Thursday, February 7, 2013

What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Gerrymandering?

If there was one consistent talking point in the GOP assessment of the 2012 election, it was that voters did not give Obama a mandate and voted instead for divided government--a preference for retaining the GOP majority in the House.  In fact, Speaker John Boehner's first presser following the election, he said that the American people "...have re-elected President Obama and they've again re-elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives."  In fact, Nancy Pelosi predicted that Democrats would re-take the House, needing a net of 25 seats, but fell short of that goal. So is the GOP talking point correct? Did Americans vote for divided government in order to provide a check on the excesses of Obama's first two years in office? Not so if you look at turnout.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in the House races, yet the GOP came away with a clear majority.  The culprit? Gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is that time honored process whereby every state must adjust its congressional districts based on population shifts following the census every 10 years.  With the advent of statistical software, drawing up precise districts has gone from art to science.  In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, Democrats lost control of many of the important institutions involved in the gerrymandering process (governor seats, state legislature, etc), giving the GOP the opportunity to maximize their control over the House and to buttress any "wave" election in the Democrats favor.

An important investigative report by the non-profit "Pro Publica" found that GOP strategists began to hone their attention on the state races following the losses in 2006 and 2008 to the Democrats, and the Democrats have allowed them this opportunity without challenge.  According to the study, Ed Gillespie, who we all remember from the two Bush victories in 2000 and 2004, took over management of a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee.  This group had existed since 2002, but had mostly focused on how to make the states more business friendly.  When Gillespie took over in 2010, the mission became redistricting.  He would raise the money necessary to win these critical state-wide elections in battleground states that were either up for grabs or leaning Democratic.  States such as Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. The group raised $10 million, which netted them "675 legislative seats" and "control of 12 state legislatures". The reward was control of 4 times more redistricting plans than the Democrats.  The Pro Publica study is an interesting read in machinations that seem more Orwellian than American, and I encourage you to read it.  But what is clear is that the GOP has stymied any effort by the Democrats to regain control of the House regardless of the wishes of the voters.  But what about the presidency? How does this potentially factor in to presidential elections?

Republicans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are introducing legislation to revise the manner in which electoral votes are awarded. As you know from your civics classes, the winner of an election in a state is awarded all the electors (total number of House representatives + two senators), even if that person won the election by one vote.  Some states have changed their system to award electors based on who won state wide (the two senators) and who won in the districts, meaning two candidates could come away from a state with electors.  Proponents of this system argue that this is the best way to make more states competitive, such as Texas or California. But this study by the group PR Watch argues that only Republicans in blue states--states where Obama won--are advocating a change. So, according to the study, if Wisconsin had this new system in place, Obama and Romney would have split the electoral votes evenly five to five.  In Michigan, Romney would have won nine of the 14 districts and in Pennsylvania, Romney would have come away with 12 of the 18 electoral votes.  Thus in a close election, as 2012 was, this new gerrymandered system not only would have given Republicans control of the House despite their net loss of votes, but it also may have given the election to Romney and not Obama. Certainly this is a way to potentially rig future elections in the GOP's favor, and something that deserves a closer look, hopefully by the press.

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