Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Five: Gerrymandering and Race

Gerrymandering is such a big topic, I couldn't cover it all in my previous post on the subject. Let's take a look at another way Republicans have long manipulated the system of creating legislative districts: racial gerrymandering. Even before technology allowed those in control to precisely draw districts to their advantage on practically a house-to-house basis based on demographics, Republicans effectively gerrymandered congressional districts through the creation of majority-minority districts.

Here's how it works. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits the once-common practice of spreading minorities across voting districts, leaving them too few in number in any given district to elect their preferred candidates. The practice was known as "racial gerrymandering." Wow, conservatives must hate being required to create districts where minority voters are the majority, right? Wrong! They love it! Why? Because creating majority-minority districts allows them to racially gerrymander more effectively than ever.

There's a reason why Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina each send exactly one Democrat (and one person of color) to the US House despite the fact that those states have a lot of minority voters. It's because most of those minority voters are carefully packed into a single congressional district.

Grant Hayden, a Professor of Law at Hofstra University has written a good summary the problem


"[M]ajority-minority districts give rise to a dynamic that undercuts the very goal they are designed to achieve. While they improve the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice in a particular district, they also cost their preferred political party other valuable seats in the legislature."


"Majority-minority districts have at least one very curious effect: they help Republicans. This is curious because minority voters, especially blacks, vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. But upon closer study, this by-product of majority-minority districts merely fulfills a longstanding theoretical prediction."

"The theory goes like this. When creating a majority-minority political district, the additional minority voters must come from somewhere. That somewhere is adjoining districts, which are drained of their minority voters. Those voters, though, are not merely minority voters-they are also reliably Democratic voters. And this makes it more likely that the Republican candidates will prevail in those adjoining districts."

Would this actually happen in practice? It's well-documented that it already has. After the 1990 census, scores of majority-minority districts were created in order to comply with the mandates of the Voting Rights Act. For example, thirteen additional majority-black Congressional districts were created. They, in turn, produced thirteen additional black representatives. Majority-minority districting did, indeed, lead to the election of the candidates of the minorities' choosing."

"Unfortunately, a large number of studies of the 1992 and 1994 Congressional elections revealed that this additional representation came at a cost. As a result of majority-minority districting, Democrats lost at least ten seats to Republicans. When minority voters were drained out of adjoining districts, Republican majorities were the result." 

"Both parties apparently notice that majority-minority districts tend to help Republicans overall, and hurt Democrats overall. In the early 1990s, the Republican National Committee pushed for the creation of more black and Hispanic districts as part of a strategy to win additional seats in the House."

This January, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on racial gerrymandering of the kind described above orchestrated by Texas Republicans. This is in addition to the two cases the Court had already agreed to hear on gerrymandering, the first from Wisconsin regarding the extreme Republican gerrymander in that state, the second regarding the gerrymander of a single congressional seat in Maryland by Democrats.

As noted by Pema Levy of Mother Jones:

"This summer, a three-judge panel in San Antonio found that Texas Republicans intentionally weakened the voting power of African American and Latino voters when it drew multiple state House and congressional districts. This was the ninth racial discrimination in voting case the state has lost since 2011, which includes a long legal battle over its stringent voter ID requirement. Now, the Supreme Court will determine whether Texas’ maps can stand."

Whether Texas intentionally weakened the voting power of minorities through gerrymander in that state is not really a question, given that Texas Governor Greg Abbot has said, "[i]n 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats."

The real question is, how long and to what degree with the Court (and Americans at large) will continue to let Republicans get away with this garbage.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Four: Gerrymandering and Modern Technology

To begin, a lesson from history. In 1948 the Union of South Africa held a national election in which the conservative Reunited National Party won a majority of seats in Parliament despite losing the popular vote to the more liberal United Party. South Africa at that time had a constitution that located many parliamentary seats in thinly-populated rural areas that favored conservatives at the disadvantage to more heavily populated (and more liberal) urban areas; thus the conservative victory despite losing the popular vote 37.7% to 49.2%. In power for the first time, the openly white-supremacist RNP proceeded to institute the apartheid system that completely disenfranchised non-whites and otherwise put the country on a path to becoming a dictatorship that allowed no civil liberties at all.

