One of the foundational principles of our democracy is “one person – one vote.”
(Admittedly, we started with a pretty fucking narrow definition of “person.” In 1776, when it was up to states to decide who could vote, “person” = “adult white male landowner.” Over time, “person” expanded to all adult white males, then African-American men (at least on paper), then women, then REALLY to African-Americans (more on that below), then finally to all American citizens aged 18 and older, which was WITHIN MY LIFETIME.)
Unfortunately, forces (and by “forces” I mostly mean Republicans and the conservative Supreme Court justices) are conspiring – and have been conspiring for years – to take that away.
There are a number of factors at play here: gerrymandering, weakening of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression (which has been accelerated by the weakening of the VRA), and the illogic of continuing to rely on a system that was set up under radically different conditions than current demographic and population distribution realities.
Let’s start with gerrymandering. Both parties are guilty of this (just ask Republicans in Maryland) and have been for years (the term originated in a famous political cartoon in 1812).
Electoral maps are redrawn after each decade’s census, and 2010 saw a perfect storm of events. Republicans were swept into office in large numbers at state and national levels as a result of the rise of the Tea Party, Democratic midterm election apathy (a dreadful tradition we really need to do something to address), and backlash against the passage of the Affordable Care Act (which is ironic, seeing as all that anger was generated by Republican lies about what it would do, and now that they’re trying to gut or destroy it, all of a sudden, everyone likes it). We can also slice and dice data in much more sophisticated ways than ever before.
Racially-based gerrymandering has long been outlawed, thanks, in part to 1965’s Voting Rights Act. But partisan gerrymandering is just fine.
Well, actually, that’s not 100% true. In 1986’s Davis v. Bandemer, SCOTUS ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering does violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. However, they also ruled that there was no way to create a clear standard as to what constituted “extreme” partisan gerrymandering. Decisions about partisan gerrymandering would necessarily be subjective, and thus courts couldn’t adjudicate.
So for the intervening 30 years, it’s continued unabated. This stalemate has led to increasingly lopsided election results, where the winners of a shrinking minority of the votes end up with a growing majority of the seats.
This graphic is illustrative and well-known, but just in case you haven’t seen it:
(By Steven Nass – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38869847)
Just this week, SCOTUS heard a case that could change all that, Gill v. Whitford. In short, in 2011, Republicans gerrymandered Wisconsin districts so that 49% of the vote earned them 60 of 99 seats in the state legislature. But what can you do, right? Well, at least “right?” for the past 30 years.
The innovation in Gill is that the plaintiffs have an algorithm, known as the efficiency gap (created by two University of Chicago professors, Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee) that can objectively determine how much partisan gerrymandering is too much.
As is often the case these days, this is basically going to come down to how Justice Kennedy rules (although one would think that at least Justice Roberts would be smart enough to realize that given demographic trends things will eventually get SO lopsided that his party won’t be able to cling to power forever; that even without that power flip, partisan gerrymandering is currently harming BOTH sides, just Democrats more strongly right now; and that the will of the majority can’t be subverted forever without risking armed insurrection – but I digress), and early signs are good. (Hecate and I and another witchy friend of ours may be able to claim a tiny bit of credit for that is all I’m saying.)
Weakening of the Voting Rights Act/Voter Suppression
As you likely already know, the 2016 presidential election was our first national election since SCOTUS gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, since apparently, five justices think that racism isn’t a thing anymore. Among other provisions, the 1965 law required states with a history of extreme racial discrimination (the former Confederacy, Alaska, and Arizona) to get “pre-clearance” of any changes they wanted to make to elections laws, like, for instance, who’s eligible to vote and what kind of ID voters have to provide.
The Brennan Center for Justice has a comprehensive guide to what’s happened since, but I wanted to highlight a few key pieces of information:
Six states that were formerly covered by the VRA introduced restrictive voting laws prior to the 2016 election: Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Eight states that hadn’t been subject to VRA pre-clearance also implemented strict voter ID prior to 2016 – Kansas, Nebraska, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin – ostensibly to solve the non-existent “problem” of in-person voter fraud (31 instances out of over 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, which by the way, is likely an OVERCOUNT, since the study’s author counted not just prosecutions and convictions, but ANY credible claims).
I hope a few of those jump out at you: Virginia, which Hillary Clinton narrowly won when it shouldn’t have been close, and Wisconsin, which she was projected to win comfortably, and which was one of the three keys to so-called President Trump’s electoral college win.
