Tag Archives: gerrymandering

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 .

The Deep State

Since Trump became President (or more accurately, took up residence in the White House), we’ve heard repeated accusations about the so-called “deep state.” The phrase is meant to denigrate government workers, and it has a lot in common with  other rhetoric employed by this administration, which labels immigrants “rapists and murderers,” Islamic citizens “terrorists,” and whistleblowers “traitors.”

It’s all shorthand for “here are people to fear and hate.”

Given the lack of precision with which Trump employs language, I initially assumed that pretty much any civil servant would meet his definition of the “deep state.” But over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall did a “deep dive” into the term–its accuracy (if any) and the identity of the presumably nefarious deep staters.

The phrase “deep state” originally comes from Turkey, where a “deep state” run by the military and security services allowed democratic politics to operate within prescribed bounds — but no further. The real government wasn’t the president or prime minister of the day but this “deep state.” It was autonomous and dominant and self-perpetuating.

In the first weeks of the Trump administration this phrase was taken up by the President and his entourage and applied to the U.S. Over three years it has become the catch-all term for unnamed enemies of the President plotting against him from within the federal bureaucracy.

Although–surprise!–here was no evil cabal lurking within the federal bureaucracy, Marshall and his reporters discovered something no less troubling.

They called what they found the “Conservative Deep State.” It wasn’t composed of shadowy forces motivated by conspiratorial theories, as the term might suggest. In fact, it was all out in the open.

We are talking about a dense network of right-wing lobbies, pressure groups, nurseries of political talent and prefab legislation, well-funded organizations usually operating at the state level which collectively create a strong rightward tilt in American governance. Elections remain critical. But they are contests on playing fields that are staked out, tilted and furrowed by organizing and money between elections.

Why is it, as parties frequently exchange the presidency and control of Congress, that state laws and regulations on everything from consumer protection to labor rights to voting seem to tilt steadily to the right? Why are Republicans so successful at gerrymandering and holding state legislative chambers?

The answer is this deep network. And you already know some of the names: The Koch Network, The American Legislative Exchange Council, The Federalist Society. Many others operate just as effectively, just below the radar.

There are certainly center-left analogs to all these groups, but none have managed to recreate the same levels of organization, funding or success that the Conservative Deep State enjoys today.

The operation of these networks, more than anything else, explains why Republicans control far more state governments than we would expect from their numbers, and why Americans can’t seem to enact policies that, according to survey research, enjoy overwhelming support.

Give credit where credit is due: the GOP is far, far more disciplined than the Democratic Party.  (The reasons are a subject for a different post.) That discipline allows them to do more with less.

The linked article was first in a series of reports on aspects of the Conservative Deep State.

Earlier this year we decided to publish a series on this topic — to commission a series of originally reported pieces on particular parts of the Conservative Deep State, how it functions, what it does, how it not only wins elections and helps pass laws but creates a right-wing ballast anchoring national and, even more, state and local politics on the right, even as public opinion on many issues shifts in the opposite direction.

As I read the linked article and those that followed, I kept thinking of The Purloined Letter, by Edgar Allen Poe, where the object of the detective’s search was hidden in plain sight.

It turns out that, despite the name, the “Deep State” isn’t very deep at all. It’s right in front of us–subverting democracy.

 

They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

If there was ever any doubt about the Republican approach to the 2020 elections, people like Scott Walker are dispelling them. As Talking Points Memo reported a few weeks back,  Walker, who was formerly governor of Wisconsin, currently runs a group called the National Republican Redistricting Trust. That organization is allied with the (misnamed)  “Fair Lines America,” which is suing Michigan in an effort to overturn a recently passed anti-gerrymandering referendum.

In a preview of the coming war over redistricting reform, Republican politicians and operatives in Michigan filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the state’s new, voter-approved redistricting commission.

Behind the lawsuit is Fair Lines America Foundation, which, according to the Detroit News,is affiliated with the Scott Walker-led National Republican Redistricting Trust.

The Republicans allege that the independent commission violates the Constitution’s First Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause by imposing certain requirements on who can serve on the commission. Specifically, individuals cannot serve on the 13-member commission if they, in the past six years, were partisan candidates, elected officials, political appointees, lobbyists, campaign consultants or political party officials.

There is a Yiddish word that fits this lawsuit perfectly: chutzpah. (Google it.)

Conditions like the ones imposed for serving on the Michigan commission are common in states where independent redistricting commissions are in place. The new GOP lawsuit alleges, however, that these conditions–imposed to ensure a lack of partisan bias on the part of citizens drawing district lines–are unconstitutional.

