Monday, January 16, 2017

America Gerrymandered

We have heard often in recent years of the Republican party’s success in gerrymandering House districts to favor Republican candidates. What this means is that districts are drawn every ten years by the party in power in such a way that their incumbents profit by the odd shape of the district—i.e. one shaped to exclude opposing votes and include mostly favorable ones.
            The word ‘gerrymander’ stems from the first time the procedure was used in Massachusetts in 1812. At that time, Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted state senate districts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republican Party. When shown on a map, one of the oddly-contorted districts in the Boston area looked to some like a salamander. The word ‘gerrymander’ was coined as a combination of the name ‘Gerry’ and the last part of ‘salamander,’ to yield “gerrymander,” this combining of parts of two words being known as a portmanteau.
In modern gerrymandering, districts are drawn to both include mostly favorable votes for a party’s candidate, and to exclude unfavorable votes, or pack those unfavorable votes into one district. This latter tactic means that many votes are wasted—there are far more votes for a candidate in one ‘packed’ district than are needed to win. Another tactic involves splitting large, usually urban districts to redistribute their unfavorable votes into districts where they can be outweighed by large rural districts. All of these tactics have been used with great success in recent years by Republicans, who, as a result, now control most of the nation’s state houses. And since they control the state houses, they also control the subsequent redistricting that results in gerrymandering. Some gerrymandered districts have become virtually vote-proof: no amount of campaigning by a Democrat can outweigh the effects of the gerrymander, meaning that only a Republican can win.
            In sum, much has been written in recent years about the effects of truly outrageous gerrymandering on the House of Representatives. And all this is true. Republican majorities have controlled the House since at least the 2010 election and the 2010 census on which the current gerrymandering was based.
            Now, however, the electoral map of the United States is beginning to look like one big gerrymandered district. This has to do with the rigged system known as the Electoral College. The Electoral College system, promoted mostly by southern states prior to the ratifying of the U.S. Constitution, was designed to give smaller, rural, and especially southern states a greater voice (out of all proportion to their populations) in the new federal government. Nor was it just the Electoral College that helped in this; several other expedients were designed with the same objective. The first was the three-fifths clause that said that slave states could bolster their representation by counting 3/5 of their slaves when calculating how many representatives each could have, even though the counted slaves could not vote or otherwise take part in self-government. The Senate itself was another expedient: no matter how small in population a state might be, it would still get to send two senators to the United States Senate, thus affording it a disproportionate weight in blocking any legislation it or its party opposed. This also meant that the vote of someone in a sparsely-populated state like Montana would weigh far more heavily than a vote by a voter in a heavy-density state like New York. 
            The Electoral College was another major achievement of the slave states (see Time Magazine, Nov. 8, 2016: “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists,” by Akhil Reed Amar). This was because, instead of voters casting their votes directly for a Presidential candidate, their votes were actually cast for the electors in the Electoral College, who then voted for the President. And each state’s electors (whose numbers in southern states were fattened by the same three-fifths expedient that gave them more Representatives in Congress) were bound to vote as one body for whichever candidate got the most popular votes in that state. In other words, the overall popular vote nationwide did not determine the victor in the presidential race. The majority of electors determined the winner, and it was possible, given the sizes of the states and their composition—including slaves—for a candidate to put together enough electoral votes to win even if he or she did not win the most popular votes overall (popular vote or no, Thomas Jefferson would NOT have won the Presidency in 1800 had it not been for the electors made possible by the many ‘slave’ votes in the Southern states). Though this rarely happened, and though usually the electoral vote majority reflected the popular vote majority, it was not necessary for victory.
            We have just witnessed this in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump concentrated his strategy on winning certain safe states, like those in the South and Midwest, and also certain key states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania (how he and the Republicans managed this is another story of minority-voter disenfranchisment on a grand scale). His winning total in all three of the latter states combined was narrow, amounting to only about 100,000 votes. But Hillary Clinton won the electoral votes of much larger states like California and New York by big margins, giving her, in the end, a national popular-vote victory of nearly 3 million votes! And yet, she lost. How? The national gerrymander. The victory margin in the large states that voted for Hillary was huge—resulting in “wasted votes.” She didn’t need to win California by over 4 million votes. She only needed to win by one vote. All the surplus votes were, as far as the Electoral College was concerned, wasted. And like the ‘wasted’ votes in any gerrymandered House district, Hillary’s votes in California and New York and other large states like Illinois, were essentially ‘wasted.’ And they will be wasted for as long as we can foresee.
            In gerrymandered states, the cure for this type of “legal cheating” is for rules for redistricting to be changed—as they have been in California, say. There, an election commission, after each census, redraws districts based on logical and unbiased formulas that favor no one party. This means that the artificial effects of gerrymandering have been essentially eliminated. The same can and should be demanded by voters in every state.
            But the United States as a whole cannot be ‘un-gerrymandered.’ The Electoral College ensures that small states have an advantage in any election for the party that manages to secure just enough of their votes to win all of their state electors. It also ensures that large states with large urban populations are often guaranteed to produce large numbers of ‘wasted votes.’
            There is only one way to do away with the idiocy of a gerrymandered democracy that ignores the will of the majority of its people—that ignores the popular vote. The Electoral College needs to be done away with as an anachronism (and, some might say, a historical crime) that no longer serves a useful purpose. No politician these days could express his suspicion of the popular will, as was done early in our history. Neither can any politician express his disdain for the mass of minority voters, many of whom descend from slaves. They all have to pay lip service to the idea of rule by the majority—for that is what democracy means. Given that, they should all be held to their creed and forced into agreeing that the Electoral College is an inherently unfair system wherein, in at least two of the last three presidential elections, the will of the people has been thwarted. And this week we are again about to inaugurate a president whom the majority of the American people voted against. That makes the entire notion of American democracy a travesty. It undermines belief in the founding notion of this nation because a gerrymandered America is just as much a travesty and a tragedy as any dictatorship. And it must end if our much-heralded democracy is to survive as little more than a fond memory—or a sick joke.

Lawrence DiStasi

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