The US shutdown madness: It’s all about gerrymandering

The US shutdown madness: It’s all about gerrymandering

Today we’re going to take a slight breather from the intricacies of the US government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Instead, we’re going to look back at one of the historical roots of America’s current political snarls. Along the way, we’re going to go back to Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry some two hundred years ago and his single most important contribution to American political life (besides signing the Declaration of Independence). Afterwards, we’ll return to the present to find the sting in the tail of the good governor’s salamander. J. BROOKS SPECTOR goes political amphibian hunting.

Now here’s a funny thing, if the United States had a constitution like the one South Africa does, it’s possible this government shutdown would never have happened in the first place. “Say what?” you say. In the 2012 election, if one totalled up all the votes cast in the various congressional races across the country, the Democratic Party actually gained around 1,400,000 more votes than did the Republicans in toto. If the US had a proportional electoral system, rather than a district-by-district, first-past-the-post system, the Democrats would have been the majority party in the House of Representatives – if only barely – as well as in the Senate, in addition to holding the presidency.

Or as long-time political analyst Charlie Cook observed in the National Journal, “After Republicans won only 48 percent of all votes cast for the House in 2012 but 54 percent of the seats, it’s no secret that the party enjoys the huge built-in structural advantages in the chamber that Democrats had going for them decades ago. In a January memo, veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff observed, ‘If you began your career as a Republican trying to win the House in the 1970s and 1980s, you would adopt, as I do, the borrowed adage, “There’s no crying in redistricting.” ’ The current unprecedented geographic concentration of Democratic voters was compounded by the 2010 wave election that gave Republicans unprecedented power in state legislatures to redraw political boundaries [our italics]. Combined, these two demographic developments cast doubt on whether even a 2006-size wave would enable Democrats to win control of the House at any point this decade.” [See chart below]

Given that the number of members in the House of Representatives is now fixed by law at 435 members and has been at that level for a century, each member represents about 700,000+ citizens. With that arithmetic, the Democrats would have had a margin of two or even three members of the House under a proportional system. Assuming a straight party vote at a particularly politically charged moment, a continuing resolution to provide a federal budget would have made no mention of the Affordable Care Act at all and been passed by the House and the Senate once they agreed on the precise wording, President Obama would have signed it into law and the national government’s budgetary crisis would have been averted even before it began. Whew!

But of course the drafters of the American Constitution chose the idea of direct representation as the model instead. In doing this, they were acutely aware of the strong, emotionally charged relationship of taxation to representation. After all, the revolutionary battle cry of “no taxation without representation” was still fresh in the minds of the writers of that fundamental governmental document. They eschewed a distant connection between the people who would authorize taxes (and spending) and the people who voted them into office to do those tasks. Taxes were inevitable – Benjamin Franklin, after all, had famously told Americans that there was nothing so inevitable as death and taxes – but they would not be levied simply at the whim of a president or his bureaucracy under the US Constitution.

As a result, the Constitution’s designers expressly laid out that tight connection (and called for a national census to do the math to support this arrangement), saying, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years…” Buried in this clause, of course, was also the infamous determination that a slave would be equal to 3/5ths of a free man in determining how many people were in the district – and thus how a district would be delineated – even as the slaves were obviously unable to cast their votes.

The actual means of apportioning voters to congressmen, however, was left up to the individual states. It wasn’t until after the 1840 census that an effectively uniform system of dividing states into individual congressional districts was put into place. In Massachusetts at least, congressional districts were in place from the beginning, however.

In an effort to maximize the electoral possibilities of the Democratic-Republicans (the predecessors of the Democratic Party) and minimize the Federalist Party in congressional elections back in 1812, the state’s then-governor, Elbridge Gerry, successfully pushed through a plan that divided the state into districts that would achieve that objective rather dramatically. (The American version of electoral corruption was rather different than the British “rotten borough” system since the American legislative version relied upon relatively equal numbers of people in each district, rather than continuing to give MPs to old historic villages that had once had substantial populations two to three hundred years earlier, even though such places held just fragments of the number of inhabitants they once had, by the time parliamentary elections were being held in the early 19th century.)

Those Massachusetts districts did have relatively equal populations. But, the boundaries of some of the districts were so convoluted, brazenly meandering across the state and cutting jagged borders through towns and villages to bring together like-minded populations who could be counted upon to support Democratic-Republican candidates, that they provoked an incredulous, furious reaction by Gerry’s opponents. One angry newspaper editor printed a famous cartoon that gave the most outlandish of those congressional districts an animate physiognomy, complete with legs, wings, a tail, and even a fanciful animal snout – calling the resulting district Gerry’s salamander – or a “gerrymander” for short. The name was an instant hit. It quickly became the generic, universal term for blatant boundary determinations that aggressively favoured one party for elections.

