Pretty much everyone I know is absolutely obsessed with this bizarre Presidential race. In one sense, that’s good—people paying attention are unlikely to break for Trump. But the intense focus on the national race means that the 2016 down-ticket elections aren’t getting the attention they deserve—not just the Senate, which is critically important, but also the House and especially state-level offices. A decent-sized Hillary victory is likely to tip the Senate. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: If Hillary wins big, could Democrats take the House?
Conventional wisdom says no. After the 2010 census, Republicans dominated state governments in a significant majority of states, and they engaged in one of the most thorough, most strategic, most competent gerrymanderings in history. If you have not read the book “Ratfucked”—buy it and read it. (And yes, that’s the real name of the book.) The 2011 gerrymander did two things: as the GOP intended, it gave Republicans 247 seats in the House of Representatives to the Democrats’ 186. That’s a 61 vote margin– despite the fact that nationally, Democratic House candidates received over a million more votes than Republican House candidates.
But that gerrymander did something else; it destroyed Republican party discipline. It created and empowered the 80+ Republican Representatives who comprise what has been called the “lunatic caucus” and made it virtually impossible to govern. That unintended consequence has now come back to haunt the GOP and frustrate the rest of us.
The structural advantage created by the gerrymander was big enough to put the House out of reach for Democrats in any normal Presidential year. But this is not a normal Presidential year.
The author of “Ratfucked,” says that GOP control of the House was designed to withstand a Presidential-year loss “up to and including” 5% nationally. If Hillary Clinton were to win by more than 5%, Democrats could theoretically swing enough seats to control the House. Obviously, that depends on turnout, on the political culture of various districts, and on the quality of individual candidates, but theoretically, at least, it’s do-able.
As endlessly fascinating as the current electoral horse-races are, we need to pay more attention to the systemic problems that are at the root of our increasingly undemocratic electoral system; if we don’t address those, we will never regain a level playing field, and there will be no incentive for the Republican Party to grow up and abandon its current reliance on appeals to racial grievance. Both America and the Democratic Party need an adult, responsible center-right opposition.
Gerrymandering is the practice of partisan redistricting. The desired outcome is as many safe districts as possible: Pack as many members of the opposition party into as few districts as possible, and create less-lopsided but also safe districts for the party in charge.
Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when it doesn’t matter?
It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with no meaningful choice. We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency. Political scientists suggest that it may instead be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. People save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness in our electoral system, those places may NOT include the voting booth.
In a safe district, the only effective way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even when those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side.
Lawmakers who are elected from safe deep-red or deep-blue seats respond almost exclusively to incentives from their districts. They are perfectly willing to ignore their party’s leadership if they think that will get them points back home, or help them avert a primary challenge. As a result, the ability to demand party discipline is a thing of the past. (Just ask John Boehner or Paul Ryan, if you don’t believe me.)
Even worse– reduced participation in the political process, and the feeling that the system has been rigged, diminishes the legitimacy of subsequent government action. Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the eligible voters in the district?
It isn’t just gerrymandering. Money in politics has always been a problem; Citizens United unleashed torrents of dark money, prompted the creation of SuperPacs, and added to the perception that America is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy.
Particularly worrisome, at least to me, are the persistent efforts to suppress the vote of likely Democratic constituencies. Indiana has the dubious distinction of being the first state to pass a voter ID law. Voter ID, as you know, was justified as a measure to prevent in-person voting fraud—a type of vote fraud that is virtually non-existent. Voter ID laws are really intended to discourage poor people and people of color from voting.
The Voter ID law recently struck down in North Carolina is a case in point: as the court noted, photo IDs most used by African Americans, including public assistance IDs, were removed from the list of acceptable identification, while IDs issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles—which blacks are less likely to have—were retained. Cutting the first week of early voting came in reaction to data showing that the first seven days were used by large numbers of black voters. Other changes made voting harder for people who had recently moved, and blacks move more often than whites.
Indiana not only has Voter ID, we are also one of only two states where the polls close at six, making it more difficult for working people to cast a ballot. We need to change these and other systemic disincentives to democratic participation.
- We need to work for a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United.
- We need to establish election day as a national holiday.
- We need to work for redistricting reform, so that voters choose their representatives instead of allowing Representatives to choose their voters.
- We should also look at alternatives to the way we conduct primaries, and
- We need to investigate ways to mitigate the effects of residential sorting.
All of those reforms would help reinvigorate American democracy.
Of course, if Donald Trump becomes President, none of that will matter. The world as we know it won’t be the world as we know it; Canada will probably build the wall and pay for it, and I plan to volunteer for that mission to colonize Mars.