Tag Archives: census

ALEC’s Priority: Gerrymandering

One of the many problems exacerbated by the loss of local journalism is the increasing nationalization of American politics. Those who follow political news are focused almost exclusively on Washington, and that focus has only intensified since 2016. If there is one thing Donald Trump is good at (and it is the only thing), it is sucking the air out of the newsroom. He’s like the wreck by the side of the road that you can’t help rubbernecking.

But we ignore state politics at our peril.

Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office because the Republican Party has been punching above its weight for a number of years. The GOP  has been able to win elections not because it can claim majority status, but because it has been able to game the system at the state level, primarily through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And these efforts have been aided and abetted by ALEC.

ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council–is a powerful (and secretive) conservative organization. It is best known for preparing “model” bills favorable to its corporate members, bills that more often than not are introduced–unaltered– by conservative state legislators. ALEC has been incredibly successful in getting these measure passed, and the organization has shaped legislation in policy areas ranging from health care (undercutting the Affordable Care Act) to criminal justice (promoting private prisons). It has worked to lower taxes, eliminate environmental regulations, quash unions, and protect corporations from lawsuits, and it depends upon Republicans to achieve its aims.

So the organization’s current priority is gerrymandering.

In the early August heat, nearly 200 Republican lawmakers gathered in an Austin, Texas, hotel to learn about what one panelist described as a “political adult bloodsport.” The matter at hand — gerrymandering — could lock in Republican power in the states for another decade if successfully carried out again in 2021.

This meeting was evidently a bit less secretive than usual, since reporters were able to attend the sessions on gerrymandering. One was even able to record it.

 This unprecedented level of reporting on the panel uncovered the tactics conservatives plan to employ as they seek to maintain the Republican hold on state legislatures across the country in the crucial redistricting wars to come….

The conservative experts gave attendees a range of tips on how to approach gerrymandering, from legislative actions to legal preparedness. The panelists scoffed at the idea of appointing independent commissions in states to draw districts, a solution to partisan gerrymandering gaining traction in some states, instead urging state lawmakers to secure as much control over the process as possible. One panelist suggested Republican lawmakers work with black and Latino lawmakers to pack minority voters into districts, and another urged them to exclude noncitizens from the population numbers used to determine districts, a move that would dramatically redistribute power away from blue areas. Yet, ALEC also warned state lawmakers to be careful — to avoid using the word “gerrymander” and drawing lines too heavily based on race.

As the linked article points out, other conservative organizations may be focused on the federal government, but ALEC understands that the key to power is at the state level– and that the key to maintaining that power is redistricting.

ALEC’s ultimate goal is to have more influence on state lawmakers than the lawmakers’ voters.

They want people to listen to them and not their voters, and the way they do that is by creating these gerrymandered districts so legislators don’t have to address the concerns of their district.

Gerrymandering does more than skew lawmaking at the state level, of course–it results in unrepresentative, “safe” Congressional districts that send disproportionate numbers of Republicans to Congress. Democrats win more votes; Republicans win more seats.In House races in 2012, 1.7 million more votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans, but Republicans came away with thirty-three more congressional seats than the Democrats. Some of this is due to systemic issues, but much of it is due to gerrymandering.

After the last census, Republicans engaged in a national gerrymandering campaign that was so effective, it put Democrats at a disadvantage for a decade.

That disadvantage gave us the Tea Party and lots of laws written by ALEC .

Who Counts?

Talk about gaming the system. Gerrymandering is bad enough;  anyone who has read this blog for very long has encountered my periodic rants and explanations of how legislators choose their voters in order to ensure that the voters don’t get to choose their legislators.

I actually came across another example recently, one of which I had previously been unaware–prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering occurs because the census counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, even though they can’t vote while imprisoned and most return to their homes after being released. Census data is the basis of redistricting at all levels of government, so the specific location of populations is critically important. Thanks to the drug war, among other counterproductive policies, the United States has an enormous prison population. Counting prisoners in the wrong place undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population.

As the Prison Gerrymandering Project puts it, the process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed.

Which brings us to the critical importance of the census.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in an appeal from lower court rulings  prohibiting the Census Bureau from adding a citizenship question to the upcoming census. Observers reported that the five conservative judges seem likely to reverse the lower courts’ three separate decisions, all of which found the question and the manner of its addition illegal.

If they do, it will be a nakedly political decision and will further undermine what is left of this Court’s legitimacy.

Why do I say that?

First of all, because there is no legitimate reason to ask the question. The census is supposed to count “heads”–the number of people in a given area. There is no current use of census data that requires knowing how many of those residents are citizens. (Wilbur Ross’ lame justification was that this information would somehow protect the voting rights of African-Americans. Not only is there no logical nexus between that goal and the census, this administration has not previously shown any solicitude for the rights of minority voters–quite the contrary.)

There is, of course, a different and blatantly obvious reason Republicans want to add the question: it will hurt Democratic cities and states and benefit Republican ones.

Experts, including several who previously headed the census bureau, have testified that addition of a citizenship question would significantly reduce the response rate of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The undercounts that result would be the basis of the 2021 redistricting, and would reduce the political power of states with large numbers of immigrants, most of which lean Democratic. (The exception is Texas, which sets up an interesting dynamic.)

The Census is also the basis upon which federal monies are distributed back to cities and states for multiple program purposes. Guess which ones would get more and which less?

The three federal judges who have considered the issue have all ruled that Ross failed to follow the legal procedures governing the addition of a question to the Census.

In one of those decisions–a 277 page enumeration of the flaws in Ross’ attempt to subvert the accuracy of the count–the judge found that the addition of the citizenship question was “unlawful” because of “a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, including cherry-picking evidence to support his effort.

“To conclude otherwise and let Secretary Ross’s decision stand would undermine the proposition — central to the rule of law — that ours is a ‘government of laws, and not of men,’ ” Furman wrote, quoting one of the country’s Founding Fathers, John Adams.

There are two pending cases in this year’s Supreme Court term that will go a long way toward affirming or destroying the rule of law in our country: the combined partisan gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina, and the Census case.

The fundamental issue in both is whether America will insist on fair elections in which all citizens’ votes count, or whether partisans will be allowed to continue gaming the system.