I wrote a bit about gerrymandering last week, but I think there is more to say.
Everybody, or nearly everybody, voted for a congressional representative two weeks ago. Between our presidential elections every four years, the congressional races in the midterms give us the best reading, across the country, of how Americans divide themselves between Democrats and Republicans.
Between our presidential elections every four years, the congressional races in the midterms give us the best reading, across the country, of how Americans divide themselves between Democrats and Republicans.
One vote does not tell us everything, because party voting is not simple. In Wisconsin, for example, Democrat Tammy Baldwin won re-election as Senator, beating her opponent by nearly 300,000 votes out of 2.7 million cast in that race. Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for Governor, beat Scott Walker, the Governor since 2011, by only 30,000, a margin one-tenth the size of Baldwin’s. We often forget about ticket-splitters in talking about party politics. About one out of every ten voters who picked Baldwin did not pick Evers. They might be among the few who voted for a third party candidate, but most probably voted for Walker. The media insistence on a red-blue division of America conveniently forgets about voters who don’t fit this simplistic schema.
A focus on the congressional vote doesn’t reveal how many ticket-splitters there were in the US. It’s just a first step in understanding the current political landscape. Democrats outpolled Republicans 53 to 45 per cent, winning 9 million more votes. That’s a bigger margin than 1974, the election after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. The missing 2% represents about 2 million people who voted for some other party.
The new House of Representatives will have 235 Democrats and 200 Republicans, a 54-46 percent split. That mirrors nearly exactly the vote difference, so we can have some confidence that the House generally reflects the political preferences of Americans.
If that’s true, it’s because the Supreme Court stymied the most extreme efforts of politicians at the state level to create wacky district boundaries in order to get extra seats they don’t deserve, as in the case of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Pennsylvania voted with newly redrawn congressional districts: Democrats and Republicans split the 18 districts, replacing the 13 to 5 advantage Republicans had won in 2016, when they got 54% of the votes, but 72% of the seats. North Carolina’s districts must now be changed after this election, when they won fewer votes in total across 12 contested districts, but won 9 of the seats.
Federal judges overturned the extreme gerrymandering in Wisconsin’s state legislative districts, but the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, leaving the districts unchanged. Democrats won more votes for state Assembly candidates, but Republicans won 63 of 99 seats. That has been true since Wisconsin Republicans remade all the district boundaries in 2011, losing the popular vote in the next election, but taking 60 of the 99 seats.
Democrats have gerrymandered, too. They used control of Maryland’s state government to redraw boundaries in 2011 in order to change their advantage in congressional districts from 6-2 to 7-1, a split which was reproduced this election. But a non-partisan analysis by the Associated Press found that the state maps Republicans drew after the 2010 census were “the most extreme gerrymanders in modern history.”
In Michigan’s 2016 state house races, Democratic candidates slightly outpolled Republicans, but Republicans beat them in seats, 63 to 47. In this election, Democrats won every statewide race, but Republicans maintained strong legislative majorities, 58-52 in the House and 22-16 in the Senate. Other Republican dominated states show similar results.
Gerrymandering is a long tradition, beginning perhaps with the original agreement to have a Senate where small states retain outsized power. Both parties allowed the other to do it, up to a point, because they wanted to do it later themselves. It’s one of the worst examples of how politicians of all parties act undemocratically. Now it's making headlines, getting overturned by the courts and inspiring people to vote for non-partisan groups to make districts. Maybe we are at a tipping point.
But things could tip either way, unless we voters assert our right to fair elections. Two-thirds of Idaho voters took redistricting away from the legislature in 1994, putting this crucial work in the hands of a non-partisan redistricting commission. This year, Republicans in the legislature tried to pass a constitutional amendment to recreate the commission with a 6-3 Republican advantage. It didn’t happen, but theRepublicans might succeed in the next session.
Gerrymandering is one way for a party to create unfair elections, alongside the many varieties of voter suppression. In recent decades, Republicans have tried every possible way to limit the democratic electoral process. In Idaho, Republican legislators tried to make it more difficult for citizens to place an initiative on the ballot by doubling the number of required signatures, but the Governor vetoed the measure. In 1999, they were successful, and no initiatives qualified for the 2000 ballot. But this year, Medicaid expansion was an Idaho ballot initiative and won by over 60% to 40%.
Modern democracy is fragile. It depends on complex rules, which can easily be subverted by politicians, who face no penalties except perhaps embarrassment for cheating. We all must be vigilant, if we wish our votes to be meaningful.
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