Category Archives: Local Government

Gerrymandering–One More Time

Can you stand one more diatribe about gerrymandering? I’m returning to the issue because states across the U.S. are busily engaged in the electoral “rigging” that Republicans claim to abhor…and because– unless the voting rights act passes– Congress will succeed in protecting the process into the future.

Talk about “voter fraud”–how about the process, beloved by the GOP, of defrauding literally millions of voters of meaningful participation in the selection of their representatives?

Here’s my last column for the Indiana Business Journal, where–for the umpteenth time–I tried to explain what is so very pernicious about the process, and why it is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

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With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.
Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced 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 vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is 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 general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced. (One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.

 

 

Preparing For Climate Change

A week or so ago, I suggested that it was time–past time, actually–to rethink federalism. Not to dispense with it, but to reconsider which governance tasks should be left to state and local governments and which must be tackled at the federal (or even global) level.

The problem with nationalizing too many issues is that sending authority to Washington effectively demoralizes local activists working on those issues. If the only people who have authority to do X or Y are far removed, the result is likely to be those feelings of powerlessness I’ve been writing about.

The problems with keeping too much local control over issues more properly addressed at the federal level include lack of impact and incentives for all sorts of mischief–see vote suppression..

There are also an increasing number of issues where we need all hands on deck. When it comes to overwhelming problems like climate change, even enlightened national/global efforts will require equally enlightened local measures. And individuals really can affect local decision-making.

A recent report from Inverse highlighted the resilience efforts of five cities, providing an “instruction manual” of sorts–a delineation of local measures that can make a positive difference. As the article noted, despite the grim evidence of impending climate catastrophe,

 there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Fukuoka, Japan has been adding green spaces, including parks, community gardens and green roofs. It decides where to site those spaces based on surveys of windflow through the city and other measurements to determine the most effective places to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces reduce extreme heat and help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat, and developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

Ahmedabad, India (a city of 7.2 million that I’d never heard of) was included for its “cool roofs” initiative.

This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 – 9° F.

Copenhagen, Denmark has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025. It has made substantial progress toward that goal: 49 percent of all trips in the city are by bike, and 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production. Seawater cooling measures have removed an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere.

Here in the United States, Chicago, believe it or not, was one of the five cities cited in the report. Chicago made the list because is was an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure, and a developer of urban vertical farms.

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of Chicago’s plan included capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains; investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding; compiling rainfall frequency data to better predict flooding; and offering resources on green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

The linked article not only highlights these cities, but includes suggestions for how other urban centers might emulate them.

We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing the threat posed by climate change, and large numbers of citizens–especially but not exclusively young ones–are coming together to combat it. Working at the local level on measures targeted to the specific threats faced by those localities can not only help ameliorate the effects of an over-heating world, it can give citizens an opportunity to work together to effect important changes.

Ultimately, the ability to actually do something–something that clearly matters– to work with our neighbors to ameliorate a threat we all face (and that, increasingly, we all recognize) can help us overcome the extreme polarization that has paralyzed our government.

After all, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together.

 

And…Todd Rokita Again

I’ve posted a lot about the negative consequences of bigotry for individuals and the body politic. What I haven’t focused on–at least, not sufficiently–is the moral culpability of the politicians who pander to and encourage bigotry and ignorance because they think it will help them win elections.

Which brings me to Indiana’s current Attorney General, Todd Rokita.

Rokita, predictably, is one of the GOP officials currently screaming about President Biden’s vaccine mandate– elevating political identity over government’s obligation to protect  public health.

It’s part and parcel of his persona.

Some of you will remember that Rokita was a prime mover of Indiana’s Voter ID law–premised on a “voter fraud” that every single study found to be non-existent. But of course, minorities were less likely to have the required documentation–and  not-so-coincidentally, less likely to vote for Rokita.

Todd Smekens, who often comments on this blog, shared a letter with me that Rokita had sent to multiple media outlets in Indiana, “explaining” his war on the Confucius Institutes that dot campuses around the state. (I’ve previously noted how ridiculous and dishonest those attacks have been.)

This letter–replete with inaccuracies (China did not intentionally loosen the virus on the world, Valparaiso University does not have an “affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party”…) continues Rokita’s assault on Confucius Institutes and common sense, and ends with a ringing promise to protect Hoosiers from the Chinese Communist Menace. (Oh good..I’ve been so worried. Hoosiers are so susceptible…) In any event, that grandiose promise of “protection,” ridiculous as it is, falls far afield of the Indiana Attorney General’s job description.

As I’ve previously noted, Confucius Institutes exist at some 100 American colleges, including IUPUI, where I taught, although given its lack of prominence on campus, most students had probably never heard of it. The Institutes are one of a wide range of campus organizations intended to introduce students to a diverse set of global cultures.

