Congress is broken, and everyone knows it. Its approval ratings hover around 10 percent, and a recent poll from Public Policy Polling found that Congress is currently less popular than cockroaches, lice and traffic jams. It has difficulty getting any sort of business done, let alone address our nation’s major challenges, like climate change, immigration, poverty and fiscal policy. But amidst the partisan fingerpointing and bickering, one core aspect of the way our government works gets a free pass. We hear a lot about campaign finance and gerrymandering, but single-member district elections – that is, having each House member represent one congressional district – are without doubt the single greatest cause of what is broken about Congress. They are the key reason why Republicans easily kept control of the House despite losing the popular vote to Democrats, and why the political center has lost out to partisans on both sides of the aisle. They turn four out of five voters effectively into spectators who have absolutely no chance of affecting their representation in Congress. They help keep women’s representation in the House stalled at less than 18 percent, and grossly distort fair representation by party and race.
Editorials: Why ‘gerrymandering’ doesn’t polarise Congress the way we’re told | Harry J Enten/guardian.co.uk
You ever hear a point of view that is so infuriating that you want stick your head out the window and yell? I go bananas when I hear an opinion that goes against well-established political science literature. That happened this past weekend when respected television journalist Tom Brokaw said the House of Representatives is becoming increasingly polarized because of gerrymandering. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brokaw. It just so happens that he is wrong, and posts about the effect of gerrymandering on redistricting have been written over and over again in past months. It could be that Brokaw doesn’t quite understand what gerrymandering is. For those who don’t, gerrymandering is the manipulation in the drawing of House districts to ensure a desired result. Brokaw’s assumption is that politics is becoming more polarized as the result of gerrymandering in districts in which Democrats and Republicans are increasingly safe from worrying about a competitive challenger from the other party. While it is true that House districts are increasingly “safe”, this is the case even when controlling for redistricting. Last week, Nate Silver noted that there was an 8% increase in polarization independent of any effects of redistricting in 2012.
Republicans misread polls in the run-up to Election Day, depended on glitchy get-out-the-vote technology and failed to get their presidential candidate elected despite the worst unemployment rates since the Great Depression. They sure know how to draw congressional districts, though. Building upon their 2010 midterm election wins, the GOP had a bulwark Nov. 6 that helped them hold onto the U.S. House even as President Barack Obama cruised to re-election and his party added members to the Senate. In Pennsylvania, U.S. Sen Bob Casey and three fellow Democrats for statewide row offices joined the president in wins.
Editorials: Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting creates fairer election outcomes | Arizona Daily Star
As Arizona’s election results become final, the benefits of nonpartisan redistricting become clear – at least if one believes that election results should reflect the will of the electorate. Compare what happened in Arizona’s congressional elections with the results in three states that were heavily gerrymandered. In Pennsylvania, 2,723,000 votes were cast for Democratic congressional candidates, while 2,652,000 were cast for Republicans. Had these votes been evenly divided among Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts, each party would have won nine. But instead, Democrats won only five seats, all in overwhelmingly Democratic congressional districts that they won with an average of 76.9 percent of the vote. Republicans, who the Republican-dominated legislature distributed more evenly among the other thirteen districts, won all thirteen with a much lower average 59.3 percent of the votes cast.
Voting Blogs: Redistricting does not explain why House Democrats got a majority of the vote and a minority of the seats | The Monkey Cage
In the wake of the 2012 House elections, it looks like Democrats won a slight majority of the major-party votes (roughly 50.5%) but only about 46% of the seats. A story has gradually developed that pins this gap on redistricting (for example, see here, here, and here), since Republicans controlled the line-drawing process more often than not this time around. Matthew Green pushes back a little on this narrative, arguing that, if anything, House seat share and vote share correspond more closely today than they once did. But he doesn’t necessarily deny that redistricting is to blame for the gap this year.
When Republicans claim that this was a status quo election, they point to their continued hold on the House. The 2012 congressional vote, some have said, didn’t undo the party’s 2010 successes. True enough, but that’s not because Americans didn’t vote to undo them. It’s because Republicans have so gerrymandered congressional districts in states where they controlled redistricting the past two years that they were able to elude a popular vote that went the Democrats’ way last week. As The Post’s Aaron Blake reported, Democrats narrowly outpolled Republicans in the total number of votes cast for congressional candidates. The margin varies depending on whether you count the races in which candidates ran unopposed and those in which members of the same party faced off (as happened in several California districts). But any way you count it, the Democrats came out ahead — in everything but the number of House seats they won.
