A book review and then some by Florence Field
It should be noted that state chapters of the League of Women Voters were involved with other groups in both the North Carolina and Pennsylvania cases – congratulations! Also, LWV of Colorado has joined a coalition which is drafting a 2018 ballot initiative to significantly dilute the power of the two major political parties in the state’s redistricting process by giving unaffiliated voters a voice in the redrawing of district boundaries. It is important to follow the progress of this ballot initiative to assure Coloradans are properly represented.
Redistricting- A Threat to America’s Democracy?
What is redistricting?
Voting districts in each state, from which U.S. congressional representatives and state legislators are elected, are redrawn every ten years following the U.S. census. The purpose of redistricting is to make sure that districts remain representative and reflect the changing demographics of their residents. The way electoral districts are drawn can have a profound effect on who gets elected, from local offices all the way to Congress.
In most states, the redrawing of these districts is in the hands of the dominant party in the state legislature. It is a political process with political consequences –the goal is to ensure victory of their candidates and to protect their other political interests. This is known as partisan gerrymandering, resulting, as we know, in some very strangely shaped districts and providing political cartoonists with much grist for the mill. Both Democrats and Republicans engage in gerrymandering and resist reform. And yet, both complain when the gerrymandering goes against their party.
New book tells almost all
In his eye-opening book, Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Slate, lays out a detailed, well-researched story of how partisan gerrymandering has changed, from deal making in smoke-filled backrooms to a sophisticated, technically advanced and much more politically lethal tool.
Tons of demographic and personal information about individual voters are now either publicly available or can be bought from commercial data firms. Powerful computers handle and manipulate all this data easily to develop accurate voting district maps based on fact-based information about who and what of each voter. And predictive models can be built to be ready for future gains. As Daley points out, it’s no different than what Starbucks does when deciding where to place its next coffee shop.
Republicans, having realized that winning state legislatures is central to their plan for controlling redistricting, went all out in the midterm 2010 elections and won nearly seven hundred state legislative seats. Then, taking control, they strategically mapped voting districts to their partisan advantage so that the number of congressional seats won by Republicans was much greater than could be justified by statewide Republican votes.
For example, in Pennsylvania in 2010, Republicans won about half the statewide votes but ended up controlling thirteen out of eighteen congressional seats. Karl Rove, the erstwhile Republican strategist, tells us that by controlling redistricting, one can control Congress. In the book, Daley introduces five other states to illustrate egregious redrawing of voting district lines: North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. Daley shows us that in time, we could end up with a non-representative Congress controlled by a minority political party.
Daley is pessimistic about the chilling effect of partisan gerrymandering on the future of American democracy. He says, “we stand on the frightening edge of lasting one-party minority rule that may not be undoable at the ballot.box.” But are things that dire?
All is not yet lost
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Jeffrey Toobin, in a New Yorker article (January 23, 2018), says “a series of court decisions in recent weeks – in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the U.S. Supreme Court – have demonstrated that the judicial branch of government is mobilizing to end this shameful and destructive legislative practice.” He cites several examples:
On January 9th, a three-judge panel struck down the North Carolina congressional district lines, saying in effect that if politicians draw district lines solely to protect their partisan interests, they’re invalid. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court struck down the Republican gerrymander of the state’s district lines because it violated the state constitution. And comments expressed by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging the Republican-drawn district lines in Wisconsin (decision yet to be reached), seemed to include a warning about the dangers of partisan gerrymandering across the country.
Toobin ends his article by saying, “at long last, judges appear to be telling legislators of both major parties that they have gone too far with their self-protection racket – that it’s time for voters to have some real choices once again.”
Read Daley’s book, Rat F**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count – it gives you all the details and covers many more issues than there’s space for here. What he brings out is outrageous, but don’t give up. Remember the light at the end of the tunnel. The checks and balances in our system of government seem to be doing well.