Gerrymandering thwarts majority rule

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:46 AM

Rick Jones

“Once you draw the district lines, you pretty much know who will win most races. And the amount of money spent on campaigns becomes nearly irrelevant. Most elections are over before they start.”

— Steven Mulroy, Former Attorney, U.S. Dept. of Justice

This sequester is the direct result of deadlock and stalemate between the executive and legislative branches of our government. Did this occur because the people wanted divided government with a president from one party and a Congress from the opposing party? No. The majority of voters voted for a Democratic executive and a plurality voted for a Democratic legislative branch. President Obama not only won an electoral landslide but he became the first president, since Eisenhower in the 1950s, to win two elections with over 51 percent of the popular vote. In the races for House of Representatives, Democratic candidates received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates. Nevertheless, the Republicans ended up with 33 more seats than Democrats and herein is the source of the obstruction and deadlock in Congress.

The term “rig” is defined as “to arrange unfavorably.” When elections are rigged by artfully and mischievously manipulating boundaries it is referred to as gerrymandering. In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a former vice president of the U.S., helped his party draw a district that artist Gilbert Stuart showed resembled a salamander.

An editor called it a “Gerrymander.” In the ensuing election, the party Gerry opposed won 51 percent of the vote but gained only 11 of 40 Senate seats.

This type of rigging elections has been done by all major parties for two centuries. But in the last 60 years there has only been one other time (1996, again by Republicans) in which the party which won the popular vote for the House received a minority of seats, indicating that recent Republican gerrymandering has been much more egregious and effective than Democratic gerrymandering. How did Republican rigging reduce to irrelevance the majority of the nation’s voters?

The year 2010 was a particularly good year for Republicans; it was the high point of the Tea Party which was able to exploit anger with the economy. Because both the administration and public formed overly optimistic economic expectations from preliminary data, which understated the severity of the recession, at election time there was deep disappointment and many Democrats failed to vote. Republicans seized the opportunity, that census year, to redistrict a less level playing field. Sam Wang, founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, has documented the extent of their success: In seven states where that Republicans redrew House districts there were 16.7 million votes for Republicans and 16.4 million votes for Democrats. The result: the Republicans won 73 seats and the Democrats 34 seats.

Democrats received 51 percent of the vote in North Carolina resulting in four Democrats and nine Republicans being sent to the House. If there was a level playing field, Wang observes, there would be less than a 1 percent chance of that outcome.

In Pennsylvania Democrats received 84,000 votes more than Republicans; that state sent eight more Republicans to the House than Democrats (5 Ds to 13 Rs). Michigan Democrats received over 240,000 more votes than Republicans, yet Michigan sent nine Republicans and only five Democrats to the House. Wisconsin sent three Democrats and five Republicans to the House although the Democrats received well over 40,000 more votes. Why didn’t the party which received the most votes at least get half of the seats?

In Virginia, Republicans received about 51 percent of the vote and 73 percent of the seats; the Democrats won three seats and the Republican eight.

In Ohio, Republicans received 53 percent of the vote and 75 percent of their 16 seats. President Obama won all the states discussed above except North Carolina; if Democrats had gerrymandered those states to the extent that Republicans did, they probably could have had 80 percent of all of those seats.

Hedrick Smith, former New York Times reporter, maintains that gerrymandering is “so egregious today that it undermines the credibility of the House.” Obviously, the more the House is gerrymandered the less it represents the public, the more it does blame games and finger-pointing, the more hostage politics occurs (where one side refuses to compromise unless it gets exactly what it wants), the more poorly it functions, and the lower its approval rating. One recent poll shows that House Republicans have an approval rating near single digits.

Republicans have lost the popular vote in every presidential election since 1988, with the exception of 2004. Moreover, as Republicans come to their “census” — which shows a growth in demographic groups that tend to not be Republicans — they have reasons to fear democracy. Is the Republican Party attempting to diminish U.S. democracy before U.S. democracy diminishes the Republican Party?

Jones lives in West Haven.

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