Controlling the vote


With approval ratings of Congress hovering just above the single digits, it’s a wonder that nearly 90 percent of the incumbents were re-elected in 2012. That same year, even though Democrats received 1.4 million more votes in the U.S. House of Representatives than Republicans, the GOP still controls that branch of Congress by a margin of 234 to 201.

"Every post-election poll finds that voters favor the Democrats’ positions, on virtually every major issue, usually by large margins: Immigration reform, gun restrictions, abortion rights, gay marriage, climate change, raising the minimum wage, and the need for higher tax revenue to accompany spending cuts in any deficit-reduction plan," wrote Frank Rich for New York Magazine.

And even though they have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, Republicans continue their stranglehold on American politics. How did this happen?

"The second-biggest GOP majority in 60 years was not the will of American voters. It was gerrymandered," wrote Beverly Bandler for Consortium News. "Or, as Republican strategist Karl Rove has said, ‘He who controls redistricting can control Congress.’"

The term "gerrymander" dates back to 1812 and the efforts of the Massachusetts legislature to favor Gov. Elbridge Gerry and Democratic-Republican party candidates over the Federalists through redistricting. The principal opportunity for gerrymandering comes every 10 years when the national census is taken, and city council, state legislature and congressional district boundaries are redrawn to reflect the growing and shifting population, explained Bandler. But it’s not being used for that purpose anymore. Instead, partisans are using it to protect or change political power.

"Incumbents, for example, have an incentive to create districts that are likely to re-elect them, sometimes dividing communities among one or more districts when a single district containing the entire community would better represent their interests," stated the Brennan Center for Justice.

Bandler noted that gerrymandering has become the preferred way for Republicans to defy the principle of majority rule. "In other words, it’s a way to reduce the political influence of people of color as well as that of white demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic."

Writing for the New York Times, Sam Wang, the founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, noted politicians, "Especially Republicans facing demographic and ideological changes in the electorate, use redistricting to cling to power."

"This means," wrote Nate Silver, "that most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts, where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party."

"The great shift toward the right on the Republican side occurred in 2010, when participation, as usual with off-year elections, was limited to the most zealous," wrote Elizabeth Drew, for the New York Review of Books. "The result was a dramatic increase in Republican control of entire state governments -- from which have flowed the laws, backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors, to break up public employee unions and tighten restrictions on abortions to the point of effectively strangling Roe v. Wade, as well as the efforts to fix federal elections through restricting voting rights and perhaps even tinkering with the electoral college and, of course, the highly consequential power of reapportionment."

One of the most egregious examples of using redistricting to hijack democracy is in Pennsylvania, where, in 2012, Republicans won only 47 percent of the vote but walked away with 72 percent of the seats in the state Legislature. In another example, Asheville, N.C., which is majority Democrat, was split into two districts that gave Republicans the advantage.

"We’ve now created a system where politicians are choosing their voters more than voters are choosing their politicians," Charlie Cook told NBC News.

It’s not just Republicans who have resorted to gerrymandering to protect their power. Emily Barasch, writing for The Atlantic, noted our current president was apparently able to reshape his district to ensure he would maintain his seat.

But, as Wang noted, "Both sides may do it, but one side does it more often."

In 2010, a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee established the Redistricting Majority Project, which they hoped would lead the way to creating 20 to 25 new Republican Congressional Districts through the redistricting process over the next five election cycles, solidifying a permanent Republican House majority.

"It is an anti-democratic game that both Democrats and Republicans have played, but the unabashed ruthlessness of the GOP in recent years has been chilling," wrote Bandler. "The once-a-decade redistricting process has let lawmakers choose voters, not voters choose lawmakers. On the national level, to a troubling degree, American voters no longer collectively select the make-up of the House of Representatives. Rather, the state legislators who design the districts do."

Combined with voter ID laws, Republicans are conducting a nefarious attack on the one-person, one-vote principle that has served us somewhat well up to this point.

And despite the propaganda to the contrary, the Tea Party is not a grass-roots rebellion against an over-reaching government.

"The right-wing laws passed by Republican state legislatures follow a plan drawn up by the millionaires-funded American Legislative Exchange Council," wrote Gary Wills, also for the New York Review of Books. "Corporate money, spouting from the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, has flowed into elections for local judges, state legislatures, and citizens’ opposition to government."

If you think Republicans are stopping with the House, think again, notes Wills. Some Republicans want to rescind the Seventeenth Amendment.

"They want to take away the people’s power to elect senators and give the power to appoint them back to state legislators, who are already limiting voting times and qualifications."

Other state legislators have attempted to allot electoral votes by district, and not by state, meaning gerrymandering could result in the election of a president with far less than the majority of the popular vote. Fortunately, those efforts have not been successful, but don’t expect the Republicans to give up.

Why is that? By 2043, noted Drew, America will have a non-white majority, and the party of "better-off and older white voters, especially male, a harbor for millions who could not bear the idea of the presidential office being occupied by a black man," has a demographic crisis it’s not equipped to deal with.

But by using gerrymandering, instituting voter ID laws, attempting to eliminate the Seventeenth Amendment and using redistricting to alter the results of the electoral college, "It is possible to put large groups of voters on the losing end of every election," wrote Wang. "Gerrymandering is a major form of disenfranchisement. In the seven states where Republicans redrew the districts, 16.7 million votes were cast for Republicans and 16.4 million votes were cast for Democrats. This elected 73 Republicans and 34 Democrats."

Wang said there is an easy solution to the problem -- take away redistricting from politicians in all 50 states and give it to non-partisan commissions. To do so requires ballot initiatives supported by a majority of voters; don’t expect state legislators to limit their power on their own.

But Wang also believes that in the end, gerrymandering might prove to be the GOP’s downfall.

"In a district designed to give Republicans a narrow advantage, Republican loyalists are likely to be spread thin, with the balance of the needed votes being drawn from independents," he wrote. "Some of these independents might be more prone to anger about the current situation."

And, as we witnessed with the "Town Hall" rage encouraged by the manipulators of Caucasian angst, anger can be a powerful tool for change. Perhaps it’s time that all of us who are outraged by the GOP’s attempts to disenfranchise the majority got a little bit angry.

~ Brattleboro Reformer


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