By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – It may have been the first time a president brought up gerrymandering in a State of the Union address. The subject is typically confined to civics classes and political science seminars, but the inequality and injustice it perpetuates are at the heart of what’s wrong with our politics, and that’s what President Obama wanted to highlight when he addressed the Congress Tuesday night.
He was talking to the wrong audience. Most lawmakers are in safe seats and guaranteed reelection because of gerrymandering. The Republican Party wouldn’t control the House of Representatives if it weren’t for gerrymandering.
In the last election, 1.4 million more Democratic votes were cast for House candidates yet Republicans continued their control carrying 234 seats to the Democrats’ 201. There’s little likelihood that will change this year even if a Democrat is elected to the White House, and Democrats regain control of the Senate.
It is accepted wisdom that the GOP lock on the House will hold because of the artful drawing of districts based on political advantage for the party in power. And in a majority of states and legislative districts that is the Republican Party.
This is what Obama was referring to when he said, “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around.”
The way it works is that every 10 years just after the census is taken, state legislatures are charged with re-drawing congressional districts based on population shifts. This task is widely seen as part of the patronage awarded the winning side, and politicians in both parties have exploited that advantage.
Gerrymandering got its unusual name more than 200 years ago from the salamander-shaped districts drawn in Massachusetts and signed into law by Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. The practice has gotten more pervasive and insidious in modern times, and by bringing it into the State of the Union, Obama is challenging both grassroots activists and the Supreme Court to see gerrymandering as fundamentally undermining our democratic processes and ideals, and to examine it in that light.
He is asking a lot because the powers that be are unlikely to overturn a tradition that they directly benefit from. During Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 12 governorships, 30 state legislative chambers and more than 900 seats in those state chambers, where the bulk of gerrymandering originates.
Democrats are upset for valid good-government reasons, but if they’re honest, they’re mostly ticked because they weren’t the ones doing the gerrymandering because they didn’t have the majority.
Democrats gear up every four years for the presidency but have neglected the party building that is essential on the state level. Republicans have assiduously courted that power through a well-funded, Washington–based Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) that proved wildly successful in winning control of state legislatures in time for the 2010 Census.
A New York Times article in 2013 titled “The Great Gerrymander of 2012” reported on the RSLC’s “Redmap” project and how it redrew congressional districts to lock in partisan advantage. The article’s author, Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and the founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, tested the proposition that the party that wins more than half the votes should get at least half the seats.
In North Carolina, where Democrats cast 51 percent of the votes and Republicans 49 percent, a fair allocation of seats would be 7 Democratic and 6 Republican. The current delegation is 4 Democrats and 9 Republicans. Professor Wang includes many other examples of what he calls “shenanigans” before he concludes, “Both sides may do it, but one side does it more often.”
Obama was right to point fingers at gerrymandering, but if anything is going to change, it won’t come from Congress. “Our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen, to vote, to speak out,” Obama said, speaking past the Congress in the hope of summoning the American people.
Douglas Cohn’s new book, “The President’s First Year,” analyzing every president’s freshman year, is available at book stores everywhere.
© 2015 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND