Can Peak Gerrymandering by GOP be Challenged by Progressives?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In a dramatic outcome that could well change national politics, a Federal court last November found Wisconsin’s highly gerrymandered electoral districts to be unconstitutional, since they were clearly designed to deprive Democrats of the vote. As WaPo points out, if other states with extreme gerrymandering are also taken on by the courts, or if the Supreme Court weighs in for the whole country, then the artificial hold of Republicans on power in the House of Representatives and many state legislatures could come to an end.

In the 2016 election for the House, Republicans received 52% of the popular vote but seized control of 57% of the seats.

In states where the legislature draws the electoral districts, there is always a temptation to design them in such a way as to disadvantage the rival party. That is why non-partisan redistricting commissions ought to be the ones drawing these lines (as is now the case in California, e.g.).

But what had been an occasional problem became systemic starting in 2010, when Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and other Republican operatives began a drive to have Republican-dominated state legislatures gerrymander the districts in a way to ensure that they could not easily be unseated and that the Republicans would have an advantage on the Federal level in Congress. Typically these redistricting schemes disenfranchise people who live in cities. Thus, Austin, Texas, which reliably votes Democratic, was split into 8 districts, each of them attached to a big rural hinterland where the city folk could be over-ruled by Republican voters.

The Wisconsin decision was influenced in part by a new, statistical, way that academic political scientists came up with to measure unfairness in redistricting, which they call the efficiency gap. An efficiency gap of 7% or more means that the other party can never hope to get back into power. The efficiency gap for Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts is 15, in favor of Republicans.

Unfair redistricting on racial grounds has long been disallowed by the courts (which is not to say the Republicans don’t try to get away with it from time to time). But unfair redistricting on partisan lines has not typically been something the courts wanted to interfere in. Only because of the new efficiency gap measure were they persuaded to rule against extreme partisan gerrymandering.

In fact, the state of Wisconsin argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue over the discrepancy, since they weren’t proven to have been significantly harmed.

Because of the extent of gerrymandering already institutionalized, it is very unlikely that Democrats can improve their position dramatically in 2018, and, indeed, very likely the Republicans will make gains.

This rigidity is dangerous to our Republic. The House is supposed to be able to respond quickly to national threats. Because of extreme gerrymandering, the nimbleness of the system is gone.

Teabaggers back in 2010 and 2012 were always nattering on about getting their country back (by which they appear to have meant that they had a Black president.) Progressives need actually to get our country back, and gerrymander reform is one necessary step along that path.

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Related video:

The Young Turks: “Republican Gerrymandering Ruled Unconstitutional”

12 Responses

  1. another solution is to amend the public act which limits the size of the house of representatives to only 435. Add a hundred more districts and no amount of gerrymandering will work.

    • What we could do is replace single representatives with multi-member districts, like they have in Japan (not that it’s a vibrant example of multiparty democracy). Each district has an open voting list. Rational-actor political parties will only run as many candidates in that district as they think they can afford to split their partisans, leaving the other slots for other parties. Thus you get a vague sort of proportional representation. It defeats the fundamental evil of gerrymandering, which is the intent to strand your enemies just out of reach of a representative in every damn district. And since we’re simply multiplying the number of reps in the existing districts we avoid a lot of constitutional hassles with the other voting reform schemes.

  2. Taken together with yesterday’s post, it seems clear that the courts can potentially stymy this administration.

    It is possible that all those ‘Real Americans’ who didn’t vote due to apathy or disgust have woken up and smelled the coffee. And that with every new insult to the system they become more effectively mobilized.

    Maybe there is some thin hope. Even so, this potential will be decided relatively quickly.

  3. Juan, your post seems to assume that the corporate tools in charge of the Democratic Party have any but self-interest. As long as the careers of sitting Democrats and their corporate handlers are ensured, they couldn’t care less, and we shouldn’t expect to see any activity in this direction.

  4. This rigidity is dangerous to our Republic.

    Perhaps in this instance treason is too strong a word, but betrayal seems appropriate.

  5. I wish we could administer the sodium penthathol test to a representative sampling of American partisans from both parties to ask this one fundamental question:

    Would you really surrender an electoral system rigged in favor of your own faction?

    If the answer is still largely “no” after 241 years, then we can at least declare the American experiment a failure in producing people capable of self-government.

    • “the American experiment a failure”

      Well, maybe. But if you’ll recall, the original design was that the system would continue to work in spite of AND BECAUSE all the parties would be motivated by self-interest.

      Where it severely fell apart near the end of the 20th was when simple decency, recognition of rules, and (I’m serious) actual patriotism were completely jettisoned and replaced by party interests by one (1) of our two permissible political parties. Worse, this has been celebrated as “thinking ‘out of the box’!” and “the rules have changed!!” And no one dares question anymore that the democratically-elected representative government is an alien, oppressive, evil force.

  6. 2010 was another important milestone, of course, allowing unlimited funding via Citizens’ United vs FEC. Steven Bannon was a key figure in this case.
    The Democrats have not tried to counter the successful Republican efforts at voter suppression carefully detailed for years by Greg Palast, instead concentrating on infighting, fundraising and the Russians. Wisconsin was one State easy to spot, but the Republicans helped by Koch Bros have been able to increase their voting numbers stealthily and unhampered in many key States. What is the point of millions of excess Dem votes in California?

  7. Arizona also has an independent redistricting committee. We got in through a referendum. The repugs tried to roll it back but out State Supreme Court stopped that. It seems to work, we got more Democratic Congressman after it was in.

    I also think we need to add a lot more than 100 new congress critters, We need congressional districts with at most 50000 and a brand new hall for them to meet in.

  8. Isn’t there a complementary argument to be made that gerrymandering violates the Article 1 qualifications clause prohibiting states placing additional qualifications on candidates for office, in that gerrymandering sets forward a de facto party-affiliation qualification on congressional candidates?

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