The Gerrymander is not an Endangered Lizard, But it Should Be

“The Big Print Giveth. The Small Print Taketh Away.” — Tom Waits

Maryland’s Third: The 3rd Most Gerrymandered District in the US

Trump has the GOP by the short-n-curlies, and his tugs are painful.

Just ask Liz Cheney, who, despite her conservative rating of “A- for this Congress and A+ overall,” has been spanked by the Republican Party and sent to her room without dinner for claiming that Trump’s claims that the election was stolen was a Big Lie.

Or ask Elise Stefanik of New York, who, despite her conservative rating as “D- for her immigration votes, and a C- for her overall voting record as a lawmaker,” got Cheney’s position because she supported Trump’s Big Lie about the stolen election.

Trump constantly reminds GOP lawmakers that, whatever internal fist fights that happen among themselves, the first rule of Trump Club is: You do not talk about Trump Club.

The headlines explain it all: 70% of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was rigged, and 70 million Americans voted for Trump.

But headlines can be deceiving. As Tom Waite eloquently observed, “The Big Print Giveth. The Small Print Taketh Away.” In this case, the small print can be found in Gallup’s weekly survey of party affiliation, showing that both Republican and Independent voters have been quietly slipping away from the GOP like hair dye dripping down Rudy Giuliani’s head.

Since the Capitol riots, Republicans lost 10% of their membership, now representing only 25% of the whole country, and while Independents initially picked up that 10% (reaching its all time high of 50%), they’re moving into the Democratic camp (now at 35% of the country).

But it gets even worse: Beneath that small print is the really fine print buried in wonky political journals like California Weekly, which cites data showing that “Republican voter registration is at 24.2 percent, a drop from its 1994 mark of 37.2 percent and only a fraction of a percent better than ‘decline to state.’ And that’s after a marginal uptick in 2019–20. Democratic registration, on the other hand, is at 46.1 percent, down only 3 points since 1994.”

So now the math is stark: “70% of Republicans” is … let me get my calculator … 18% of the country. As that number drips slowly down the GOP’s cheek, they face a catch-22: To keep that 18% motivated and voting, they have to support Trump. But the more they do, the more the non-believers move away or disengage with the GOP.

What explains this catch-22 is simple: That 18% of Americans reside within gerrymandered districts that were designed to re-elect just enough Republican incumbents to keep their control over the party.

Thus, the double-edged sword of partisan gerrymandering: On the one hand, the lies, disinformation and conspiracy theories only have to appeal to a tiny fraction of the country to maintain control. On the other hand, the lies and disinformation have to get progressively more extreme to keep those insane voters motivated, or you run out of hair dye.

Could this spell the end of Republican party? A google search reveals articles from every major publication, spanning the entire political spectrum, each proclaiming that the GOP has no chance of long-term viability. Even the conservative National Review states, “A dog in this condition would be put to sleep. It would be a piece of mercy.”

Some are trying to create an alternative Republican party, but that’s doomed for the same reasons: That 18% of Americans love their MAGA hats and the official party platform the GOP offered in 2020: “The party would not adopt a new platform [other than] the party’s continued support for Trump’s America First agenda.”

Republican voters may well believe alternative facts, but not in an alternative party.

But don’t count out the GOP yet, as they have two life-saving plans up their sleeves. The first is their nationwide initiative to keep Democrats from voting by introducing 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. And the second is to use the new 2020 census data to allow Republican states (Texas, Georgia and Florida) to redraw district maps to further favor Republicans, but also to eliminate Democratic districts.

So there’s a very real — and historically likely — chance that the GOP will retake at least the House in 2022, which may very well put us right back in the world of Trumpian-style autocracy. And then we’ll all be storming the capital … of Canada … to get in … before the GOP thought police come and force us to wear red hats.

Redistricting Saves the Day

Ironically, the key to getting out of this mess is redistricting.

Wait, what?! Isn’t that what the problem is?

Ha! I know! Weird, right? You thought I was going to say those voting restrictions that red states have imposed are the primary problem. And yes, that’s the Large Print that gets all the media attention, but it’s nothing — potentially ineffectual — compared to the small print of redistricting.

Fortunately, the satire writes itself when I tell you that Republicans solved both of those problems when they introduced those greedy voting restriction laws, because Democrats reacted by introducing two bills: HR1, also known as the For the People Act, and HR4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Let’s start with the Large Print — Voting Rights — addressed by HR4. The bill faces two major problems: First, the Supreme Court has already overturned portions of the Voting Right Act in 2016, so if HR4 were to pass, Republicans would immediately challenge it, citing the 2016 precedent, and then it has to wind its way to SCOTUS, which is far more conservative than in 2016. Not only does that not fare well for many provisions of the bill, but it’ll come too late to affect the 2022 midterms. And remember, 2022 is the gateway to Toon Town.

