By Scott Crass
To the victors go the spoils.
Politically, that saying has persevered through the ages. And few quarrel with the legitimacy of the concept: stretching partisan fruits as far as the eye could see. But when does it become excessive? When does converting a victory far beyond a party or a single individual usurp the population from a true choice at choosing their own representatives? Is stifling and flattening a minority, no matter how healthy or close they are to being a majority, really the way to go? Should it be used to start, and apparently end elections? When it comes to redistricting at least, the answer has been yes, and it has been used and abused by both parties for far too long.
Gerrymandering, as it is known, is far from new. In fact, it’s been in existence for 200 years. It’s named for Elbridge Gerry, a former Vice-President and Governor of Massachusetts, who first introduced the nation to overtly partisan line drawing in 1812. The Boston Gazzette newspaper published a cartoon detailing the monstrosity of some of the lines.
I have long watched states with one party rule draw Congressional districts to maximize their advantage in Congress. This cycle, the Republicans were far more ingenious, particularly in turf that, but for luck in winning the trifecta (the Governor’s mansion and the legislature), is typically not demographically theirs.
Tom Brokaw recently called the system “rigged.” He noted that “75%of the congressmen come from gerrymandered districts in which they’re bulletproof. They only play to one constituency. There are no swing states. They don’t go home and have to prove their case, because they’ve got a choir back home. And that’s a huge part of the problem here.”
To wit, let’s examine the “Keystone State” While mixed politically, neither side would disagree with the premise that Pennsylvania leans decidedly blue. But Republicans hold the pen. Thus,the goal was to turn a delegation that was already 12-7 in their favor to 13-5 (Pennsylvania lost a seat). and they succeeded. But it was ugly? Boy was it ugly
The redrawn PA-7 starts south shaped like NJ,winds east like MD&northwest looking like upstate NY,MA&Long Island all with space in between.Unreal!But it worked. Pat Meehan’s district was reduced from 56% Obama to 53% and he won re-election. So did all of his colleagues in marginal seats. In fact, the Republican plan was so successful that west of Scranton, the Democrats only hold one seat, in inner-Pittsburgh.
Will the map persevere through the decade? Probably not entirely. Despite the intention to call it as such, the map is not so much a Republican gerrymander as an incumbent one. Indeed, Democrats may have a chance at as many as five eastern Pennsylvania seats when the GOP incumbents step down. But there’s no indication that this may be forthcoming even throughout the decade, so for practical purposes, the seats are theirs as long as they want.
What was carried out in Ohio was even more egregious. As the “Buckeye State” was losing two seats, many wondered whether Republicans would try to carve out both seats from the Democrats, who were already outnumbered in the “ Buckeye State ” delegation 13-5. But Speaker Boehner, who had large say in which of his colleagues would get the ax, told map-makers not to “get greedy.” If you think that sounds like altruism or outreach on the part of the Speaker, think again.
The elimination of one Republican seat was necessitated by the fact that the political security. So even with a retirement, the GOP margin in Ohio for the decade is probably locked in at 12-4, or 75% of the seats in a true battleground state that Obama carried twice. They made out like bandits in the Legislature as well. A few races were close but in the end, Republicans won a 2/3 majority in the Legislature.
In an Ohio split 50-50 politically, did rank-and-file Republicans demand a lock on 12 of the state’s proposed 16 congressional districts? No. But hyper-partisan Republicans did. And by doing so they conducted the biggest theft since the Great Train Robbery in Jesse James’ day.
The redistricting in Michigan may also leave Democrats in commiseration with their neighbors to the south, although for “Wolverines,”the deck is not likely to be stacked against them as much for the rest of the decade. A 9-6 delegation did drop to 9-5 as Republicans eliminated a suburban Detroit seat. But an Obama win with 57% and 53% and a state with 2 Democratic Senators gives Republicans fewer options as far as packing seats, and there may be as many as five seats in all regions of the state that Democrats may be positioned to pick up by the end of the decade. Still,regaining lost ground will not be easy and for one election anyway, the task of least representation to a robust minority went exactly as planned.
Finally North Carolina, which political analysts now view as a genuine swing state. But Republicans didn’t get that memo. They did their darndest to intended to annihilate Democrats, changing a 7-6 majority to a 10-3 Republican, more than ¾ of the delegation in a state Obama won 50% and 48%. The Democrats did thwart the plan to get a 10th seat, but only by the hair of their chinny chin chin, as Democratic Congressman Mike McIntyre took a cliffhanger 650 vote victory that wasn’t ascertained until military ballots were certified.
Tarheel Republicans near successful means of drawing Democrats in a near even state into three out of 13 districts was done by “packing” Democrats. Frank Butterworth and Mel Watt’s minority-majority districts went from having given Obama 62 and 70% to 71% and 78%. And David Price’s tri-city area converged the bases of other Democratic constituencies, including his colleague Brad Miller, to see the Obama performance jump from 63% to 72%.Other districts that had a slight lean one way or the other were made safely Republican.
Now Republicans in North Carolina control the levers, and as such, I’m not saying they don’t deserve to have clear advantages in 7-8 seats. But 10?
Other southern states with large African-American population pulled similar maneuvers, limiting majority-minority districts to one, and making the others almost impossible for Republicans to lose. Most of the states (Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia) at least had enough African-Americans to make a 2nd district genuinely within reach.South Carolina alone could’ve had 3 remotely competitive seats, where Republicans would’ve tilled been favored. But now there are zero.
Then there is the example of carve up. Texas Republicans saw an opportunity for a two-step: thwarting a potential Democratic gain and defeating a long-time nemisis, Lloyd Doggett. How? By carving up his Travis County (Austin) base into five separate Congressional districts. They succeeded. But once kicking Doggett, the GOP had to make sure he stayed down. How? By making four of the five Travis districts so Republican heavy, that Doggett’s only option would be running in a majority Hispanic district that included a sliver of Travis, but ran all the way to San Antonio, 200 miles away. On top of that, this was a Hispanic majority district, where many ambitious officials were waiting in the wings. But Doggett’s been around Texas politics a long time and he prevailed in the primary with 73%.
In Utah,the GOP tried the same thing on Jim Matheson, and up until the very last minute (say,even as results were coming in), seemed likely to succeed. Matheson’s base was Salt Lake City, which easily could’ve consolidated a single district, particularly with Utah gaining a seat. But Republicans broke Salt Lake into 768 votes.But Matheson pulled the greatest and most unexpected Houdini. He hung on by 768 votes, a remarkable triumph considering Romney was taking 73% in Utah.
To their credit, some Republicans have known when to stop. A number were hoping to carve Jim Cooper out of his Nashville base by merging Davidson County with two nearby Republican districts. The idea was seriously considered, but in the end was wisely abandoned.
It is often said that folks “get the government they deserve.”
Are Democrats immune from this. Not entirely. Illinois was a product of arguably the most aggressive Democratic gerrymander in the nation, one that was designed to convert an 11-8 GOP delegation to 12-6. It was very nearly a 100% success. Had David Gill gained 1,004 more votes in one district, they would’ve achieved their goal. And Maryland Democrats contemplated a plan that, if successful, could’ve stretched their 6-2 edge to 8-0.Ultimately,legislators settled on a plan that delivered a 7-1 majority.
But Illinois and Maryland are among the most Democratic states in the nation.Obama exceeded 60% in both states in 2008. Does 2/3 exceed partisan representation? Yes. But if the other states were acting fairly, I’m sure most Democrats would gladly give up one seat to create a more balanced ratio. But that’s just it. they should not have the choice.
Now, the thought of eliminating all safe districts is not wise nor practical. Some districts need to be all urban or majority black, Latino, rural, etc. We live in a representative government and that becomes easier in more compact areas.
But we also are a deliberative nation, which means making informed and thoughtful decisions. That cannot be dome when politicians fail to look beyond their core bases, in some cases catering to the extreme wings, with little concern for everyone else. Yet by putting inmates in charge of the asylum, that is just what is being allowed to occur.
Despite the Founding Father’s giving the very power of line-drawing to the people who would be most affected,, I highly doubt this is what they had in mind. Thus, independent redistricting is the way to go. The states that have tried it (Arizona, Iowa, and more recently California), have produced a plethora of competition. Other states that have had lines produced by a judicial panel (Colorado, Minnesota, and Nevada) have seen a similar number of contested seats. I can only hope that more states will emulate this.
The very fabric of our democracy is at stake.