Tag Archives: gerrymandering

A Cold Civil War

Back in high school when most of us studied the Civil War (usually briefly and superficially), it was hard to get our heads around the extent to which Americans held wildly different world-views. I remember my own inability to understand how so many Southerners (and not a few Northerners) fervently believed their skin color entitled them to own another human being.

At the time of the Civil War, a majority of people willing to defend the institution of slavery lived below the Mason-Dixon Line, a geographic reality that made it possible to take up arms against those who disagreed. Today, most of the divisions we face lack that geographic clarity. Although it’s true that we have Red States and Blue States, we also have bright blue cities in those Red States, and Blue States have pockets of rural Red voters. So our current Civil War–and I don’t think that is too strong a descriptor–is a “Cold War,” being fought primarily with propaganda, but threatening to erupt into assaults like the January 6th insurrection.

Most readers of this blog are well aware of the recent speech given by former General Michael Flynn, at an event for QAnon believers that featured other representatives of LaLaLand like Texas Representative Louis Gohmert.

As the New York Times reported,

Michael T. Flynn, a former national security adviser, suggested that a military coup was needed in the United States during a Memorial Day weekend conference organized by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, drawing criticism from political scientists, veterans, Democrats and a handful of prominent Republicans.

I don’t know how many of the Southerners who ultimately took up arms in America’s first Civil War actually believed in the core precepts of slavery and “the White Man’s burden,” but thanks to advances in polling and survey research, we have a fairly accurate understanding of the percentage of our fellow-Americans who claim to believe QAnon nonsense.

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 14 percent of Americans, including about one in four Republicans, believed in three central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory: that the United States is being run by a cabal of Satanist pedophiles, that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to get rid of that cabal, and that a “storm” will soon “restore the rightful leaders.”

In a robust democracy, fourteen percent of the population can be bat-shit crazy without endangering the Union–but we don’t have a robust democracy. As over one hundred political science scholars recently wrote, the attacks on voting underway in several states are transforming democratic decision-making into “political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” The scholars warn that “our entire democracy is now at risk.”

Ezra Klein recently reminded readers that Democrats face an unforgiving context:

Their coalition leans young, urban and diverse, while America’s turnout patterns and electoral geography favor the old, rural and white. According to FiveThirtyEight, Republicans hold a 3.5 point advantage in the Electoral College, a 5-point advantage in the Senate and a 2-point advantage in the House. Even after winning many more votes than Republicans in 2018 and 2020, they are at a 50-50 split in the Senate, and a bare 4-seat majority in the House. Odds are that they will lose the House and possibly the Senate in 2022.

This is the fundamental asymmetry of American politics right now: To hold national power, Democrats need to win voters who are right-of-center; Republicans do not need to win voters who are left-of-center. Even worse, Republicans control the election laws and redistricting processes in 23 states, while Democrats control 15. The ongoing effort by Texas Republicans to tilt the voting laws in their favor, even as national Republicans stonewall the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, is testament to the consequences of that imbalance.

This is how a Cold Civil War is conducted. Although there may be scattered bloodshed a la January 6th, the actual battles–the coups favored by crackpots like Flynn and Gohmert and numerous other Republicans– are taking place in state-level legislative bodies where the will of the majority has been neutered by gerrymandering and on media platforms where facts are twisted or sacrificed to feed the appetites–and generate the rage– of angry  old White guys. 

What is really terrifying is the likelihood that this current iteration of Civil War will be won or lost with most Americans totally unaware that it is even being fought….

 

Answering Your Questions

On February 4th, I participated–via Zoom– in a panel discussion on gerrymandering sponsored by Indiana’s League of Women Voters. The program concluded with several questions still pending, and the moderator subsequently sent me the ones we hadn’t had time to address.

There were some I couldn’t answer: what is meant by a “paper trail,” for example. I rather imagine it varies depending upon the technology being employed, but I have no helpful information. And I have no data on the number of voters who found themselves moved to  new legislative districts during the last round of redistricting.

Some of the “questions” were really comments: one person bemoaned the generational effects of safe seats–the reluctance of “long in the tooth” politicians to address issues (marijuana reform, for example) that are relevant to younger voters, and another was concerned with the dominance of rural representation and the lack of genuine home rule in Indiana. A third emphasized the importance of the courts. I agree with all of them.

As for the questions: I have previously explained why the Fairness Doctrine would not be applicable to most sources of today’s disinformation. The study that found Indiana to be the fifth most gerrymandered state was conducted by scholars at the University of Chicago.  Cases challenging the constitutionality of gerrymandering have indeed been filed–and have lost at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Someone asked what incentive might appeal to both parties to end the practice, and someone else wondered how HR 1 proposed to provide that incentive, especially since states like Indiana have constitutional provisions requiring legislative line-drawing. To answer that question, I am turning the remainder of this post over to the Brennan Center.