The second problem with HR4 is that it doesn’t address gerrymandering, which is the primary problem. Republicans are planning to use 2020 census data to create more Republican districts and reduce Democratic districts, so even if HR4 passed, it won’t be enough to overcome the new district lines, at which point, global warming will kill life on Earth before Dems get another crack at voting, let alone governing.

So the Big Print is HR4, but the Small Print that actually works is HR1. In fact, only one provision in HR1 matters: Section 2401, titled, “REQUIRING CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING TO BE CONDUCTED THROUGH PLAN OF INDEPENDENT STATE COMMISSION.”

Partisan gerrymandering is the primary problem facing the country, and HR1 would apply nationwide, so you resolve the “per state” problem. The Supreme Court ruled that redistricting commissions do not violate the Constitution in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, and there are currently seven states that have independent commissions.

Best of all, voters love it. A Vox’s analysis of polling data shows that HR1 has strong support across party lines, ranging between 60% and 80%, including 57% support from Republican voters. And Newsweek reported similar data showing “70 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independent or third-party voters and 57 percent of Republican voters expressing approval for the bill.” It even has support from John Sarbanes, the representative from Maryland’s Third District, which the Washington Post reports as “America’s most 3rd most gerrymandered congressional district.”

Ok, so if voters support HR1 — including Republican voters — and Democrats hold a majority and are mostly in support of it, what’s the problem?

Senate Republicans will filibuster it. (And that’s not saying much; they’ll filibuster anything.) And the only way to overcome that would be to suspend the filibuster, if only for this one bill. And there’s one person (ok, maybe two) that can solve that problem: Joe Manchin (and maybe Krysten Sinema, but she’s likely to do it if Manchin does).

Manchin’s concern isn’t HR1 — or any bill, actually. He just opposes the idea of passing any legislation without bipartisan support.

Isn’t that cute? “Bipartisan support” in the senate! Haha! So 1970s…

That’s so magnanimous, of you, Joe. We appreciate your dedication to bipartisanship. But Republicans are not going to support a bill that would kill the GOP — ironically, not involving a gun.

For inspiration — and proof that it can work — let’s look at what happened in California ten years ago, where the circumstances are remarkably similar. It could be both a blueprint and a crystal ball.

How an Independent Redistricting Commission Saved California

We begin with Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s right: The Terminator. Or, more colloquially, The Governator.

He came into office in 2003 when he won a recall election that ejected the Democratic governor, Gray Davis (Motto: “As sexy as one shade of grey”). Schwarzenegger was a highly liberal Republican, which experts later attributed to his circuitry being damaged when he came back from the future to kill Sarah Connor.

Anyway, California had always been a left-leaning state, but prior to 2008, it was crazy nuts. Not GOP-crazy, but left-wing crazy. It was so heavily gerrymandered — by Democrats — that not only did nothing get done, but voter approval across the state was in the low 20s.

So, in 2008, voters passed the Voters First Act (California Proposition 11) and later, the Voters First Act for Congress (California Proposition 20). Combined, they would mandate that an independent commission draw both the state and the federal district maps for state representatives.

See any similarities to today? It’s exactly the same, but the parties are reversed. Now let’s look at how California did its redistricting.

Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to get into the details of how redistricting works, which is really weird and crazy. Still, I strongly recommend FiveThirtyEight’s six-part podcast titled, “The Gerrymandering Project,” which fully explains the history and the mechanics of gerrymandering. The story about California is in Part Five, but I’ll summarize below.

The “Incumbent Protection Plan”: The Greatest Barrier to Ending Gerrymandering

When Schwarzenegger dove into the topic as the apolitical animal he portrayed himself to be, he was shocked — shocked! — to see “how corrupt partisan gerrymandering was in Cal-ee-fornia.” So he came up with his new slogan, “I want to terminate partisan gerrymandering!” He’s been promoting it heavily, even to this day.

Ever the superhero.

What Schwarzenegger discovered is the worst kept secret in politics: That redistricting is not really in the control of political parties, per se. It’s controlled by incumbents. (Hint: those are the people opposed to HR1.)

The way incumbents get re-elected is a strategy called “The Incumbent Protection Plan,” where they pay the people who draw district lines to preserve their own seats.

For a hilarious and fully-informed 2-minute summary, see Ed Helms’ video.

A google search on the term reveals this process happens in almost every state, and despite how common it is and the frequency of its reporting, most voters are entirely unaware of it. This article explains how it happens in New York, for example.

What made Democrats so successful in California was that they didn’t get too greedy — they brought Republicans into the fold to keep their participation. The California version of The Plan was implemented by the brother of Howard Berman, a Democratic representative at the time. The brother, Michael, was hired as a redistricting consultant, where, for a fee of $20,000, he would draw a representative’s district maps in ways that preserve their seats. All but two of California’s representatives — from both parties — paid the fee.

Between the years 2002 and 2010, California incumbents only lost one seat (among 265) to a new representative during that whole eight year stretch, including the Republican sweep in 2010. Not only was there only one turnover during this time period, but only 14 seats were decided by less than 10pts. Only 5% of California districts were politically competitive.