The parallels between 1940s South Africa and the United States in the 21st century are striking. In parts one and three of this series, I discussed how the bigotry of today's Republican party is damaging to democracy in our multi-cultural society. In this and future posts, I'll cover how Republicans are using and abusing the law to make sure they stay in power in spite of, and not because of, the fact that the United States is a representative democracy.

Gerrymandering, the practice of establishing a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries, has been around for centuries. But leave it to 21st-century Republicans to take it to extremes; everywhere they can use gerrymandering to maximize their advantage, they do so. Modern technology makes it possible to do this with great precision. Consider the case of the gerrymandering of the Wisconsin state legislature, now the subject of a case before the US Supreme Court.

From a 2017 article by Jordan Ellenberg of the New York Times:

"About as many Democrats live in Wisconsin as Republicans do. But you wouldn’t know it from the Wisconsin State Assembly, where Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats, a bigger majority than Republican legislators enjoy in conservative states like Texas and Kentucky."

"The United States Supreme Court is trying to understand how that happened. On Tuesday, the justices heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, reviewing a three-judge panel’s determination that Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn district map is so flagrantly gerrymandered that it denies Wisconsinites their full right to vote. A long list of elected officials, representing both parties, have filed briefs asking the justices to uphold the panel’s ruling."

"Gerrymandering used to be an art, but advanced computation has made it a science. Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, after their victory in the census year of 2010, tried out map after map, tweak after tweak. They ran each potential map through computer algorithms that tested its performance in a wide range of political climates. The map they adopted is precisely engineered to assure Republican control in all but the most extreme circumstances."

The model for today's Republican gerrymandering strategy was established by Texas in 2002, and was quickly copied by other Republican-controlled states. I wrote about this in a 2013 post; here are some highlights:

"The redistricting of Congressional seats is traditionally done once every ten years, soon after the national census. In the 2000 election, Texas elected 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to the US House, and did so again two years later after the decennial redistricting. However, in the 2002 election the Republicans also gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 19th century. The newly elected Republican legislature then engaged in an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting plan.  After a protracted partisan struggle, the legislature enacted a new congressional districting map, as a result of which Republicans won 21 seats to the Democrats' 11 in the 2004 election. The plan was personally shepherded through the Texas legislature by US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Texas Senator John Cornyn was quick to congratulate DeLay and to brag about the success of the redistricting plan, saying, "Everybody who knows Tom knows that he's a fighter and a competitor, and he saw an opportunity to help the Republicans stay in power in Washington.""

Republicans won very big in the 2010 mid-term elections, gaining control of legislatures and Governor's offices in many states in the south and the rust-belt. The result of course was the re-drawing of both Congressional districts and state legislative districts to maximum advantage. The Republican party's State Leadership Committee is quite proud of the way in which they manipulated the results of the 2012 U.S. House election, and has written an analysis for me. Boasting about the success of their "REDMAP" plan, the Committee reported:

"After REDMAP’s success on Election Day 2010, Republicans held majorities in 10 of the 15 states that gained or lost U.S. House seats and where the legislature played a role in redrawing the state legislative and congressional district map.  In the 70 congressional districts that were labeled by National Public Radio as "competitive" in 2010, Republicans controlled the redrawing of at least 47 of those districts; Democrats were responsible for 15, and a non-partisan process determined eight."

"REDMAP’s effect on the 2012 election is plain when analyzing the results: Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.  Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote."

The Report also brags that gerrymandering also helped Republicans win in 2012 at the state level: 
"In Ohio, for instance, Republicans actually expanded their state House and state Senate majorities in 2012, to 60-39 in the House and 23-10 in the Senate, even as Obama carried the state by three points." "Another good example is the Virginia House. Republicans retained a 67-31 edge there, despite Obama having carried the state by four points."

But hey, don't Democrats also gerrymander when they get the chance? Actually they do so quite rarely. True, the Supreme Court has taken up the case of Benisek v. Lamone, in which the plaintiffs claim that Maryland Democrats deliberately redrew the state's 6th Congressional district with partisan intent. (Maryland Democrats have admitted that they did draw the district with partisan intent, the question before the Court is whether they did so illegally).

