Tag Archives: safe districts

Votes That Count…

Vox recently had a provocative article advocating “proportional voting,” and claiming that the institution of such a voting system would solve two of America’s thorniest political problems: partisan polarization and the number of “wasted” votes.

A bit of background: we currently have an electoral system in which–as the article says– your vote is far more likely to shape Congress if you live in Des Moines than if you live in San Francisco.(Rural votes also count more than urban ones for President, thanks to the Electoral College.) The system thus undermines accountability and vastly increases polarization.

Polarization is often described in terms of red states and blue states, but it is a significant problem at the Congressional-district level across all the states. It’s also a more complex story than is usually suggested: Gerrymandering, or the partisan redrawing of district lines — a frequent object of complaint on the left —- has undoubtedly helped make some districts more unshakably Republican. (Democrats play the gerrymandering game, too, but they have had less opportunity.)

This polarization could be addressed by moving more liberal city-dwellers to more rural areas of the country, or ridding ourselves of the Electoral College–remedies that will be instituted right after hell freezes and pigs fly.

On the other hand, we might be able to pass the Fair Representation Actintroduced by Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. If passed, that Act would change our current voting system to one of proportional representation.

Whatever the causes of polarization, there is a relatively straightforward solution to our current predicament that has been embraced by most advanced industrial democracies: proportional representation. There are many versions of this approach, but they all involve some way of electing multiple people, at once, to represent a region. In a proportional system, parties representing as little as 1 percent of the electorate can gain representation, though the most stable systems usually have a threshold percentage level to prevent truly marginal parties from gaining seats. The regions can be as large as an entire nation — but even when they are smaller they tend to be larger than the 435 tiny US congressional districts, each of which is run according to the “winner take all” principle.

Under a proportional system, if you want to live in a big, liberal city in a liberal state, you don’t give up the chance to make a difference with your vote. There is also very little possibility for consequential gerrymandering in proportional representation systems, since districts tend to be so big that there’s not much to gain from alternative line-drawings.

Proponents of this approach point out that it makes third parties more viable, which means that more parties are competing for voters. They also note that because voters feel that their votes actually matter, proportional representation systems tend to have higher voter turnout.

The problem this proposal aims to cure is very real: thanks to residential “sorting” and gerrymandering, in today’s America only about one in 20 of us lives in a place that is likely to have a competitive House election.

The reality of the problem is one thing; whether proportional voting–or multi-member districts–is the right solution is another. In my state, we moved away from multi-member districts in order to increase accountability; at the time, the argument was that larger districts and multiple representatives attenuated the relationship between representatives and those they served.

I’m not sure what changes are most likely to be effective, let alone able to be adopted. I do know that America is no longer either a democracy or a republic. We can’t go on much longer with a “system” this dysfunctional, and “band-aid” prescriptions are unlikely to be effective.

What to do?


It’s All About Turnout

Many Americans are convinced that gerrymandering–while admittedly a bipartisan offense–  has operated since 2011 to given Republicans power vastly disproportionate to their vote margins. (If you don’t believe that, read Ratf***ked).

I for one am thrilled that the Supreme Court will take up the issue during its coming term, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the new statistical and analytical tools that can distinguish between purposeful game-playing and “luck of the draw” redistricting will persuade the court to abandon its prior reluctance to weigh in–a reluctance based largely upon the absence of such tools.

That said–and fingers crossed–David Leonhardt made a critically-important point in a recent New York Times column.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president. Even with Donald Trump’s working-class appeal, Clinton could have swept Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Democrats would control the Senate. Clinton or Barack Obama could then have filled the recent Supreme Court vacancy, and that justice would hold the tiebreaking vote on campaign finance, labor unions and other issues.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, the country would be doing more to address the two defining issues of our time — climate change and stagnant middle-class living standards.

Leonhardt’s point is important, and too often overlooked.

Even the most sophisticated gerrymandering is based upon prior voter turnout in the areas involved. If polling and survey research are correct, a majority of Americans hold progressive policy preferences–but large numbers of them don’t express those preferences at the polls. They don’t vote. To repeat the obvious, gerrymandering is based upon prior voting patterns.

I vividly remember conversations with John Sweezy, then the Marion County Republican Party Chair, back when I was a Republican. At the time (late 1970’s) Indianapolis/Marion County was safely Republican; it remained that way for thirty-two years. Even then, however, with the GOP in firm control of every local office, Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 3-2.  Had the same percentage of registered Democrats voted as Republicans, they’d have won those offices. As John said more than once, “Thank God, Democrats don’t vote.”