If this sounds shocking, this is precisely what keeps most Republicans in control across the country today. Even though Large Print says that millions of people support Trump, the only ones that matter are that 18% of Americans because their districts were gerrymandered so that they are the majority that re-elect most Republican representatives. That’s why people like Liz Cheney are out and Elise Stefanik are in. And those Representatives echo the Trumpian rhetoric, which bleeds into the rest of the Republican party, who dutifully falls in line each election cycle.

“Term limits” is not the answer

I know what you’re thinking: If incumbents are the problem, just impose term limits.

While popular among voters, a detailed analysis by Vox includes a 50-state survey that concludes, “term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not.”

The act of productively legislating takes time and experience to excel at, and the best legislators tend to be those who’ve had their positions for a very long time. The authors of this study note, “Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility.”

We don’t really want to get rid of incumbents; we just want them to perform. And the problem with gerrymandering is that it secures their districts so well, they don’t have to perform to retain their seats.

Independently drawn maps yields more productive incumbents

And this brings us back once again to the benefit of independent commissions: When districts are not carved up to allow a small percentage of partisan voters to keep incumbents in office, there’s more incentive for those representatives to perform, because a broader spectrum of voters have a say in whether to re-elect them.

What the California Redistricting Commission did was understand that the purpose of a congressional representative is to benefit the local community’s interests, including industries, socio-economic factors, religious and cultural affiliations, schools, geography, and yes, party affiliation. The point is, it’s a blend. So voters should elect them based on their ability to address those local needs. If they succeed, they will get re-elected. There’s also greater chance for legitimate opposition to run against them.

Therefore, the goal in redistricting is not to make districts “more politically competitive” between Rs and Ds. The goal is to draw the lines so that a district encompasses “a community of common interests.”

This is why proportional representation, mathematical formulas, and other methods of non-partisan redistricting don’t create better districts, because they misidentify the problem as being that of political partisanship. That’s not the problem of gerrymandering — that’s the effect from gerrymandering. The Large Print may say “politics,” but the solution is in the Small Print, which says, “community.”

Drawing districts around “communities of interest” doesn’t necessarily mean Republican-held districts would suddenly turn Democrat, or vice versa. Even in California after redistricting, only four of the state’s 256 seats changed from Republican to Democrat, and that’s only because those were the districts that were given to Republicans in exchange for their participation in The Plan.

Of course, nothing is a silver bullet. It’s not that easy to define a community, especially during times of inequality — economic, racial, religious, and yes, political. Consider this New York Times article titled, “A ‘Community for All’? Not So Fast, This Wisconsin County Says”, which tells the story of Wausau, Wisconsin, when the county was looking to pass a resolution that would declare Marathon County “a community for all.” That’s it — just four words. No other effect. Purely a marketing thing. Yet, the county of 135,000 that is 91 percent white has been debating it for over a year, for reasons that have nothing to do with partisan politics. In fact, they voted for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and twice for Mr. Trump.

It’s true, it’s not easy to define a “community,” even within communities! But an independent commission digs into these nuances and figures out ways to draw lines that find those things of common interest, while also meeting constitutional requirements, such as not drawing lines that discriminate against race.

Once again, the way California constructed their commissions — a fairly detailed process — was largely deemed successful by independent observers. If implemented nationwide, the greatest benefit to all — Rs and Ds alike — would be the change of rhetorical tone among candidates. Sure, you could flame all you like about how the 2020 election was stolen, but it might not help much, because your opposition — who might even be from the same party — talks about how the potholes in the roads need to be fixed, bridges repaired, and hospitals built. That candidate may get more votes than the smaller 18% of the community that buys into the Big Lie.

If the currently gerrymandered districts were redrawn by independent commissions, a majority of Republican House Representatives would find less advantage in promoting conspiracy theories. Yes, including Stefanik, who used to be pretty darn moderate. This would not only change the tone of congress, but they may even possibly work with Democrats on crafting (and voting) on legislation. And if that happened, the hair dye of bleeding of Republican voters would return to their party, and their engagement would improve.

Remember, Pew Research shows that people across the country — including Republicans — actually do support the government playing a ‘major role’ on health care, the environment, and poverty. And yes — they support the For The People Act — despite what you see on Fox News.

Imagine what voters would think if Republican representatives actually spoke about these issues positively.

Go for it, Joe!

So, Joe. Republicans in the senate are never going to support HR1, just as Democrats objected to California’s plan, so they’re going to filibuster it. The only way it’ll pass is if you are willing to change the filibuster rule for just this one vote. Passing HR1 should not be seen as helping euthanize the GOP, but rather, as an effort to save it, to help it be a stronger, more constructive and beneficial force in politics. You just have to realize that Republicans themselves can’t be part of this plan, nor can they show that they’re complicit, because if you fail, any Republican that would have supported it would be voted out of office by that 18%, and probably hanged at the Capitol at the next insurrection.

And yes, Joe, it’ll also get you re-elected, if that happens to be important to you.

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