“Plaintiffs have been excluded from eligibility based on their exercise of one or more of their constitutionally protected interests,i.e., freedom of speech (e.g., by the exclusion of candidates for partisan office), right of association (e.g., by the exclusion of members of a governing body of a political party), and/or the right to petition (e.g., by the exclusion of registered lobbyists),” the lawsuit alleged.

The article predicts that the Michigan lawsuit is only the first of several that will be filed in states that have addressed the anti-democratic effects of partisan redistricting (aka gerrymandering) by establishing nonpartisan commissions.

Before Mitch McConnell and Trump succeeded in adding numerous right-wing ideologues to the federal judiciary, I wouldn’t have worried about this lawsuit. I would expect its patently ridiculous argument to be given short shrift. But given the caliber of people elevated to the federal bench (several nominees even refused to affirm that Brown v. Board of Education is good law…), all bets are off.

With the Supreme Court ruling last month that federal judges cannot rein in partisan gerrymandering, voting rights advocates will be only expanding their efforts to implement redistrict reform via independent commissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority in the case, name-checked Michigan’s ballot initiative specifically to argue that there other avenues besides the federal judiciary to address the problem of extreme gerrymanders.

How his court will handle the coming wave of lawsuits challenging those commissions remains to be seen.

It has become glaringly obvious that the GOP cannot win a national election unless it can gerrymander districts and suppress minority votes. In their desperation to keep control of the mechanisms that ensure a non-democratic result favoring Republicans, party functionaries aren’t even giving lip service to majority rule. They aren’t even pretending to care about democracy and/or the integrity of the electoral process.

The midterm elections pointed to the only available remedy: turnout so massive that cheating can’t carry the day.

The Court Betrayed Us: What Can We Do?

Talking Points Memo summed up the dilemma for American democracy in the face of the Supreme Court’s dishonest, cynically partisan decision.

The chief’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause doesn’t withstand even basic scrutiny. The court’s majority decided that partisan gerrymandering disputes are “non-justiciable” — that is, the courts can’t intervene in them — because, essentially, courts aren’t equipped to come up with a standard to determine when gerrymanders go too far. Never mind that the lack of what the court calls a “judicially manageable standard” appears to have literally never held the justices back before on any other issue. Never mind also that, as the Brennan Center’s Tom Wolf has pointed out, five different federal courts, relying on the work of respected political scientists, have had little trouble coming up with manageable standards to strike down partisan gerrymanders in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and Maryland. To Roberts, it’s all a bunch of “sociological gobbledygook.”

It’s hard not to see Rucho as a direct relative of past Roberts court rulings that likewise crippled our democracy, like the Shelby County decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Citizens United decision striking down campaign finance rules, the Crawford case upholding voter ID laws,  and the Husted opinion allowing purges of voter rolls.

So the Court isn’t going to protect “one person, one vote. The Court leaves in place a tactic that, according to the Cook report, has created today’s political reality: 19 out of 20 voters reside in a non-competitive Congressional District.

That’s where we are. The urgent question is: what do we do?

The easy answer–which is by no means easy to accomplish–is to elect Democrats. Everywhere. City, State and federal offices. That’s not because Democrats are angels, or unwilling to play the gerrymandering game–one of the cases before the Supreme Court was from Maryland, which had been redistricted by Democrats for Democrats. But for a number of reasons (including the fact that Republicans have been much better at partisan redistricting and by far the most numerous beneficiaries of it), Democrats have made fair redistricting an important policy commitment.

If Democrats take the Senate, the House bills Mitch McConnell refuses to hear will pass–Including the all-important H.R.1, the sweeping democracy reform bill that would expand voting access. fix our campaign finance system, and make redistricting fair and transparent. Without a Democratic Senate, however, H.R. 1 won’t pass.

What else can we do?

A local answer that is “doable” in some states is to mount a referendum. These have been very successful in states where such mechanisms are available. Indiana, unfortunately, is not one of those states.

Long-term, what we need in Indiana is an amendment to the state’s constitution. That document currently places responsibility for redistricting with the state legislature–a  provision that creates an obvious conflict of interest. It places decision-making in the hands of those whose interests will be affected, allowing lawmakers to choose their voters rather than the other way around.

The problem is, efforts to amend the Indiana Constitution–ideally, to provide that redistricting will henceforth be the responsibility of a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission–must originate with that same conflicted legislature.

I invite my more creative lawyer and political friends to weigh in, but after much “mulling over” (and not an inconsiderable amount of alcohol), here’s the best advice I can come up with for our not-as-Red-as-people-think Hoosier state:

We need a “movement.” (I’m aspiring to Hong Kong sized….)

Furious Hoosiers can build on the coalition already in place under the auspices of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. We should make lots of noise;  we should endorse candidates for the General Assembly who commit to support a constitutional amendment addressing gerrymandering; and we should “call out” legislators who sabotage efforts at representative government.

I realize it won’t be easy. Common Cause has been fighting this battle for nearly 20 years, and Indiana is still the 5th most gerrymandered state in the nation. But over that time, many more people have come to understand the problem. What the forces of change have going for us now is anger–anger at the corruption of Trump and his Administration, anger at the Vichy Republicans who put party before country, and anger at a partisan Court that rewards Mitch McConnell’s willingness to cheat.

However energized the anti-gerrymandering movement, however, there is no escaping the conclusion that the first order of business is turnout in 2020.

Indiana was blue in 2008, partly because a lot of people who didn’t often vote, did. And as I have pointed out before, even Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering won’t protect the GOP super-majority if we have massive turnout. 

A tsunami of votes in 2020 can “jump start” a grass-roots effort to make “one person, one vote” a reality.

If that fails, so does democratic self-government.

Happy 4th of July.

 

The Non-Abstract Effects Of Gerrymandering

It’s hard not to be bitter in the wake of the Supreme Court’s intellectually dishonest refusal to protect the legitimacy of democratic governance.

For one thing, over the past couple of years, as I have delved more deeply into the research, I’ve discovered that gerrymandering–aka partisan redistricting–does more than skew election results. A lot more.

I’ve previously pointed out that here in Indiana, where partisan redistricting has carved up metropolitan areas and subordinated urban populations to rural ones, gerrymandering has given us distribution formulas favoring rural areas over cities when divvying up dollars for roads and schools, among other inequities.

And a recent article in The Guardian has connected gerrymandering to the recent spate of radical abortion laws.

Fifty-four thousand votes out of nearly 4 million. That’s what separated Stacey Abrams from Brian Kemp in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, a sign of how closely contested this once reliably red, southern state has become.

Earlier this month, however, Georgia’s legislature responded to the state’s closely divided political climate not with thoughtful compromise but by passing one of the most restrictive abortion bansin the United States.

An April poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 70% of Georgians support the landmark Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortion. The new state ban is opposedby 48% of Georgians and supported by only 43%. So why would the legislature enact such an extreme measure?

For that matter, why would Ohio, Alabama, Missouri and other states establish similar “fetal heartbeat” laws that are far more restrictive than their constituents support?

One important answer is gerrymandering: redistricting voting districts to give the party in power an edge – making it almost impossible for the other side to win a majority of seats, even with a majority of votes. Sophisticated geo-mapping software and voluminous voter data turned this ancient art into a hi-tech science when the US redistricted after the 2010 census.

Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more adept at using these new tools than the Democrats (probably because Republicans recognize that they are increasingly a minority party and must cheat if they are going to win).

As the Guardian reports, gerrymandering has allowed the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. Gerrymandering thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.

Despite lacking any mandate for an extreme agenda in a closely divided nation, Republican lawmakers have pushed through new voting restrictions, anti-labor laws, the emergency manager bill that led to poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, and now, these strict abortion bans. Electorally, there’s little that Democrats can do to stop it.

The article outlined evidence of extreme gerrymandering in several states where legislatures have passed laws not supported by voters.

In Ohio, the article pointed to “zero evidence” that voters hold extreme opinions on abortion, and noted that polls show more voters opposed to that state’s new “heartbeat” bill than supportive of it. A University of Chicago study showed that barely half the total vote in Ohio gave Republicans more than 63% of the seats– simply because the maps were “surgically designed” to ensure that few seats would be competitive.

There’s a lot more data, and I encourage you to click through and read the entire article. But (as I have repeated endlessly) the bottom line is simple: the only way to overcome the unfair advantage Republicans have built for themselves is massive turnout. As I posted yesterday, unusually high turnout in the 2018 elections was enough in many districts to overcome built-in advantages as high as 5-8 points.

We need to remind discouraged voters that gerrymandering is based upon prior voting behavior. If people who rarely or never vote show up at the polls, a significant number of supposedly safe seats can change hands.

It has never been more important to get out the vote. America’s future–and that of our children and grandchildren–depends upon it.