Americans woke up on November 7 having elected a Democratic president, expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate, and preserved the Republican majority in the House. That’s not what they voted for, though. Most Americans voted for Democratic representation in the House. The votes are still being counted, but as of now it looks as if Democrats have a slight edge in the popular vote for House seats, 49 percent-48.2 percent, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Still, as the Post’s Aaron Blake notes, the 233-195 seat majority the GOP will likely end up with represents the GOP’s “second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression.”
One of Washington’s favorite parlor games is conjecturing about the remote possibility of an Electoral College tie. Prognosticators have come up with various maps and scenarios under which the election would result in a 269-269 deadlock, which would vest the responsibility of choosing the country’s leaders squarely in what polls say is one of the least popular institutions in the country — Congress. There’s little dispute about what would happen in the main event. Next year’s House would choose the president, with each state delegation casting one vote.
Sandwiched between its controversial immigration, campaign finance and health-care rulings last month, the Supreme Court issued a little-noticed decision in a Maryland case that gave the green light to states to eliminate the repugnant practice of “prison-based gerrymandering.” States are now unquestionably free to correct for an ancient flaw in the U.S. Census that counts incarcerated people as residents not of their homes but of the places where their prisons are located. When the prison population was small, the problem was little more than statistical trivia. Today, however, the census counts more than 2 million people as though they were residents of places where they have no community ties.
The U.S. Supreme Court this morning upheld Maryland’s new Congressional map, clearing up one last legal question and affirming that the state’s prison population can be counted at their last known address. The new method of counting prisoners was adopted after Sen. Catherine Pugh, of Baltimore, successfully pushed legislation intended to boost population in the city. Previously prisoners were counted at their correctional institutions, a practice that critics said unfairly increased the population of prison towns. It was the first such law to pass in the country. Opponents of the plan said it disenfranchises those prisoners who do not have a last known address.
Editorials: The Missing Right To Vote – What we’d get from amending the Constitution to guarantee it | Heather Gerken/Slate
The Constitution does not guarantee Americans the right to vote. That always comes as a surprise to non-lawyers. But you will search the Constitution in vain for any such guarantee, as the Supreme Court cheerily reminded us in Bush v. Gore. What the Constitution contains is a series of “thou shalt nots.” Thou shalt not deny the right to vote on account of race or sex. Thou shalt not impose poll taxes. Thou shalt not prevent 18-year-olds from voting. It is difficult to develop a robust case law when you only know what you can’t do. Some think that a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote would instantly produce any number of progressive goodies, like universal registration or a healthy campaign finance system or the end of partisan gerrymandering. Don’t believe it. If an amendment enshrining the right to vote looks anything like its cognates in the Bill of Rights, it will be thinly described, maddeningly vague, and pushed forward by self-interested politicians who benefit from the current system. It’s unlikely to be enough to persuade judges to mandate large-scale reform. Judges are conservative creatures (at least in the Burkean sense). They are typically loath to upend a system based on a vague textual guarantee. And a vague textual guarantee is as good as it’s likely to get. As Larry Tribe’s post makes clear, it is a challenge to draft an amendment just to overturn a single case, let alone to detail what a right to vote should involve. Even if we were to add as broad-gauged a right as I suggest below, the courts will inevitably create reasonable exceptions and interpretations, just as it has done for the First Amendment.
The potentially dramatic effects of two landmark ballot measures approved by California voters in recent years began to emerge Tuesday with a primary election that could lead to shifts in the state’s legislative profile in Sacramento and Washington. In the Bay Area, the new order was most apparent in southern Alameda County, where 19-term Democratic Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark of Fremont was leading county prosecutor Eric Swalwell in the redrawn 15th Congressional District – but by far less than typical for an incumbent. Come the November election, Stark will be facing not a Republican, but fellow Democrat Swalwell – the result of the inaugural run of the state’s “top two” primary system, in which the two leading vote-getters in the primary advance to the fall ballot regardless of party affiliation. The idea was approved by voters as Proposition 14 in 2010.
