Since November, Republicans have been rethinking their platform, how they’ve been messaging their positions to middle class families, and a whole host of other issues that seem to be dogging them, especially since the rise of the Tea Party. After watching Mitt lose and a handful of winnable Senate seats slip through their hands, some thoughtful GOPers have pushed for the party to be kinder to immigrants and even revive traditional Republican values of a small role for the federal government on issues like defining marriage and women’s rights. Good, necessary stuff.
Another idea that circulated was a push to reframe how electoral votes are awarded in swing states—a crazy scheme to move from a winner-takes-all system to votes based on congressional districts in these states. According to the WaPost, “the new system would allow Republicans to consistently win electoral votes (and quite possibly a majority of electoral votes) from states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Virginia, regardless of whether they win the statewide vote.” Ahhh, so the Republican party is licking its wounds post-Obama-winning-big-in-2012 by pushing repeat on a well-worn strategy: disenfranchising American voters.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we progressives have given enough credit to just how obsessed this crowd of our countrymen is with winning by rigging the system. Enough has already been written about the GOP obsession with disenfranchising voters—particularly minority voters—with their big “voter fraud” scare (I like Jane Mayer’s The Voter Fraud Myth for a good overview). But really, the obsession started long before fraud became a thinly veiled disguise for targeted disenfranchising. To quickly hit the way back machine:
As any good Constitution lover knows, in 1870, our forefathers amended it to allow black Americans to vote—the 15th Amendment. Then our other forefathers ratcheted up their efforts to prevent black Americans from actually following through on that fairness and equality plan. From what I can tell, there was a great fear among white guys in southern states where black Americans constituted a majority of the population that they might actually elected a black American to Congress. South Carolina did in 1870! But thanks to these white guys and their Jim Crow bigotry, when Congressman White (no seriously—he was a black Rep. from North Carolina) retired in 1901, no black American served in Congress for 28 years—and none represented any Southern states for 72 years.
Fast forward through the civil rights movements and pronto, Democrats AND Republicans are pushing for majority-minority districts to encourage minority representation in places that, again, thanks to our forefathers refusing to embrace decent values of humanity and goodness, historically had difficultly electing black Americans to Congress. This all happens through redistricting, of course, which states take on every ten years after the Census reports on population changes.
From what I can tell, Democrats were cool with creating wacky, oddly shaped districts that strung together scattered towns and cities with lots of minority voters because it meant that a minority might actually win Congress—who would most likely be a Democrat. Republicans were cool with it because race-based redistricting is a very effective way for white Americans to prevent black Americans from really (read reaaaaaallllyyy) gaining too much power. If you cluster lots of minorities into one minority district, they effectively only have one vote for Congress because the rest of the state is a white majority. Spread them out over a bunch majority districts, and the minority vote is so diluted, the white candidate is sure to win.
Some attentive readers might find it peculiar that this model assumes white people won’t vote for a minority and vice versa when we live in a post-racial (!) era. More on that later.
Fast forward to the SCOTUS decision in 1993 where the high court ruled that a long, controversial majority-black district in North Carolina was unconstitutional. The court found that race cannot be a main factor for creating a district because it violates the Equal Protection Clause. SaDO’C wrote for the majority:
A reapportionment plan that includes in one district individuals who belong to the same race, but who are otherwise widely separated by geographical and political boundaries, and who have little in common with another but the color of their skins, bears and uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid. It reinforces the perception that members of the same racial group – regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community in which they live – think alike, share the same political interests, and prefer the same candidates at the polls.
So now you can’t do race-based districts anymore (well, you kind of can), but that hasn’t stopped the Republicans from not-so-stealthily using redistricting to rig the system in their favor. Now that hiding black voters in white districts won’t work, they’ve taken to preventing Democratic votes from counting by fixing the numbers in state redistricting plans. Take two seconds and read the conclusions of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s REDMAP report:
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 RSLC’s vision and foresight in undertaking [the REDMAP] effort was further validated in 2012 by remarkable Republican success in down-ballot races, thereby allowing a Republican House of Representatives to return to Washington…
If you’re reading too fast, the RSLC is celebrating—bragging about even—the fact that years of planning and funding to ensure district lines were drawn to favor Republican candidates have paid off. They were gaming the system back in the 1800’s and they’re gaming it today.
What is a pleasant progressive to do? I’ve got at least three ideas:
First, start planning for a Republican flip flop in the narrative once white guys are in the minority. Back in the day, the main argument for supporting minority-majority districts is that white Americans would not vote for a black candidate. November 2012 sort of blew that theory out of the water as we’ve got the most diverse Congress in history and a black guy as our president AGAIN (no thanks to the GOP). And think about what our voting electorate will look like once we bring 11 million people (plus some) who happen to not be white currently living in this country without paperwork or voting rights into full citizenship. Although it’s already started in some places, at some point very soon, white Americans are going to become a way smaller minority across the country, and I think we need to be ready for arguments about minorities/now majorities being unwilling to vote for white candidates/new minorities.
Second, step up our involvement and investment in local races. I think progressives have chronically underestimated how important local elections are in national politics. Enough said.
Third, consider districting strategies as a way to better organize existing progressive coalitions. What about a majority-gender district? Majority-parents? If women—or any progressive grouping, for that matter—could figure out how to use districting lines to our advantage, perhaps the Republican Repeat will become a thing of the past.
The Pleasant Progressive