Many Americans are convinced that gerrymandering–while admittedly a bipartisan offense– has operated since 2011 to given Republicans power vastly disproportionate to their vote margins. (If you don’t believe that, read Ratf***ked).
I for one am thrilled that the Supreme Court will take up the issue during its coming term, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the new statistical and analytical tools that can distinguish between purposeful game-playing and “luck of the draw” redistricting will persuade the court to abandon its prior reluctance to weigh in–a reluctance based largely upon the absence of such tools.
That said–and fingers crossed–David Leonhardt made a critically-important point in a recent New York Times column.
If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president. Even with Donald Trump’s working-class appeal, Clinton could have swept Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Democrats would control the Senate. Clinton or Barack Obama could then have filled the recent Supreme Court vacancy, and that justice would hold the tiebreaking vote on campaign finance, labor unions and other issues.
Leonhardt’s point is important, and too often overlooked.
Even the most sophisticated gerrymandering is based upon prior voter turnout in the areas involved. If polling and survey research are correct, a majority of Americans hold progressive policy preferences–but large numbers of them don’t express those preferences at the polls. They don’t vote. To repeat the obvious, gerrymandering is based upon prior voting patterns.
I vividly remember conversations with John Sweezy, then the Marion County Republican Party Chair, back when I was a Republican. At the time (late 1970’s) Indianapolis/Marion County was safely Republican; it remained that way for thirty-two years. Even then, however, with the GOP in firm control of every local office, Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 3-2. Had the same percentage of registered Democrats voted as Republicans, they’d have won those offices. As John said more than once, “Thank God, Democrats don’t vote.”
It’s all about turnout. Even supposedly “safe” legislative districts can be won by the “loser” party if that party can generate a sufficient increase in turnout.
There are all kinds of theories about why Democratic turnout lags that of the Republicans, and several of those theories have explanatory power. Right now, the more important question is: how do we motivate these voters? How do we convince them that their votes really can make a difference, that the game hasn’t been so rigged by gerrymandering and crazy Voter ID requirements and inconvenient polling places and the like that it just isn’t worth the effort?
As Leonhardt says,
What can be done? First, don’t make the mistake of blaming everything on nefarious Republicans. Yes, Republicans have gerrymandered districts and shamefully suppressed votes (and Democrats should keep pushing for laws that make voting easier). But the turnout gap is bigger than any Republican scheme.
Second, keep in mind that turnout is a human-behavior problem. It involves persuading people to change long-established habits. And there is a powerful force uprooting all kinds of habits today: digital technology.
More specifically, smartphones are changing how people interact with information. I’d encourage progressives in Silicon Valley to think of voting as a giant realm ripe for disruption. Academic research by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and others has shown that peer pressure can lift turnout. Smartphones are the most efficient peer-pressure device ever invented, but no one has figured out how social media or texting can get a lot more people to the polls — yet.
Even a really good gerrymandering decision from the Supreme Court will be followed by years of state-level game-playing and obstruction–in both red and blue states. But we can work on turnout right now.
Democrats don’t have to “peel off” Republican voters, a tactic that failed to deliver Tuesday in Georgia. We just have to get the people who already agree with us to the polls.