“The American people chose divided government.” Well, that’s yet another ‘half truth’ from failed Vice Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, has made similar misleading claims in his never-ending search for bargaining power during the ongoing federal budget negotiations.
After the November 2012 elections, we once again have a Democratic President, a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Yep, that does sound like a divided government, and they sure have shown how divided they really are. But, no, the American people did not vote for that division.
Our high school civics class first taught many of us that the U.S. government is a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, a small group of officials are elected by a larger group of people to advocate the interests of that larger group. We’ve also been led to believe that the composition of those elected officials within a legislative body represents the will of that larger represented group and the votes they cast.
Our civics class also taught us that one half of the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives, is comprised of Congressmen who need to seek re-election every two years. The 435 ‘seats’ for Congressmen are apportioned among the U.S. states based on their populations. They are reapportioned every ten years after the completion of a new U.S. Census population report.
After each new reapportionment, each state redraws its congressional district lines to accommodate its new allotment of seats. They tend to get pretty creative in their drawing.
Clearly, the art of gerrymandering election districts has a long and sordid history within our country. Yet, its impact on our national elections appears greater than ever. The increased capability of computer-modeling that has helped the new reshaping efforts is given some of the credit, or blame, for the increasing impact.
The shape involved a merger of the old 12th district with the state’s old 4th congressional district. Democratic Congressmen occupied both districts’ seats and they were forced to face each other in a primary election for the newly shaped district. That primary eliminated the job of Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire from the old 4th district.
The 12th district seat had been held by a Democratic Congressmen for nearly 40 years (John Murtha until his death in 2010), until the Republican candidate, Keith Rothfus, defeated the Democrat, Mark Critz, in the recent November elections. With that election result, the Republicans’ merger of the districts and the newly drawn lines had accomplished the elimination of two Democratic congressional seats. The policy think tank FairVote had previously conducted a 2012 redistricting study that determined, not surprisingly, that the reshaped 12th district had an increased proportion of Republicans.
Of course, it’s true that congressional districts in several states, including California, Illinois and Maryland, were redrawn by Democrats in ways that favored that party. Yet, overall, the gerrymandering that followed the 2010 Census, and the results of the 2012 elections, overwhelmingly benefited the election chances of Republicans. According to Emily Bazelon in a November 9, 2012 article at Slate.com, “Democrats control the line drawing for 44 congressional seats and 885 state legislative seats, while Republicans control the line drawing for 210 congressional seats and 2,498 state legislative seats.” For some other seats, the ability to redraw the district lines is not clearly controlled by either party.
After the November elections, Republicans hold a commanding 234 congressional seats compared to the 201 seats controlled by Democratic Congressmen. According to Ian Millhiser in a January 2, 2013 article at Thinkprogress.org, “every single state except Hawai’i has finalized its vote totals for the 2012 House elections, and Democrats currently lead Republicans by 1,362,351 votes in the overall popular vote total. Democratic House candidates earned 49.15 percent of the popular vote, while Republicans earned only 48.03 percent.” The Democratic vote advantage will widen when the official results are received for Hawaii.
While President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote by greater than 5 percentage points, the state's Democratic Senator Bob Casey defeated his Republican rival by roughly 8 percentage points, and Democratic congressional candidates received roughly half of the state’s congressional votes, those candidates won only about a quarter of the state’s seats. Many other states had similar unbalanced outcomes.
What effect those efforts will have is still not clear. It is also unclear whether similar measures will be widely adopted across the country. Not surprisingly, the party in control of a state government typically exhibits great reluctance to change the rules and limit the redistricting power while the power is theirs.
Because the power to redistrict exists only after the Census conducted once every ten years, the Republican gerrymandering may have assured their party’s control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. The best option to stop the Republican power grab might involve the U.S. Supreme Court. Afterall, it is the purpose of the ‘checks and balances’ system which exists within our three branches of government and was created by our country’s founding fathers. Of course, the conservative Republican-appointed majority of that court might continue its reluctance to address the issue of partisan gerrymandering.
It has been convincingly argued that partisan gerrymandering is a clear violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court long ago announced that the First Amendment prohibits discrimination against the expression of a particular viewpoint. With partisan gerrymandering, the party in control seeks to restrict the ability of those with opposing viewpoints to influence future elections. The court has gone further and stated that core political speech is the most highly guarded form of speech because of its purely expressive nature and its importance for a functional government.
Other legal challenges to partisan redistricting involve claimed violation of the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on most actions that might dilute the voting power of racial minorities. Some commentators believe that restriction was a key limiting force that prevented even larger Republican congressional gains through the redistricting that followed the 2010 Census.
In a 2004 case, Vieth v. Jubelirer, the five most conservative Supreme Court justices overruled the other four and declined to address a challenge to Republican redistricting of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. Yet, one of the Republican-appointee justices that joined that majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy, left open the possibility that partisan gerrymandering might be deemed unconstitutional if manageable standards are developed to differentiate between acceptable redistricting and an unconstitutional approach.
Regardless of whether the Supreme Court, or the individual states, take any future steps to restrict the abuse of partisan gerrymandering, the Republican-dominated composition of the 113th House of Representatives that took their seats on January 3, 2013 did not reflect the will of the American electorate. The United States of America was the world’s first modern democracy and it has remained the world’s model democracy ever since.
In recent policy debate, it has become very popular to insist upon the preservation of things for future American generations. While preserving our economy with manageable debt, and our environment with manageable warming, we must also preserve our model democracy with model representation of the will of its people.