The biggest change under H.R. 1 would be that all states would be required to use independent citizen commissions to draw congressional districts. These 15-member commissions would include five Democrats, five Republicans, and five Independents or members of smaller parties, ensuring that all interests are represented equally when lines are drawn. Strong conflict of interest rules would prevent lobbyists, staffers, and political operatives from serving on the commission, and screening processes would ensure that qualified commissioners are selected.

The process for approving a map also would be transformed. In contrast to the current practice in most states, maps could no longer be approved along party lines. Instead, for a map to become law, it would need to win support from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and members of third parties on the commission

Partisan gerrymandering would be expressly banned

H.R. 1 would give voters an important advantage by creating the first ban against partisan gerrymandering in federal statutory law.

This statutory ban would let voters use H.R. 1 to challenge gerrymandered maps under H.R. 1 instead of having to rely, as is the case presently, on claims brought under various parts of the Constitution. Having a statutory remedy could be an especially important tool for voters given uncertainty about how far the Supreme Court will go in allowing partisan gerrymandering claims brought under the Constitution.

Importantly, the ban could be implemented for maps drawn in 2021, even the passage of H.R. 1 does not come in time for independent commissions to be set up.

The rules for drawing maps would be made uniform across the country

H.R. 1 would create a comprehensive, uniform set of rules for mapdrawing

H.R. 1 would create a comprehensive, uniform set of rules for mapdrawing.

Currently, the only requirement in federal law for drawing congressional districts is that states must use single-member districts. Some states impose additional requirements in their own laws, but many do not. This has created an unlevel playing field and opened the door to all kinds of manipulation.

Under H.R. 1, mapdrawers are required to avoid the unnecessary division of communities, neighborhoods, and political subdivisions. Protections for communities of color also would be strengthened to ensure that the political power of those communities is not undermined by mapdrawers.

Mapdrawers also would be required to issue written reports evaluating proposed maps’ compliance with these rules before any voting on maps could commence.

As with the ban on partisan gerrymandering, these rules could be put in place for 2021 even if passage of H.R. 1 does not come in time for implementation of commissions.

HR 1 would give the public the right to review the maps, and the right to mount an expedited challenge.

Constitutional provisions giving the legislature responsibility for redistricting can be met by having the legislature adopt the maps drawn by the commission. That provision was included in previous–unsuccessful– Indiana bills that addressed gerrymandering.

HR 1 is one of the most important measures currently pending in Congress. It would go a long way toward restoring a system that encourages, rather than discourages, voting–and an even longer way toward allowing voters to choose their representatives rather than keeping the gerrymandering that currently allows representatives to choose their voters.

HR 1

HR 1 was the first bill passed by the House of Representatives after the Democrats won control in 2018, and it languished, of course, in Mitch McConnell’s “do-nothing-good” Senate. The question now is whether– with Democrats razor-thin control of that body–it can be passed.

Because passage is truly essential if we are to recover basically democratic governance.

There have been a number of articles and editorials about HR 1, but I particularly agreed with the headline on the subject from Esquire:“If We Don’t Pass HR 1, We Are F**ked As A Nation.”

The headline came from a quote by Josh Silver, who works for Represent.Us, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to ending political corruption, extremism, and gridlock.  The organization has promoted model legislation very similar to HR I since 2012.  Silver believes that, should we fail to pass these reforms,  America will continue what he calls “our decline into authoritarianism.”

“It is these problems that the bill addresses that are the root cause of the extremism and polarization that gave rise to Trump and the new sort of anti-representative form of government that the Republican Party has chosen to embrace. And I’m saying that as a truly nonpartisan guy.”

So–what would this measure accomplish?

Title one of the bill is John Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act. Lewis introduced it–and saw it die–in five congresses in a row. It would make voting and access to the ballot box easier and more convenient by creating automatic voter registration across the country, and expanding early and absentee voting. It would also restore voting rights for felons, streamline the vote-by-mail process, and prohibit various voter-suppression tactics currently in vogue. It would also beef up election security– promoting the use of paper ballots and strengthening oversight of election-system vendors. (It also evidently backs a  grant of statehood for Washington, D.C., although not directly.)

In my favorite part of the bill, HR 1 would take on gerrymandering. It would require states to use independent commissions subject to strong conflict-of-interest rules. District maps would be approved differently, and would be more easily challenged if they are partisan and/or unrepresentative.

