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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stuff This: Let's End Gerrymandering

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.

This article from the always-indispensable ThinkProgress.org really got me thinking.

Why Americans Actually Voted For A Democratic House

By Ian Millhiser on Nov 7, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Although a small number of ballots remain to be counted, as of this writing, votes for a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives outweigh votes for Republican candidates. Based on ThinkProgress’ review of all ballots counted so far, 53,952,240 votes were cast for a Democratic candidate for the House and only 53,402,643 were cast for a Republican — meaning that Democratic votes exceed Republican votes by more than half a million. . . . . [Read the full article for the full context here.]

The actual partisan breakdown of the 113th Congress will be very different, however. Currently, Republicans enjoy a 233-192 advantage over Democrats, with 10 seats remaining undecided . . . There is a simple explanation for how this happened: Republicans won several key state legislatures and governors’ mansions in the election cycle before redistricting, and they gerrymandered those states within an inch of their lives. President Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 5 points, but Democrats carried only 5 of the state’s 18 congressional seats. . .

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), however, cannot simply thank Republican state lawmakers for enabling him to keep his job. He can also thank the conservatives on the Supreme Court. Partisan gerrymandering exists for one purpose: to cut off the ability of people who disagree with a state’s ruling party to influence future elections. It is a a clear violation of the First Amendment, which absolutely prohibits viewpoint discrimination. Yet the Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to end this discrimination in its 5-4 decision in Vieth v. Jubelirer, where the conservative justices tossed out a lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn to maximize Republican representation in Congress.

Take a look at the map of Pennsylvania above. Then remember that President Obama won Pennsylvania by 5 points; not exactly a nail-biter in overall terms. In fact, Pennsylvania hasn't been won by a Republican Presidental candidate since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988. That was over 24 years ago now. Still, only five of Pennsylvania's eighteen seats in the House went for Democrats.

The RepubliCons have done a very good job at capturing state houses and legislatures over the last few years. (If anyone needed a reminder of just how critical state and local elections are, by the way, here's your comeuppance.) But it's not just 'Cons who do it. In my own state of Illinois, where the Dems control everything, these politicians are doing the same damn thing. After the disastrous 2010 midterms, the Democrats wanted to salvage SOMETHING in terms of their chances of regaining the House of Representatives, so our vaunted Democratic Legislature undertook what's been called a radical gerrymander. This article from the Christian Science Monitor notes that:

Even a cursory glance at the new map . . . seems to indicate that state Democrats are eager to exercise that control [over redistricting] to maximum benefit. While each member of the Democratic delegation was protected, nearly every Republican district was cut apart or shuffled around, inviting scores of intraparty primaries, or forcing GOP incumbents to run in Democratic strongholds or retire.
The plan worked, and RepubliCons lost four seats in the House and a fifth when Illinois lost representation due to low population growth.

Just look at my my district, Illinois' Fourth, which has been described as one of the most bizarrely drawn districts in the country.

Now I'm generally for ANYTHING that puts fewer RepubliCons in office. And to be fair, my home district was drawn to make sure that a Latino representative from the Chicago-area was sent to D.C., a worthy idea that is pretty different in principle from the naked power grabs we've seen in Springfield; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio, and beyond. (My district was drawn well before the 2011 gerrymander.) To be clear, I support the general notion that our nation's House of Representatives should be ethnically diverse, reflective of the American melting pot. But just as an indicator, don't the maps above show, in a general way, that SOMETHING is off about this whole process?

In his comments, and particularly speaking of the raw vote totals, Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress.org makes a great point:

Americans voted for a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and, barring significant shifts in the vote tally, a Democratic House. Instead, they will get a House majority similar to the one that held the entire nation hostage during last year’s debt ceiling hostage crisis. If the American people wanted this to happen, they would have said so at the polls on Tuesday. Instead, Republican state lawmakers took away their right to democratically legitimate leadership — with a big assist from the conservatives on the Supreme Court.

So what is to be done about this? Well, in some states, a divided government can be a good thing. This brief post from David Weigel at Slate notes that: "in states that weren't very gerrymandered, like Iowa and Colorado and New Hampshire, you didn't see a huge divergence between the presidential vote and the House votes." Each of these states has a divided government, in one way or another. Colorado and Iowa have divided legislatures, while New Hampshire's Democratic governor may have put a check on its GOP statehouse's impulses.

But praying for a divided government isn't really much of a solution, and obviously, the Supreme Court isn't going to be much help. There IS a better way, and we don't need the Supreme Court to jump in and save the day. Though no system is perfect, Iowa, Arizona, and California are three states that have setup independent, non-partisan redistricting committees. Now, NONE of these processes are have been perfect. California's new process, has been accused of crossing the line from independent/non-partisan to basically "clueless." Arizona's committee was famously sucked into a would-be partisan pogrom at the hands of that state's governor, Jan "Shriekingly Insane Bimbo" Brewer. And even Iowa's process, which is ostensibly non-partisan, must be approved by the Governor and General Assembly.

The way I see it, you will never totally get the politics out of decisions like this, but in a general way, I have to agree with Colby Hamilton at The Empire: "the less connected to the legislature the better." There has been some talk of moving towards the model being used in Iowa, California, and Arizona in other states; particularly New York is looking at it. I'm going to be bugging my own representatives here in Illinois about this issue real soon, and probably buggin' my local representatives in Indiana, my workplace too.

The fiasco around our undemocratic redistricting process needs serious attention. Arizona, California, and Iowa might not be perfect, but an independent, less-partisan committee is at least a great step in the right direction. The next step forward is to start talking to your state legislators and representatives. Hey! They're a lot easier to get a meeting with, or get on the phone with, than your Federal elected officials anyway!

FORWARD!

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