Obviously, we need to restore and even expand the Voting Rights Act as soon as possible.
But perhaps even more concerning is voter suppression. This is a tactic that has long been used against African-American voters, by southern Democrats in the Jim Crow era (prior to the ideological flip on race that took place in the parties due to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s) right up to today’s Republican-sponsored restrictive voter ID laws that discourage African-Americans and young people, two traditionally Democratic voter blocs, from going to the polls, or prevent their votes from being cast or counted when they do show up.
25% of African-Americans lack the approved IDs (with states like Alabama making them harder to get specifically in majority black areas – maybe it was for purely budgetary reasons, as state officials claim, but the distribution of the closed DMV offices is highly suspicious), and students face barriers due to discrepancies between their driver’s licenses (often still registered to their parents’ addresses while they’re in their transient address college years) and where they attend school and have student IDs, with many of these same states restricting absentee and early voting as well.
There’s significant dispute over exactly how many voters were turned away in Wisconsin (the 200,000 number frequently cited is likely an exaggeration), but we know that Trump’s margins in the three key states were vanishingly small. (And don’t even get me started on fucking Jill Stein and her fucking jackass voters who were more than the margin of Trump’s victory in ALL THREE states and their fucking idiotic susceptibility to Russian propaganda on social media. That is a post for another time.)
In fact, The Washington Post editorial board recently called voter suppression THE civil rights issue of our time. They’re not wrong.
Norm Ornstein, Tom Mann, and EJ Dionne recently published a book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported. Disclaimer: I have not yet read the book. However, I have listened to their nearly two-hour interview about it with Vox‘s Ezra Klein on his The Ezra Klein Show podcast.
In the interview, they discuss partisan gerrymandering (and they, too, are hopeful that Justice Kennedy will see reason and do the right thing in Gill v. Whitford), but they also discuss demographic trends and the over-representation of rural, conservative areas in our national legislature.
The issue with the Senate is well known: all states have two Senators, regardless of size. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that DC, at 681,000 residents, has a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont and recently voted OVERWHELMINGLY for statehood, and yet has no representation. Puerto Rico, which at 3.4 million residents has a larger population than 21 states, even more recently voted even more OVERWHELMINGLY for statehood, also, nada. Again, I digress.)
That may seem relatively innocuous until you realize that if current trends continue, by 2040, 70% of the US population will live in just 15 states, represented by just 30 Senators. The reason for this is that increasing numbers of Americans are moving to the large urban centers that are the engines of our economic growth – and, consequently, of good jobs. The Founding Fathers never could have anticipated this trend, but it’s throwing our political representation increasingly out of whack.
This uneven distribution of population and representation is replicated in the electoral college. While it’s not unprecedented for the popular vote winner to lose the electoral college (it happened three times in the nineteenth century, although election fraud was so rampant in 1876, it’s impossible to say who really won, which was perhaps the key factor in the devastatingly abrupt termination of Reconstruction), it IS unprecedented for it to happen twice in five elections. Hillary’s margin of popular vote victory while losing the electoral college is ALSO unprecedented.
As Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann point out, this structural flaw with the Senate will be difficult, if not impossible, to address. Dumping the electoral college would be equally challenging. But some states are taking steps to ensure that their electors must vote for the winner of popular vote via the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which could, without requiring a Constitutional change, render the electoral college functionally irrelevant.
Feeling pissed off? Good!
What can you do?
Don’t get mad, get organized.
First of all, register to vote, wherever you are.
Secondly, as Hillary Clinton urges:
Thirdly, educate yourself about the voting requirements in your state and make sure you have what you need to meet them.
Fourth, talk about the issues I’ve raised here with your friends and family. Educate the people you know about what’s going on and the impact it has.
Fifth, get involved. In response to his narrow 2016 Senate loss (which was almost certainly due, at least in part, to voter suppression), former Missouri secretary of state Jason Kander launched Let America Vote “to fight back against proposals across the country that make it harder for eligible voters to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.” Of course, you can donate, but you can also share your story of what the right to vote means to you and find opportunities to volunteer through the website.
The ACLU is also making a major push for voting rights through their People Power grassroots initiative called Let People Vote. There are a number of ways you can be involved in and support that effort available at that website as well.
President Obama and former AG Eric Holder have thrown their support behind the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is also working on this issue. Their website also provides a number of options for getting involved in and supporting their efforts.
I’ll let Senator John McCain have the last word here:
Couldn’t have said it better myself, Senator.
Image found here.
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