Another part of the bill–called the Disclose Act– would address “dark money” in politics.

The bill would institute an “Honest Ads” policy, where disclosure requirements for online political advertisements are expanded and strengthened. It would put in place a “Right to Know” policy where corporations would have to make shareholders aware of their specific political activity. It would root out participation of foreign nationals in fundraising—a foreign money ban. It would, per the name, beef up disclosure requirements for organizations engaging in political spending, including by reinforcing the Internal Revenue Service’s powers and prerogative to investigate misuse of charities to hide the source of political money.

The bill also addresses fundraising for Inaugurations, which has previously been a way for wealthy donors to curry favor with incoming administrations.

And finally, HR 1 deals with lobbying. It closes what has recently been called “the Michael Cohen exception,” where people who don’t lobby directly aren’t covered by some of the registration requirements, and it gives real enforcement power to the Office of Government Ethics. The bill bolsters ethics law in general: it requires presidents to release their tax returns, expands conflict-of-interest policy and divestment requirements, and attempts to slow the “revolving door” through which members of Congress and their staff have moved between government and the private sector, influence peddling while lobbying or serving  on corporate boards.

There are other provisions, but this overview gets at the major elements. Every citizen who has railed against vote suppression, despaired of getting rid of gerrymandering, and  cursed the outsized influence of big money in politics should lobby their Senators for its passage.

Tune In To These Presentations!

In lieu of a post today, I am indulging in some PR.

I will be participating in one of three upcoming, free Zoom presentations on gerrymandering, sponsored by the Indiana League of Women Voters. As longtime readers know, I have blogged repeatedly about the anti-democratic impacts of gerrymandering, and I’ve published a couple of articles about it in academic journals (you know, those journals that no one reads). This is your chance to hear from other voices, to see some illuminating films, and to benefit from the experiences of others.

Below is the information about the series, and a link at which to register. DO IT. (Please?)

Documentary Film Series with Panelists and Q&A on Voter Suppression, Gerrymandering, and the Need for Redistricting Reform

Thursday, Jan 28, 7:30-9:00 p.m. EST

Suppressed: The Fight to Vote by Robert Greenwald.
Produced by Brave New Films, this 35-minute documentary chronicles the 2018 midterm election in Georgia where people faced polling place closures, voter purges, missing absentee ballots and extreme wait times —disproportionately preventing students and people of color from voting.

Panelists: Sarah Ferraro (election official, Calumet LWV)
Olisa Humes (President of NAACP chapter, Columbus, IN)

Thursday, Feb 4, 7:30-9:00 p.m. EST

UnCivil War: U.S. Elections Under Siege Produced & directed by

Indiana native Tom Glynn
This 45-minute documentary exposes the web of threats facing our elections today. The film includes a segment on Indiana’s fight to reform redistricting, featuring interviews with Common Cause’s Julia Vaughn and Debbie Asberry of the Indiana League of Women Voters, co-founders of All IN for Democracy, Indiana’s Coalition for Redistricting Reform.

Panelists: Sheila Kennedy (Retired Professor of Law and Policy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI)
Paul Helmke (former Ft. Wayne Mayor, now Director of the Civic Leaders Center at IU).
Peggy Welch (IN State Rep. gerrymandered out of her district in 2011)

Thursday, Feb 11, 7:30-9:00 p.m. EST

Line in the Street Created by film makers Robert and Rachel Millman, this award-winning film on gerrymander reform is about citizen activists and a landmark win for voting rights in the 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, League of Women Voters Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This first of its kind lawsuit held that partisan gerrymandering violated Pennsylvania’s State Constitution, irrespective of federal law, or federal courts.

Panelists: Jesse Kharbanda (Hoosier Environmental Council)
Jennifer McCormick (Former IN State Superintendent of Public Instruction)

REGISTER HERE FOR ONE, TWO OR THREE FILMS: You will receive a registration confirmation email containing information & a unique link to attend the programs.

If you have wondered how on earth people like Jim Jordan and Louis Gohmert manage to hang onto their seats in the House of Representatives, this series will explain that phenomenon.

If you live in a state like Indiana, where the lines have been carefully drawn to ensure dominance by rural voters over urban ones, this series will explain why Indiana’s laws are so retrograde and why our state is so firmly located in the “Red” column when election results are being tabulated.

And P.S.While this series is focused on gerrymandering, don’t forget the anti-democratic Electoral College. The Electoral College is the reason that, in a Senate that is split 50-50, the 50 Democratic Senators represent 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republicans represent.

 

Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.