November’s elections have the potential to impact not just the states where UAW members campaign for state offices and legislators, but Congress for the next 10 years.
Every 10 years, state lawmakers or in some cases other appointed officials sit down with a map of their state and draw the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. It’s supposed to be done in a way to encourage proper representation and fair elections.
But the process, from our democracy’s earliest times has become politicized, usually through state legislatures drawing boundaries that reflect the party in power, with non-competitive elections. In fact, only 13 percent of congressional seats have competitive races, in many cases due to manipulating voting boundaries.
Politicians are in effect picking the voters instead of the other way around. That practice is called “gerrymandering,” a word which was coined in 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his political party. The outline of one of the districts resembled a salamander and pundits combined the governor’s last name with the last two syllables of the name of the amphibious animal.
After the 2020 census, congressional lines must be redrawn with some states picking up seats and others losing a congressional district based on population.
The November 2018 elections in most states will determine who holds the pen in drawing up congressional districts—and likely lock in most congressional districts as D or R for the next 10 years. Virtually the only chance voters will have to impact how the next Congress will govern will actually be in voting for governor, other state officers and state lawmakers this year.
Redistricting: What You Need to Know
Even in the earliest days of the United States, drawing legislative boundaries was fraught with efforts to game the system. Everyone in the United States lives within a congressional district. When you go to vote, every 10 years the lines are redrawn based on population and census. Since the number of congressional seats permitted to vote is static at 435 members, states that gain in population get additional seats while others lose seats. Redistricting is expected to accomplish two main goals: Each district is supposed to have relatively the same population as adjoining districts, and the number of districts should reflect that state’s overall population in the House of Representatives. (Every state has two U.S. senators.) For instance, Wyoming, a sparsely populated state, has a single House member. California, the country’s most populous state, has 53 congressional districts.
The Constitution recognized that Congress should not draw their own districts because of the inherent conflict and made state legislatures the entity that have primary control in setting congressional and state legislative districts. Each legislature sets up a system of drawing the districts. In many it is a mix of state officeholders and legislators. In a handful of states politically appointed and independent commissions make the recommendation to the legislature.
But, just as in Elbridge Gerry’s day, politicians in power seek advantage when setting the districts. Until 1964, the courts had taken a hands-off approach into what it considered was essentially a political exercise. But over the years, courts have gotten more involved. And with good reason: With sophisticated computer mapping now readily available, politicians are doing more to select their voters and engineer a result. This had led to some boundaries that don’t seem to have a logical reason for existing. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that some districts are set to protect an existing seat or make that seat switch parties by overloading it with voters from one party. This has led to some weirdly drawn congressional boundaries.
For instance, in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, which is heavily Democratic, is a sliver that stretches from just west of Cleveland to the western reaches of the city of Toledo along the Lake Erie shoreline. Two portions of the district are connected only by a bridge between Erie and Ottawa counties. Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, which covers suburban Philadelphia, is nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” because of the weird shape it takes. It was gerrymandered this way so that it gives Republicans an advantage. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has voided the current map and an independent consultant is drawing up a new map for the November 2018 election while state Republicans consider their remaining legal options.
By cobbling together mostly Democrats or mostly Republicans, politicians can achieve a desired result.
The bottom line for all voters is that when you vote most years for Congress, about 87 percent of House races are rated as non-competitive —no matter who runs, the end result is stacked against the opponent.
But because the 2020 census falls within the terms of most states’ elections for governor and other officeholders, as well as legislators, your vote in state elections in November will elect those who draw the lines for the next 10 years — and effectively choose the party that will represent them in Congress for the next decade.
Gerrymandering Keeps Some Lawmakers in Office for Decades
Ballotpedia, the online encyclopedia of American politics and elections, expects 23 of the 435 House seats up for election in 2018 to be competitive. That’s 5.3 percent. Another 15 seats could become competitive. That means that conservatively about 87 percent of the congressional races are pretty much decided before anyone casts a general election ballot.
This lack of competitiveness is due to two factors: gerrymandering districts so the outcome is assured, and the power of incumbency. And incumbents can also exercise their power (including campaign contributions) with state lawmakers within their party to influence redistricting, ensuring relatively easy re-election.
Take for instance Texas, which in 2016 had just one congressional district, District 23 in west Texas, that was competitive out of 36 congressional districts. There were only two open seats, with one heavily Democratic and the other where a Republican had no challenger. Indeed, many districts (think New York City and Democrats or Utah and Republicans) have little chance of being competitive anytime soon.
In 2016, Ballotpedia analyzed the margins of victory in all House of Representatives contests and found that the average margin of victory was 36.81 percent. Seventy-four percent of the House elections analyzed were won by margins of 20 percent or more, while just 3.6 percent were won by margins of victory of less than 5 percent.
