Discounting Votes via Redistricting

GOP's New Distortion of Democracy


As the 2012 elections neared, the most imminent threat to genuine democracy appeared to be posed by voter disenfranchisement because of the restrictive voting laws passed in 14 states.

These laws typically required official photo IDs such as driver’s licenses which large numbers of Democratic constituencies — African-Americans, Latinos, college students and the poor elderly — do not possess. Another ploy was the drastic reduction of opportunities for pre-Election Day “early voting,” which was particularly popular among African-American church congregations.

However, these laws were thwarted both by court action against attempts to undermine the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, more remarkably, massive turnouts by fiercely determined voters, who waited as long as eight hours in the Florida heat in order to vote.

But while progressives focused chiefly on that very real menace to democracy, the Republicans succeeded in undermining popular rule on another front. They amassed grossly disproportionate and unrepresentative power at both the state and federal levels through redistricting that effectively de-values the votes of Democratic-leaning voters. Despite rolling up 1.7 million fewer votes for House candidates than the Democrats piled up, the the Republicans walked away with a 234-201 majority.

This contemptuous disregard for the will of the voters actually prompted the Republicans’ website to boast, “Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the US House seated yesterday [Jan. 3] in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.”

Earlier posts on the site — before it became the topic of Rachel Maddow news stories on her MSNBC-TV program, enthusiastically touted the success of the GOP’s $30 million “REDMAP” plan to use re-districting across the nation to prevent majority opinion from being accurately registered.

There is even a danger that the Republicans, with the encouragement of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, will parlay the distorted House districts into a perversion of presidential results, as Republicans in a number of states carried by Obama — including Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia — recently discussed the potential for splitting up each state’s electoral votes based on the results within each House district, all painstakingly calibrated to yield GOP victories. Had this system been in effect in 2012, Mitt Romney would now be our president. Republican leaders in most of the states have backed away from this scheme, but Pennsylvania Republicans are considering a plan to apportion electoral votes by the percentage of total vote won by major-party candidates, a proposal still aimed at eliminating the deeply-rooted winner-take-all tradition so that a Republican candidate can win a substantial number of electoral votes.

While this scheme to overturn the outcome of the popular vote at the presidential level appears increasingly unlikely to succeed, the Republicans have nonetheless sliced up states into districts which will likely deliver GOP majorities in both state legislatures and the US House for years to come. With the Republican advantage so pronounced, it would appear that even after the re-districting following the 2020 election, the Republicans will maintain their edge if the rules stay the same.

Wisconsin is a classic instance of the GOP’s anti-democratic strategy: while the state went 53%-47% for Obama, the state is being represented by 5 Republicans and just 3 Democrats in the House. In the state Legislature, the Democrats stacked up 174,000 more votes than the Republicans in Wisconsin legislative races, yet the electorate wound up with an overwhelming 60-39 Republican majority. These outcomes are the result of the 2010 GOP takeover in Wisconsin and 11 other states, which gave GOP a virtually unrestrained hand in setting up new districts. Using a highly secretive and expensive process that has consumed $1.9 taxpayer funds and incurred repeated judicial criticism and were levied with substantial fines of the Republicans’ attorneys, the Wisconsin Republicans were permitted to set up new districts that vastly over-inflated their actual level of public support and failed to reflect voter sentiment.

The same result occurred in a number of other states that Obama carried: Michigan now has a House delegation of nine Republicans and only five Democrats. In Ohio, the state is represented in Congress by a stunningly lopsided delegation of 12 Republicans and four Democrats. The Buckeye State’s Republicans’ careful carving-up of districts converted 52% of votes for House candidates into 75% of the delegation sent to Washington.

Across the board (except for the two Democratic states which aped the Republicans’ methods), we can see a pattern where Democratic votes are effectively discounted in value, requiring as much as 1.75 Democratic votes to match the weight of a Republican vote in trying to elect a congressional candidate, as Rolling Stone documented recently.

In short, democracy is distorted once again by the Republican/Right steamroller that gathered momentum in 2010 and has been undeterred by overwhelmingly negative public responses to both their regressive policies and often-reprehensible methods for jamming through legislation:

• the passage of restrictive voter-ID laws, along with reductions in early-voting access, with Republican legislators openly expressing their partisan intent;

• efforts to deprive public employees of union representation and weaken the Democratic Party’s organizational infrastructure and financial base, most notably in Wisconsin and Ohio;

• the passage of “right-to-work” laws in Indiana and, remarkably, the labor stronghold of Michigan, whereby unions are not allowed to collect any dues or fees for the representation and benefits that they are nonetheless still legally required to provide to every single worker, whether they contribute or not;

• the unprecedented direct infusion of corporate money into the campaign coffers of candidates willing to provide policy paybacks to their funders, thanks to the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court. We also witnessed huge injections of hundreds of millions of dollars from a handful of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, and hedge-fund “vulture capitalists.” While the right-wing funders often deployed their money ineffectually in 2012, American democracy remains vulnerable to the out-sized voice in politics granted to a few of the ueber-rich — especially as they gain sophistication and sharpen their strategies.

Clearly, the “discounting” of votes due to redistricting is much more than just another attack on Democratic voters; it is a frontal assault on democracy that robs the American people of fair, proportionate representation that accurately reflects public sentiment.

Without a doubt, the potential for progressive advances based on majoritarian support is decisively blocked by the Right’s increasingly sophisticated use of re-districting to de-value the votes cast by members of the public who favor Democrats. Equally, the prospect of more regressive attacks — on democratic safeguards, against workers’ rights and protections, women’s reproductive rights, and environmental safeguards — has already emerged despite the Republicans’ shrinking popular support. The likelihood of a politically system unfairly skewed toward the Right stretches far into our future, rendering more difficult the need to confront America’s increasingly unequal economy, the threats posed by climate change, and restraining the US military empire.

All of this underscores the importance of utilizing non-partisan commissions—already employed by several states—to ensure fair and proportional representation. But with Republicans feeling public opinion shifting sharply away from their blend of subservience to the richest 1% and savagery toward labor, the poor, and immigrants, expect them to put up a ferocious battle against any measure to restore fairness to our elections.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and publicity consultant. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2013

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