Valparaiso University’s Confucius Institute–for some reason, a particular target of Rokita’s– was founded in 2008 and its website said it “aims at helping Northwest Indiana citizens learn about China and its people and culture and study the Chinese language, and promoting cultural, particularly music, exchange between the US and China.” Valparaiso shut the Institute down last year, citing a loss of federal funding.

It’s tempting to shrug at this posturing –after all, this is deep-red Indiana, where we’re used to  political figures making fools of themselves. But we need to realize that the character, morality and intellect of the people we place in leadership positions actually matters.

In a recent piece in the Economist, Stephen Reicher revisited the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, and found evidence of the important role played by leadership–the researchers who shaped the experiment– in producing the shocking results that  brought the experiment to an early close. As Reicher reports, a full reading of the study archive–recently opened– “does not reveal natural brutality, as it is often depicted, but how brutality is mobilized by others.”

At the moment, Americans are in the middle of a different leadership experiment, this one focused on a deadly pathogen. “Leaders” like DeSantis and Abbott and Rokita are actively encouraging behaviors that are equally toxic–behaviors that pose a threat to public health and are directly responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths. That encouragement is clearly intended to enhance their standing in the ranks of the “freedom fighters” who control today’s GOP. (Rokita fought efforts by IU to ensure that students coming back to campus were vaccinated; he lost in court.)

Rokita’s “letter” (really a press release) was clearly intended to endear him to his natural constituency– to the sort of voter who would be receptive to his misinformation (pretty much the horse de-wormer crowd).

As I noted when he first initiated these attacks against China, communism and American universities, it really doesn’t matter whether Rokita is as loony and smarmy as he seems (a la Marjorie Taylor Greene et al), or just pursuing what he considers to be a savvy strategy of appealing to uninformed and loony voters. He’s a prime example of everything that’s wrong with contemporary American politics.

Our ability to get government functioning properly again–our ability to ensure that the various leaders of state agencies are doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing rather than chasing media mentions and the votes of the credulous and uninformed– requires ridding ourselves of elected officials like Rokita.

In Rokita’s case, I actually know several Republicans who agree….

Drawing Lines

Ah, gerrymandering…..

As delayed census information has finally become available, we are witnessing the every-ten-year effort by politicians to redistrict in ways that will favor their parties. Both parties engage in these efforts–but credit where credit is due, Republicans are far better at it. Ten years ago, the GOP’s “Redmap” effort–detailed in the book Rat***ked-succeeded in delivering far more power to the party than their voters would otherwise have entitled them to.

Gerrymandering–where legislators choose their voters rather than the other way around–has been an American “tradition” since the days of Elbridge Gerry, but with the advent of computers, it has become increasingly precise. I have posted repeatedly about the negative, nefarious consequences of the practice; and I have published academic articles elaborating the damage to democratic governance. None of those articles broke new ground–the negative outcomes of the practice are widely recognized.

Here in very red Indiana, our current legislature–dominated by a Republican super-majority courtesy of gerrymandering–is once again planning to ignore broad grass-roots efforts to ensure that the lines being drawn respect “communities of interest.” In Indiana, that would mean ending the legislature’s decades-old war on urban Hoosier voters.

Even the Indianapolis Star has reported on that war.

The Star looked at the way Indiana’s gerrymandering disproportionately favors rural residents, effectively disenfranchising Blacks living in urban areas of the state.

Oliver, who is Black, lives in a diverse area on Indianapolis’ east side within Senate District 28. But she’s represented by Sen. Michael Crider, who lives in the rural Greenfield area in Hancock County. His community little resembles Oliver’s neighborhood, where nearly half the residents are people of color. Crider, like every Republican Senator and all but one GOP House member in the Statehouse, is white.

The district, in fact, is largely rural land from Fortville to Shelbyville, but jets in finger-like deep into Indianapolis’s east side all the way to the Irvington area. Indy residents note the voting power of their largely Democratic-leaning area is diluted by the rest of the majority rural Republican-leaning district.

One Irvington resident described it in a public redistricting hearing as a “middle finger slipping into the city of Indianapolis.”

It isn’t just Black people who are being disenfranchised–it’s all residents of urban Indiana. And that disenfranchisement has very practical consequences. There is, to take just one example, a connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

A majority of Indiana residents live in the state’s metropolitan areas–in cities. But as the Star article noted, thanks to the way our gerrymandered districts are drawn, a majority of policymakers in the Statehouse represent predominantly rural areas. That leads to state distribution formulas that significantly favor rural areas over urban ones.

My husband spent six years as Indianapolis’ Director of Metropolitan Development. His experience with the state’s fiscal favoritism for rural areas angered him when he dealt with it then, and it has continued to be an abiding irritation. But as often as he has fulminated about the unfairness of those distributions, it took me several years to recognize the connection between state distribution formulas and gerrymandering.