So what kind of impact does having not to worry about a general election have on your congressional representative? Political rhetoric panders more to each party’s voters—right or left—who vote more regularly in primaries and much less to the vast majority of voters. This happens because an incumbent has to worry more about a primary challenge then a general election challenge which shifts their politics to the far right or left to fend off the threat of a primary loss. At press time, Republicans held a substantial majority in the House, with 238 seats to the Democrats’ 192, with five seats vacant. Historically, the minority party, in this case the Democrats, will likely gain seats in the House due to a variety of factors, including the fact that the party of a newly elected president is historically more vulnerable. Since 1934, the party of a newly elected president has lost an average of 23 seats, meaning more House seats held by Republicans will be in play. Of the 38 competitive races identified by Ballotpedia, 30 are held by Republicans.
Technology has Made Gerrymandering Worse
It Could be Used to Fix the Problem
Imagine a smoke-filled room of politicians in Elbridge Gerry’s time sitting around a huge map of 19th Century Massachusetts trying to figure out where they might have the best opportunities to draw new congressional districts to their benefit.
In many cases, they would have to guess where “their” voters were in order to draw a map that helps keep them in power. Sure, they might know party affiliation and some other factors, but even three decades ago it was still a time-consuming educated guess.
Not so, today.
Computer programs can take millions of publicly available records including voting records, party identification and factors that can determine a liberal or conservative leaning voter behavior through gun licenses, magazine subscriptions, online computer data and other marketing tools. These give map makers a good idea where to draw those lines—either fairly or to their benefit— almost to the single voter.
Republicans began the technological arms race with their REDMAP project, which had a simple goal, according to the book “Ratf****d,” by David Daley: Gain control of statehouses in swing states in order to draw the map for the next 10 years. According to the Republican State Leadership Committee’s redistricting website, redistrictingmajorityproject.com: “The party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps—shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.”
Once they successfully controlled statehouses, they also controlled the redistricting process at the congressional and state levels. And they used all this data in sophisticated software mapping programs to ensure that while districts may have equal population counts, the lines would be drawn so that Republicans were overwhelmingly favored—even if it meant some districts lines made absolutely no sense, except that a desired result was achieved.
There is no need for a smoke-filled room in 2020—just a sophisticated computer and marketing tools that predict each households’ voting behavior quite accurately. Computers have made rigging the system both easier and more accurate.
Draw the Lines Yourself
If you think drawing congressional district lines is easy—think again. Even if your intention is to make sure all voters have fair, competitive races, drawing the boundaries for congressional districts isn’t easy. Here’s an online game at redistrictinggame.org if you’d like to try your hand at drawing congressional districts.
Courts Tackle Redistricting
Here are a few significant court cases concerning redistricting. This year could prove to be pivotal for redistricting as there are many court challenges to the way the boundaries were drawn—and in some cases redrawn—since 2011.
A Wisconsin case contends that the state’s GOP-controlled legislature drafted a map in 2011 that was a partisan gerrymander and unconstitutional. A panel of three federal judges agreed in 2016, concluding that the map had discriminatory intent and effect. The state appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a decision is expected this summer.
In Maryland, Republicans say Democrats gerrymandered a district by moving them out of the state’s 6th Congressional District to flip the district from a reliable Republican district to a safe Democratic one. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case on March 28.
In North Carolina, courts are set to rule on a replacement map that was put in place to combat a racially motivated gerrymandered map designed to limit the voting strength of African-Americans. The Supreme Court has not indicated whether it will hear the case. The redrawn map was also blocked by plaintiffs represented by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. The stat is appealing those rulings and the plaintiffs are hoping to have a new map drawn in time for the 2018 general election.
Pennsylvania has three lawsuits in limbo that challenge the state’s 2011 congressional map, maintaining it is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The GOP used its control of the legislature to split up Democratic constituencies in some cases (also known as “cracking”) and concentrate Democrats in another (also known as “packing”).
In January, the state Supreme Court struck down the 2011 map and ordered the General Assembly to submit a new one by Feb. 15 or the court will impose a map of its own. State lawmakers twice unsuccessfully appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. An independent consultant is examining options for a new map as Pennsylvania Republicans consider their remaining options in state court.
The League of Women Voters of Michigan and 11 Democratic voters filed a lawsuit in federal district court contending that the 2011 state legislative and congressional maps are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. As in Pennsylvania, the Michigan suit alleges “cracking and packing” of Democratic constituencies while efficiently spreading out Republican voters across safe Republican districts.
Conclusion: Go Vote!
While there are many uncompetitive congressional districts out there—and even more in the state legislative races across the country—not voting isn’t an option, particularly in 2018. What is at stake in 2018 isn’t just a question of who controls Congress for the next two years. It’s very likely that when you cast as ballot for governor, state senator and representative, and other state-wide officials in some states, you will be deciding who draws the maps that determine who represents you in government until 2030.
For working people, the candidates you select in 2018 will determine issues that impact your right to bargain a contract; your rights in the workplace, the impact of trade on your jobs; and even the education your children receive.
This November, exercise your right to vote and choose wisely.
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