The frustrating thing here is false equivalence. The Hill notes that, "Legal analysts say the court likely took the Maryland case in addition to the Wisconsin case to settle the issue in a neutral way without siding with one political party over another". So on the one hand, Republicans have gerrymandered virtually all congressional seats and state legislative seats across all of the south, most of the plains states and much of the rust-belt, while Democrats are accused of gerrymandering a single congressional seat in Maryland. So of course we get headlines such as (from the Washington Post), "Maryland’s redistricting case reminds us: Both parties gerrymander. A lot."

Note finally that drawing districts through computer modeling of voter demographics is only one way that Republicans cheat to win through gerrymandering. Next time I'll cover how Republicans manipulate laws designed to protect minority voters so that the intent of those laws is turned upside down for most folks.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Three: President Trump

In future posts in this series on how Republicans are unapologetically attacking democratic institutions in America, I'll be focusing on their legal actions. For example, when North Carolina went to draw new boundaries for state congressional districts in 2016, State Representative David Lewis, the Republican who led the redrawing process, said that he proposed "we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

But before we get to gerrymandering, voter suppression and a lot of other fun topics, let's discuss the orange-haired elephant in the room: President Donald Trump. Democratic institutions only survive while people respect them, something our President is unwilling to do. A good summary of the new normal for the leader of the free world was written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of the New York Times in December, 2016, before Trump even took office:

"In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton; threatened legal action against unfriendly media; and suggested that he might not accept the election results.

This anti-democratic behavior has continued since the election. With the false claim that he lost the popular vote because of  "millions of people who voted illegally," Mr. Trump openly challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process. At the same time, he has been remarkably dismissive of United States intelligence agencies’ reports of Russian hacking to tilt the election in his favor.

Mr. Trump is not the first American politician with authoritarian tendencies. (Other notable authoritarians include Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.) But he is the first in modern American history to be elected president. This is not necessarily because Americans have grown more authoritarian (the United States electorate has always had an authoritarian streak). Rather it’s because the institutional filters that we assumed would protect us from extremists, like the party nomination system and the news media, failed."

When it's easy to enumerate half a dozen different ways that Mr. Trump managed to undermine democracy before he was even inaugurated President, you know we're in trouble. Fast forward a year into Trump's Presidency, here's some observations on what we've seen so far from John Shattuck of the American ProspectShattuck points out:

"Donald Trump has gone beyond previous presidents in attacking the mainstream media, undermining its objectivity, distorting truth, and proliferating falsehoods."

"The federal judiciary is similarly under attack. Trump has extended his influence over the judiciary by nominating 77 judges in his first year, some of whom are unqualified and ideologically extreme. He has criticized the federal judiciary as an institution and individual judges for failing to support his agenda."

"The president has sought to derail any investigation of his presidential campaign or his administration in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and he has lied about his efforts to do so."

"Trump has appointed family members to sensitive positions, refused to release his tax returns, failed to meet conflict-of-interest standards and mixed government and personal business activities. This has created a growing public perception that the Trump administration is a breeding ground for corruption, favoritism, and further erosion of trust in the political system".

"Trump has attacked civil society by stirring up racial and religious animosity, stimulating social and cultural division, and undercutting civic activism. His anti-pluralist statements have encouraged extremists, denigrated minorities, discouraged moderates, and increased political polarization.

* "The Trump administration has decimated the professional civil service in many federal departments and agencies, promoting partisanship and undermining morale and efficiency, particularly in the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency."

- and finally -

"By repeatedly lying and manipulating factual reality, he has promoted the view that there is no objective truth. By attacking and insulting opponents, he has degraded public discussion of issues and politicized the institutions that are normally seen as nonpartisan guardrails of democracy."

To summarize, last month President Trump told an audience that China’s president, Xi Jinping, was now "president for life," and added: "I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday." Although the New York Times wrote that the remark, "appeared to be in jest," I'm not sure who was laughing.