Friday, January 26, 2018

Gerrymanders and voter suppression


Gerrymandering has always interested me. Elbridge Gerry, the Founding Father whose creativity in drawing a Massachusetts state senate district inspired this 1812 cartoon, was some sort of ancestor. One of my great-grandfathers carried his name, though apparently was usually called "E.G."

And I've had some involvement with redistricting, in particular consulting for a civil rights coalition when boundaries were drawn for supervisor districts in San Francisco after the 2000 census. Our goal was to ensure, by providing suggested maps and advocating for them, that Black, Chinese and Latino constituencies would have as much voice as possible in city government. We got pretty much what we wanted from the city redistricting commission and those maps largely remain in place today. The software and data weren't up to the quality available now, but even then you could ask the guy on the computer something like "add two more blocks of Orizaba St. to District ll" and see right away what that did to the demographic profile of a district. With the increase in population and shifts in who lives where in this city -- mostly a lot less Black and Latino residents, and a lot more whites and people of various Asian ancestries often in dense areas -- I wouldn't be surprised to see boundaries redrawn quite a lot after 2020. Ensuring broad input into that process is one more reason we need to do all we can to elect a progressive mayor and supervisors in the coming election.

All this is introduction to the fact that I thought I knew a lot about redistricting and gerrymandering -- and I think I do. But The Gerrymandering Project at FiveThirtyEight.com is a deep dive into the subject which anyone with the slightest interest should take the time to plumb.

Gerrymandering is not just some dirty trick that Republicans have used to control a unfair majority of offices in states whose political partisanship would suggest a pretty even split. Yes, courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have found that this is indeed the case with those states' Republican-drawn House boundaries. Citizens are effectively losing the power of their votes because they are divided in ways which mean they never will be able to elect representatives they might choose. I have no trouble calling this voter suppression -- after all, some of these dopey Republicans have been dumb enough to admit they were trying to maintain a dominant position not justified by their partisan numbers.

But there is a lot more to the gerrymandering story. The folks at FiveThirtyEight look at the Wisconsin case currently before the Supremes (I'd bet the court somehow ducks it because who wants to adjudicate hundreds of gerrymandering appeals?), how the requirements of the Voting Rights Act that at least some districts be drawn so that people of color can be elected play out on the ground, and how different attempted remedies in Arizona and California have worked out. Somewhat to my surprise, California's redistricting commission, which was established by initiative, rescrambled the 2012 Congressional seats in this state and comes out looking fair and at least somewhat satisfying to voters, if not politicians.

Republican efforts to suppress voting -- to exclude some people (usually Black and Brown) from the franchise and simply discourage others from participating -- are real. As former GW Bush speechwriter David Frum has explained:

The Republican Party has a platform that can’t prevail in democratic competition. ... When highly committed parties strongly believe [in] things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs — they give up on democracy.

As the outlook for conservatives and Republicans becomes more bleak, they’re going to face a choice: Either they accommodate some of the changes that are happening to American society, like universal heath coverage, or else they’re going to have to face up to the fact that what they believe can’t be achieved if everybody votes.

So the next few years are going to be a long fight for voting rights and democracy.

But The Gerrymandering Project has convinced me that district boundaries are only a small part of what the fight will be about -- and that we won't be equipped for that fight without a better understanding of how redistricting happens in practice. Time to get up to speed ...

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