It’s all about turnout. Even supposedly “safe” legislative districts can be won by the “loser” party if that party can generate a sufficient increase in turnout.

There are all kinds of theories about why Democratic turnout lags that of the Republicans, and several of those theories have explanatory power. Right now, the more important question is: how do we motivate these voters? How do we convince them that their votes really can make a difference, that the game hasn’t been so rigged by gerrymandering and crazy Voter ID requirements and inconvenient polling places and the like that it just isn’t worth the effort?

As Leonhardt says,

What can be done? First, don’t make the mistake of blaming everything on nefarious Republicans. Yes, Republicans have gerrymandered districts and shamefully suppressed votes (and Democrats should keep pushing for laws that make voting easier). But the turnout gap is bigger than any Republican scheme.

Second, keep in mind that turnout is a human-behavior problem. It involves persuading people to change long-established habits. And there is a powerful force uprooting all kinds of habits today: digital technology.

More specifically, smartphones are changing how people interact with information. I’d encourage progressives in Silicon Valley to think of voting as a giant realm ripe for disruption. Academic research by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and others has shown that peer pressure can lift turnout. Smartphones are the most efficient peer-pressure device ever invented, but no one has figured out how social media or texting can get a lot more people to the polls — yet.

Even a really good gerrymandering decision from the Supreme Court will be followed by years of state-level game-playing and obstruction–in both red and blue states. But we can work on turnout right now.

Democrats don’t have to “peel off” Republican voters, a tactic that failed to deliver Tuesday in Georgia. We just have to get the people who already agree with us to the polls.

The Power of the Gerrymander

Members of Indiana’s General Assembly will soon vote on an anti-Gerrymandering measure introduced by Jerry Torr, a “good government” Republican. The odds are that with a bit of a push, it will pass the Indiana House; but absent some really effective citizen lobbying, it isn’t likely to make it through the Senate, and that’s a real shame.

If readers of this blog need motivation to participate in that citizen lobbying effort, let me point to an important column by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, in which he connects the multiple dangers posed by Donald Trump directly to successful GOP gerrymandering. (The emphasis in the following excerpt is mine.)

In a less polarized partisan environment Trump never would have been elected and, if he had, might already be looking at possible impeachment. I think the greatest single explanation of Trump is that his politics profoundly galvanized a minority of the electorate and only a minority of the electorate. Almost everyone who wasn’t galvanized was repulsed. But once he had secured the GOP nomination with that minority, the power of partisan polarization kicked in to lock into place perhaps the next 15% to 20% of the electorate which otherwise would never have supported him. The fact that partisan identification proved stronger than that repulsion is the key reason many, including myself, wrongly discounted Trump’s ability to win. As long as Trump remains “us” to Republican voters I see little reason to think anything we can imagine will shake that very high level of support he gets from self-identified Republicans. That likely means that, among other things, no matter how unpopular Trump gets, Republican lawmakers will continue to support him because the chances of ending their careers is greater in a GOP primary than in a general election.

As I have repeatedly argued, the creation of “safe” seats for either party via partisan redistricting means that the real election occurs in that party’s primary. The people who vote in primary elections are primarily the “party faithful,” and they come overwhelmingly from the party’s fringe. Democratic voters in primaries are demonstrably to the left of the party as a whole, and Republican primary voters are even further to the right of the average Republican.

My Facebook page has been filled with criticisms of the U.S. House and Senate Republicans who have gone meekly along with the seriously disturbed person who occupies the Oval Office. (I can’t bring myself to attach the word “President” to this embarrassing buffoon.) What happened to their patriotism, their cojones? The answer is simple: the gerrymandering that makes them vulnerable to defeat if they cross the crazies of their own party has neutered them.

Gerrymandering is the reason that otherwise reasonable politicians consistently put partisan loyalties above the common good.

It would be nice if a few of them exhibited some integrity, and if Trump continues to threaten democratic norms and fundamental American interests, perhaps some of them will “grow a pair”– especially those getting ready to retire or otherwise leave office, who will not face another election.

The rest of them are caught between self-interest (which requires that they avoid offending the party’s fringe) and (for those that have them) their consciences.

Welcome to the world that gerrymandering has wrought…..