats) will actually be in play in November 2014 or about ten percent of the total.
The combination of Republican tactics – which also includes cultivating the financial largesse of right-wing business interests – has led some analysts to suggest that the GOP’s goal is to cement a kind of “permanent majority” in the House of Representatives.
Republicans boast that they “have an opportunity to create 20-25 new Republican Congressional Districts through the redistricting process over the next five election cycles, solidifying a Republican House majority,” according to their multi-year Redmap plan.
But that is only part of the scheme, which also seeks to use voter suppression strategies to minimize the electoral impact of racial minorities and other groups that tend to vote Democratic.
“Stung by back-to-back defeats to Barack Obama, the Republican Party is undertaking a national strategy to devalue the votes of blacks and other minorities, a partial revival of the infamous clause in the U.S. Constitution rating African-American slaves as ‘Three-Fifths’ of a person,” wrote investigative reporter Robert Parry.
“The goal is to give future Republican presidential candidates a thumb-on-the-scale advantage in seeking the White House, as well as to assure continued Republican control of the House of Representatives.” Parry said the GOP approach reflects the opinion of many right-wing whites that the electoral judgments of “Real Americans,” i.e. them, should count more than the opinions of the “Other Americans.”
What to Do
Election reformers argue that an important first step in protecting democracy is to take away redistricting from politicians, political parties and special interests and give the responsibility to non-partisan commissions.
“First, let’s establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions in all 50 states,” suggests Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium blog. “Second, we need to adopt a statistically robust judicial standard for partisan gerrymandering” so that it’s clear when gerrymandering is taking place.
Some scholars caution against viewing gerrymandering as the core of the problem. Brookings Senior Fellows Thomas Mann and William Galston have stated that: “contrary to widespread belief, reducing the gerrymandering of congressional districts would only make a small dent in the problem.”
Still, even if redistricting is only a “dent” in the U.S. democratic process, it is a dent worth fixing and a dent about which Americans need to be educated. Voters should have clear choices upon which to make their decisions, and they should not feel their vote is worthless because the game is rigged.
The redistricting system should be fair and non-partisan, one that reflects accountability, transparency and competition – and ensures that communities are fully represented in the legislature. The political gamesmanship should end.
Beverly Bandler’s public affairs career spans some 40 years. Her credentials include serving as president of the state-level League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and extensive public education efforts in the Washington, D.C. area for 16 years. She writes from Mexico. As full disclosure, she notes that she considers herself a member of the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party, but a U.S. citizen first.
AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project
Annenberg Classroom .
Asian American Center for Advancing Justice
Brennan Center for Justice on Redistricting
Center for Urban Research
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
Department of Justice
Election Law Blog
Lawyers’ Committee Voting Rights Project
League of Women Voters of the U.S.
Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America (MALDEF)
Michael McDonald US Elections Project
Midwest Democracy Network
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
NALEO Education Fund
National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
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Princeton Election Consortium
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Public Mapping Project
Rose Institute of State and Local Government
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_______”The GOP’s ‘Redmap’ memo.” 2013-01-15. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/the-gops-redmap-memo
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Reichert, Jeff. ”Gerrymandering.” A documentary film. A 77-min. film available in its entirety courtesy of SnagFilms. http://www.indiewire.com/article/jeff_reichert_on_gerrymandering_watch_it_now_free http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/gerrymandering
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Weigel, David. “Gerrymandering Denialists: Still Wrong, for New Reasons.” Includes: North Carolina: A Case study in Strategic Reapportionment. http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2013/10/14/gerrymandering_denialists_still_wrong_for_new_reasons.html
Wikipedia. “Gerrymandering.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering
Wing, Nick. “GOP REDMAP Memo Admits Gerrymandering To Thank For Congressional Election Success.” HuffingtonPost, 2013-01-17. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/gop-redmap-memo-gerrymandering_n_2498913.html