Florida: Congressional, legislative districts approved by U.S. Department of Justice | Orlando Sentinel
The U.S. Department of Justice gave its blessing to Florida’s proposed legislative and congressional maps on Monday, clearing one of the last remaining hurdles for the newly drawn districts to be in place in time for the June 4-8 candidate qualifying period. Florida is required to seek “pre-clearance” from DOJ’s Civil Rights Division for most election-law changes because five counties have a history of racial discrimination in elections. The one-page letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez is boiler-plate, stating Attorney General Eric Holder “does not interpose any objection to the specified changes” to the maps. “However, we note that [the federal Voting Rights Act] expressly provides that the failure of the Attorney General to object does not bar subsequent litigation to enjoin the enforcement of the changes,” it adds.
With the election clock ticking, a Florida circuit court judge said Wednesday he will decide quickly on whether to throw out the Legislature’s congressional redistricting map, develop a new map in a matter of weeks or leave it alone. “I am very much aware of the logistical problem we have,’’ said Judge Terry Lewis of the Second Judicial Circuit, referring to the prospect of invalidating all or part of the congressional map and creating a new one in time for candidates to qualify to run in June. Lewis must not only consider the impact of revising the districts in the midst of election season, but must navigate complex and conflicting arguments over racial politics in Florida. Faced with an unprecedented assignment for a Florida circuit court judge, Lewis asked lawyers about the redistricting software he might use, the kinds of data that would be available and suggested that there is a downside to conducting an expedited trial that results in the court taking control of the Legislature’s work product. But after six hours of hearings in which lawyers for opponents asked him to reject the map and lawyers for legislators urged him approve it, he announced: “I’m going to treat it seriously. I’m going to do the best I can as quick as I can and I’m going to address everybody’s arguments.”
The second draft of the Legislature’s redistricting plan for the state Senate answered all of the objections of the Florida Supreme Court to the first proposal and should get justices’ approval, according to a Senate brief in the case. The brief, filed in response to complaints by the Florida Democratic Party, a coalition of voting-rights groups and the NAACP, came a week before oral arguments on the plan before the court. Also on Friday, the justices issued an order dividing two hours of arguments among the Senate and the groups opposing the plan. Lawyers for the upper chamber argued in the 100-page filing that the new plan, approved by the Legislature after justices rejected the first draft, “addressed each of the flaws this court found.”
Today is the 200th Anniversary of the first Gerrymander. The cartoon-map first appeared in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812 when Jeffersonian Republicans forced a bill through the Massachusetts legislature rearranging district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming senatorial elections. Although Governor Elbridge Gerry had only reluctantly signed the law, a Federalist editor is said to have exclaimed upon seeing the new district lines, “Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander.” So here we are in 2012. As noted by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola School of Law in California, “every 10 years, redistricting litigation joins death and taxes as one of life’s certainties.” Although redistricting is nearly complete in almost every state, there is no shortage of controversy. Professor Levitt notes 113 cases impacting federal or statewide redistricting have been filed so far this cycle, in 31 different states — with 26 new cases in November and December alone.
On the last day of a once-a-decade redistricting legislative session, the Florida Supreme Court officially ordered overtime Friday by ruling that the re-drawn state Senate map failed to follow new anti-gerrymandering standards. The 5-2 ruling said that 8 of the Senate’s 40 re-drawn districts violated the new Fair Districts standards, a move that will force lawmakers to return to work — possibly within days — to take another crack at the maps. The court also gave unanimous approval to maps for 120 House districts. The defective Senate districts stretch from the Panhandle to Fort Myers, and Jacksonville to Orlando to Dania Beach — and failed to measure up in the high court’s review for different reasons, including being drawn to protect incumbents, and failing compactness or geographic standards.
Delaware: How city and county councils are handling redistricting in the first state | State of Elections
Hurricane Irene was not the only thing to shake up Delaware this year. The 2010 Census has sent County and City Councils scrambling to create redistricting plans that reflect the changes in their districts’ populations and comply with regulations. According to Antonio Prado, Staff Writer for the Dover Post, the Dover Election Board sent a redistricting plan to the Dover City Council that complies with a 1988 consent decree that requires “a minority district with at least 65 percent black voters 18 years old and older.” This consent decree settled a lawsuit between the NAACP and the city of Dover, in which “the NAACP successfully argued that Dover’s at-large system of council elections was detrimental to the equal representation of the city’s minority voters.”