When the legislature allocates money for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state  than to the cities where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live. And that won’t change so long as the state’s districts are drawn to keep the GOP in control–because GOP voters live predominantly in the rural areas of the state, not the cities, which increasingly vote Democratic.

Even a cursory examination of Indiana’s House and Senate districts as currently drawn  illustrates the degree to which urban Hoosiers are unrepresented, the degree to which urban areas have been “carved up” and their “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers.

So yes–it’s important to reform gerrymandering in order to reclaim “one person, one vote,” and to reverse the damage being done to the country every day by legislators who are far more responsive to rabid rural culture warriors than to the majority of American voters.  But if that goal seems too abstract– if the connection between a “gamed” and dishonest redistricting process and everyday life seems vague–think about the connection between fair and equal representation and those distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim or flatten a tire.

Think about it again when our public schools are once again shortchanged.

Then tell your state Representative or Senator that you will work tirelessly to defeat any legislator who supports yet another Hoosier gerrymander.

 

 

 

Highways And Critical Race Theory

Opponents of (a dramatically-mischaracterized) Critical Race Theory are essentially arguing against the recognition of just how deeply racism has affected American law and culture. They argue–and some undoubtedly believe–that civil rights laws created a level playing field, and that it’s now up to minority folks to stop complaining and make use of their equal opportunities.

The problem with that belief–even if we leave aside the sociological effects of two hundred  plus years of history–is that it is wrong.

As a society, we are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which racial animus has been baked into our laws and customs. (I was shocked to read The Color of the Law, for example, which documented how deeply the federal government was implicated in redlining and the segregation of America.) Only because I was involved in an effort to modify plans for rebuilding Indiana’s interstates within Indianapolis’ downtown did I become aware of the degree to which the original placement of those highways was the result of racist motives and assumptions.

Fifty-plus years ago, when the interstate system was built, entire neighborhoods were razed to make room for them. Homes, businesses, and urban amenities were destroyed, and the highways  became barriers between neighborhoods, cutting people off from job opportunities and retail options.

Subsequent environmental studies have shown that air pollution from highways negatively impacts student outcomes in nearby schools.

All of these negative impacts fell most heavily on Black neighborhoods and businesses, and that was definitely not accidental. As an architect recently wrote in The Washington Post about North Claiborne Street, formerly a bustling corridor in New Orleans:

There were many masters on North Claiborne, and Black New Orleanians were the beneficiaries of their talents. There were doctors, lawyers, retailers, insurance agents, teachers, musicians, restaurateurs and other small-business owners. The avenue stretched across the Tremé and 7th Ward neighborhoods, and in the Jim Crow era, it served as the social and financial center of the Black community.

The government tore up the avenue nearly 60 years ago, burying the heart of Tremé and the 7th Ward so the Claiborne Expressway, part of Interstate 10’s transcontinental span, could run through the city. New Orleans wasn’t alone. The same kind of thing happened across the country; Black communities like those in St. Paul, Minn., Orlando, Detroit, Richmond, Baltimore, Oakland, Calif., and Syracuse, N.Y., were leveled or hollowed out to make way for federal highway building. The Biden administration hopes to use the massive infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress to help remedy the harm done by these hideous scars, to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” in President Biden’s words. It’s not clear how much of the trillion dollars that lawmakers are contemplating will actually make it to places like North Claiborne. But those places aren’t just abstract line items in a budget resolution to people like me; they’re lived realities — vivid examples of how racist planning destroyed communities of color in America.

Our aging infrastructure now requires repair and replacement, and a number of cities have recognized the harms done by those original siting decisions, They have also recognized   how racist assumptions–and all too often, conscious racial animus–prompted those decisions, and have moved to ameliorate them. (Indiana’s DOT, it will not surprise you to learn, has thus far resisted similar efforts to fundamentally redesign those highways and reconnect neighborhoods.)

There are numerous reasons to rethink the country’s interstates, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with race. City centers have changed, historic districts have proliferated, we know more about the negative effects of highway pollution, etc. But we also shouldn’t forget why so many of those highways were built where they were.

As the author of the Post essay concluded:

I do not understand why we can’t look at these infrastructure relics the way we look at monuments to white supremacy, such as statues of Confederate heroes and obelisks apotheosizing the Lost Cause. The statues are hurtful reminders of the times when Black people and Native Americans were seen as commodities or nuisances that needed removal. But urban highways are more than a reminder; they continuously inflict economic, social and environmental pain on neighborhoods like mine. Like other monuments to racism, they must be removed. The nation has a chance to support the rebuilding of disenfranchised and fractured communities and make them whole. It won’t be easy, but I hope we will seize the moment.

We don’t look at highways as monuments to White Supremacy, because we don’t know–and haven’t learned–how White Supremacy influenced–determined– their placement. It’s just one more aspect of our current society whose origins we prefer not to understand.