People have always cheated. It may be the only institution older than prostitution. But it used to be that if you cheated, you kept it to yourself. You weren’t proud of it, and the fewer people who knew about it, the better. Apparently, this too has gone the way of The Western.
The GOP issued a report recently in which they bragged about how they saved their majority in the House in the 2012 election by cheating. The GOP is the party Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, supposedly a contender for the GOP nomination for president in 2016 recently called the “Stupid Party.” “Hello, I’m Bobby Jindal, and I’m running for president under the Stupid Party.” Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Of course the GOP didn’t actually use the term cheating because you’re not supposed to be proud of that, so they had to come up with a whole new term that didn’t have exactly the same negative connotations so that they could be proud. They called it “REDMAPing,” that’s REDistricting MAjority Project – ing. And they are very proud. Unfortunately for the Stupid Party, cheating is cheating. Unfortunately for the rest of the country, if you don’t realize they cheated, they’ll just keep on cheating. You’re supposed to learn this by observing the smart kids in high school.
In case you didn’t figure it out by watching endless hours of cable-news-talking-heads during that past election, the electoral process in this country is complicated. We always hear about “one man, one vote,” but what you don’t hear about nearly as often is that sometimes that vote doesn’t count. That’s what REDMAPing is all about on one level: making sure that some votes don’t count. But it’s complicated and getting your head around it makes your brain hurt more than just a little.
Here’s how it breaks down. You’ll have to bear with the brain pain to get to the REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF. I apologize, but that’s just the way it rolls this week.
The Redistricting Part: The Constitution provides that the representation of states is to be apportioned according to their respective numbers (population) and instituted a census to tell everyone just what those numbers were. By the 1910 census it became apparent that if they just kept adding seats to the House of Representatives every time the population went up again they would have to build a new building to hold them, so in 1911 congress limited the number of representatives to 435.
This brought up the problem of how all that apportioning was supposed to happen now, so they argued about that for a little while – until 1941 – and came up with a mathematical formula known currently as “Equal Proportions.” This is supposed to maintain the ideal of “one man, one vote” by the magic of mathematics. As you might expect, since they had to resort to something that makes your brain hurt as much as mathematics, it’s complicated, but it’s actually a workable solution… with a few caveats…one of them being that everyone plays fair.
After every census the president gets the new apportionment numbers from the Census Bureau and is charged under the law with telling congress what the new numbers are. Some states will get more representatives, some fewer; others will retain the same number. The Clerk of the House then tells the state governments. If there has been a change in the number of representatives, the states are charged with redrawing their congressional districts to accommodate the new numbers since the constitution requires that each representative come from a distinctly defined district unless they are elected “at large” by the entire state population.
(Are we there yet? No, but it’s just a little further.)
Redistricting is handled entirely at the state level and each state has its own laws governing how that is done. As you might imagine, it’s a very political process. Every time a state gets to redistrict, politicians in the party controlling the state in question begin to drool. And that brings us to:
The MAjority Part:
Originally, congressional districts were required to be “contiguous and compact.” That language got lost in about 1929, so basically a political party controlling a state legislature can pretty much draw its own map and, unless it is challenged in court (and many are) it’s the law.
Imagine a state (purely fictitious, of course) with two large population centers that gets to elect 6 representatives total. Since large population centers tend to vote democratic, if we create two small (in land area) districts around each of them, there will almost always be two Democratic representatives elected. But if we also create 4 sprawling rural districts where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a fair number, there’s an excellent chance that we will have also assured that there will be four Republican representatives. Four to two is good odds. It’s a majority! But if you are a Republican in the city or a Democrat in the country, your vote just don’t count.
And this may be perfectly legal. Assuming that the 4 sprawling districts contain roughly the same population as the small urban districts, it may be hard to do anything about this situation. At least until the next shot at redistricting.
Now imagine one of those large urban centers. With all the information provided by the census (plus what can be culled from other sources like social media) it’s pretty easy to know who lives where and deduce how they are likely to vote. It’s possible to break down the entire city by race, income, you name it. When it’s time to redistrict we could create another congressional district inside that city that was predominantly one party by snaking those district lines around the city like some large salamander and just including the homes of the desired political party .
This is known as gerrymandering, named for a district created in Boston in 1812 under then Governor Elbridge Gerry (a Democrat, by the way) which was thought to look like the aforementioned salamander. It is also, if you can prove it, illegal. It clearly violates the “one man, one vote” ideal and the courts, if someone files suit against the state, will almost certainly rule it unconstitutional and force the state to remap the district.
So most redistricting attempts fall somewhere in between these two examples. But from the point of view of the controlling state political party, the closer they can get to gerrymandering, without having it ruled unconstitutional, the better.