Historically, congressional districts have been delineated by state legislatures – or via a commission authorized by the legislature, following a reapportionment of the number of seats for each state, following the national census. The reason for these periodic reapportionments, of course, is that America is a notably mobile population. For example, as immigrants and migrants from the eastern part of the nation continued to extend their settlement across the country, the states to the west grew in population and the seats given to each state changed. For example, when California became a state it only had a small, but growing population. By contrast, it has now reached over a tenth of the entire nation’s population – and thus its voters as well. From the 1950s onward, the South stopped losing population to outmigration and began to grow sharply, especially in states like Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida – at the relative expense of the Northeast and Midwestern states.

For most of the country’s history, the legislature committee or appointed commission would be packed by the majority party in the legislature with some seasoned political operators and they would sit down with charts and maps, shifting wards, precincts and neighbourhoods to try to maximize electoral success, based on records of previous voting by those places – the data was easily available for such purposes. The whole process was carried out as a kind of art form, using knowledge, intuition and some shrewd guesses about shifting populations.

Two key developments in more recent years have dramatically affected redistricting and the way it has affected the political balance. The first was a new wave of modern gerrymandering. In response to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, some states created “majority-minority” districts, in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white, based on Census data. This practice became known as “affirmative gerrymandering,” as it was intended to remedy historic discrimination and promote the election of minority politicians. A handful of states — all of which had previously delineated their electoral districts to systematically disadvantage minority voters, and most which were in the Deep South – were now required to gain the Department of Justice’s approval on any future redistricting plan.

In 1993, the Supreme Court determined the North Carolina legislature had violated the Constitution in using race as the predominant factor in drawing its 12th Congressional District’s boundaries in 1992. Then, in 1999, the Court found the redrawn 12th district was constitutional after all because it was legal partisan gerrymandering — designed to create a safe Democratic seat — rather than illegal racial gerrymandering. (In 2001, when Democrats controlled Illinois redistricting, then-state Senator Barack Obama is rumoured to have had a bit of a hand in reshaping his local district to maximize his electoral chances.)

Then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay had a crucial role in Texas’ 2003 redistricting that ensured the Republican Party’s thorough dominance in Texas. Even though congressional districts had already been Census-adjusted in 2001, in 2003, Texas Republicans seized the opportunity of having a big majority in the state assembly to redraw the lines to even further partisan advantage. Ten Democratic congressmen saw their districts so markedly changed as a result of the aggressive redistricting that five ended up losing their re-election campaigns in 2004.

The second key element has been the increasingly massive use of computer power and sophisticated modelling techniques to tweak the redistricting to produce districts that have a kind of family resemblance to Governor Gerry’s much earlier effort. One district in the South literally followed an interstate highway across most of the state, broadening out a bit as the road passed through small cities and towns so as to pack together black (Democratic) voters into this one district – but keeping them out of the neighbouring and now Republican districts.

Journalist Robert Draper provided a profile in The Atlantic of one of the professionals who do the computer-based mapping explaining, “The creation of a new congressional district, or the loss of an old one, affects every district around it, necessitating new maps. Even states not adding or losing congressional representatives need new district maps that reflect the population shifts within their borders, so that residents are equally repre­sented no matter where they live. This ritual carving and paring of the United States into 435 sovereign units, known as redistricting, was intended by the Framers solely to keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced. Instead, redistricting today has become the most insidious practice in American politics—a way, as the opportunistic machinations following the 2010 census make evident, for our elected leaders to entrench themselves in 435 impregnable garrisons from which they can maintain political power while avoiding demographic realities.”

The end result of this process has been a marked increase of districts that are safely in the hands of conservative Republican voters. Such representatives are effectively elected for as long as they wish to serve – unless challenged by even more conservative competitors from the Tea Party wing of the party charging such an incumbent is a “wet” on hard-edged Tea Party doctrine.

In a recent column on such changes in the American body politic, Thomas Friedman argued, “What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules — namely majority rule and the fact that if you don’t like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head — then our democracy is imperiled.”

Effectively, this change in the selection of the legislator population – in combination with the financial muscle of major conservative political funding mechanisms by people such as the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson, as well as a network of starkly conservative media outlets (Fox News, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, social media and Internet-driven newsletters) – is creating a major change in the contemporary American political landscape. In the process, this has emboldened the most conservative wing of the Republican Party – those Tea Party folks – in trying to drive the party’s agenda, strategy and tactics in its confrontation with a Democratic president over the federal budget. Such a shift may well mean conservatives feel they have won simply by being pure of heart – even if they lose a battle or two along the way to their longed-for final political victory. DM

Read more:

  • The Cook Report  – The GOP Keeps Getting Whiter, at the National Journal
  • Republicans More Insulated Against Backlash, a column by Ron Brownstein in the National Journal
  • Our Democracy Is at Stake, a column by Tom Friedman in the New York Times
  • Permanent Republican minority, a column by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post
  • Can You Solve Slate’s Gerrymandering Jigsaw Puzzle? In
  • The Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics in the Atlantic
  • The League of Dangerous Mapmakers at the Atlantic

Graphic: US Congressional Districts (By Mr. Matté)


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