Remember that these districts are all drawn up at the state level. The people who do the drawing are state representatives and state senators. These are referred to as “down-ballot” positions. Almost no one in the beltway pays much attention to what goes on at the down-ballot level (just ask my beltway-savvy co-blogger) and there is almost no press coverage outside of the state itself. What goes on there flies mainly under the national radar.
Enter the Republican State Leadership Committee and project REDMAP. Now these guys, contrary to Bobby Jindal’s assessment, are definitely not stupid. They realized, well prior to the 2010 census, what an opportunity awaited them for the 2012 election if they could capitalize on redistricting before then. So they quietly pumped millions of dollars into state elections to insure a Republican majority in state houses.
They concentrated on key states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan alone they picked up 20 seats in the state House with Republican majorities in both the state House and Senate and a Republican governor in 2010. In each of these states the REDMAP effort ensured that a Republican controlled legislature would redistrict before the 2012 election. And, from a national perspective, they did it quietly and with little exposure until after the fact.
How well did all this work? If you look at the figures you can see that it was very successful. Each of the four states mentioned voted for Obama, Michigan by 10%. Each voted for a Democratic senator. But in the congressional races by district, Republicans won by a total of 39 to 17 (that’s a MAJORITY and then some) even though more Democratic votes were cast for representatives than Republican. Hundreds of thousands more votes.
So all the bragging on the part of the Republican State Leadership Committee about how they saved the Republican majority in the House all by themselves may be justified. The public face of the Republican Party with all of its foot-in-the-mouth statements may make them look like the Stupid Party, but no one is better at back room maneuvering and plotting than these guys.
And now THE REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF:
(Are we there yet? Yes kids, we’re here.)
Now, since we are engaging in flights of fantasy this week, much like NRA members at a gun control hearing, let’s imagine a group of these Republican State Leadership Committee guys patting each other on the back and celebrating their little coup when one of them pops up with, “If only we could rig the Electoral College vote the same way.” I imagine a hush falling over the room, the sounds of back-thumping fading away, and smiles beginning to emerge as light bulbs go off in each Machiavellian, red-dye-#2-tinged brain. You are free to imagine however you will. Some of you may want to include drooling.
The reason for the drooling is that the method for choosing Electoral College delegates is set under state law – just like redistricting. Each state is empowered by the constitution to choose as many members as there are representatives and senators from that state. And it’s the Electoral College vote, not the popular vote, which elects the president. Almost all states choose them in a winner-takes-all manner based on the popular vote. Under that arrangement if you won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, say, in 2012 you got 20 Electoral College votes.
But there’s nothing that says that the states have to choose them that way. In fact, Nebraska and Maine use a system based on congressional districts. Whichever party wins the district gets an Electoral College delegate with only the two delegates associated with senators chosen based on the popular vote.
Under that system you could have won the Pennsylvania popular vote in 2012 and ended up with only 7 Electoral College votes instead of 20. That’s a game changer. That’s not a majority, that’s a rout. Forget trends in demographics. Forget issues. All you have to do to win is change the rules.
Changes in the state laws regarding the choice of Electoral College delegates were under consideration in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (the same states where project REDMAP was so successful). The Virginia bill was recently defeated in the state legislature in the form presented. That bill would not only have awarded the delegates associated with congressional districts to the winner in that district, but would also have awarded the two senatorial related delegates to the winner of the most congressional districts instead of to the winner of the popular vote.
Cheating on this level works best when it isn’t caught. If it can be kept under the national radar it might succeed, but the more publicity these attempts receive, the less chance they have to come to fruition. Rachael Maddow was one of the first to give these efforts national attention, urging the beltway to wake up. Since then there has been an uptick in media coverage, and in the last week most of these plans have withered under scrutiny.
Pennsylvania has come up with an alternative, giving Electoral College delegates in proportion to the popular vote rather than winner take all. That would give more votes to Republican candidates for president, but knock Pennsylvania out of the “swing state” category.
Similar plans are being looked at in other predominantly Democratic-voting but Republican-controlled states as well, but not, of course, in red states. In other words, it’s still all about cheating, not about “fair representation” as portrayed by the proponents of these measures.
Even the consideration of these changes should be of grave concern to all Democrats and Independents, both inside and outside the beltway. Coupled with the “Citizens United” verdict which has allowed unprecedented spending in political races, both up-ballot and down, these changes could alter the face of elections for generations.
The “Stupid Party” isn’t stupid. It lives outside reality most of the time, but it is devious and dangerous. We all need to be aware that the electoral process is complicated, that what makes it to the national news isn’t the whole story, and that down-ballot elections will eventually have up-ballot consequences. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer!
Your Humble Servant,
The Willowbrook Curmudgeon