National: Voting Rights Act: Is Obama letting the civil rights law die before the Supreme Court kills it? | Slate
When Georgia’s Republican leaders redrew the state’s election-district maps last year, Democrats and minorities instantly cried foul. In an increasingly diverse state where 47 percent of voters chose Obama in 2008, the new maps looked likely to hand the GOP 10 of the state’s 14 seats in Congress. Perhaps even more significantly, they were drawn so as to give Republicans a shot at a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the state legislature, allowing them to pass constitutional amendments unilaterally. They achieved this in part by “packing” the state’s black voters (who overwhelmingly vote Democratic) into a handful of districts in order to make others more solidly white (and Republican).
Fortunately for the state’s Democrats, federal law seemed to offer a time-tested remedy. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights bill passed in 1965 to crack down on poll taxes and other discriminatory practices, requires Georgia and a number of other Southern states to get federal approval for any changes to their voting laws. Any that harmed minorities’ chances of fair representation were to be thrown out. And that’s exactly what Georgia Democrats expected Obama’s Department of Justice to do with Republicans’ new maps. Just two years earlier, it had invoked Section 5 to block two Georgia voter-verification laws. Liberals gleefully predicted the Republican gerrymanders would likewise be “DOA at the DOJ.”
The Republican-controlled Florida Senate passed a redistricting map today, sending Congressional lines that cement a strong Republican majority in the delegation to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. Democrats immediately announced they had filed a lawsuit alleging that the map violates a 2010 popularly enacted state constitutional amendment that prohibits crafting Congressional lines with “the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.” Democrats blasted the state GOP, which also controls the state House.
Pennsylvania: Republican redistricting plan denied by Pennsylvania Supreme Court | Daily Pennsylvanian
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has remanded a redistricting plan that would benefit the Republican incumbents. A proposal from December 2011 drawn up by the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission sought to divide cities and neighborhoods into new districts in a way that some perceive would benefit Republican incumbents. “It is generally the case that whatever party is in control of the district will protect that party,” Political Science professor Marc Meredith said. To the surprise of many, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court — which has a Republican majority — remanded the redistricting proposal on Jan. 25, sending it back to the Commission, saying that the plan was “contrary to the law.”
A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a challenge to Florida’s Amendment 6, added to the state constitution by voters to curb so-called gerrymandering of congressional districts that historically protected incumbents or gave advantage to the political party in power. The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuffed claims by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, and Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, that the power to change congressional redistricting rules resides solely with the Legislature and not the voters through a referendum.
Illinois: Does Gerrymandering Violate Free Speech? The League of Women Voters of Illinois is taking their case to the Supreme Court | American Prospect
State parties across the country have already taken out knives to hack up political maps in the bloody process of redistricting. Now, many states are going to the mat to defend the highly partisan maps that, in most cases, got passed by the dominant political party in the state to the detriment of the minority party. The legal battles—particularly the ongoing Texas saga—are usually based largely around whether or not maps violate the Voting Rights Act. But in Illinois, the bipartisan League of Women Voters is challenging gerrymandered districts based on a new legal claim: that it violates free speech. While a district court already dismissed its claim, the League of Women Voters can—and has—appealed to the Supreme Court. Because it’s a redistricting case, the court will have to rule on the matter.
For the past 30 years, redistricting in Texas has provided great theater. As the state has gone from one-party Democratic to a Republican stronghold to renewed stirrings of bipartisan competition, the controlling party has exploited the decennial line drawing to lock in gains. And just as certainly, the courts have provided refuge for those on the outs. The Supreme Court has recognized the problem on a national scale but has been unable to see a solution. The justices have failed to find an easy definition of what is fair, what level of manipulation is permissible, how much greed is tolerable, how many districts should be assigned to this group or that group.
A Federal District Court late last month wisely upheld a 2010 Maryland law that counts prison inmates as residents in their home communities for purposes of redistricting, rather than at the prisons where they are incarcerated. The practice of counting inmates as local “residents” — even though they lack the right to vote — has been used to inflate the power of mainly rural areas where prisons tend to placed. It undercuts the power of the urban districts where the inmates actually live and where they generally return when they are released.
The Supreme Court began hearing arguments Monday in the Texas redistricting case that could reach far beyond the districts in dispute. What began as a partisan spat could end up as a challenge to the Voting Rights Act and the power of Congress. Every 10 years when the census count is in, the states redraw the boundaries of their state and federal election districts to reflect changes in the population over the past decade. In Texas, as in most states, that is the job of the majority party of the legislature. After Republicans became a majority of the Legislature in 2002, they took control of the redistricting process. They drew plans designed to keep and increase their legislative and congressional majorities in 2012 at the expense of the will of minority voters.
Maryland’s new Sixth and Eighth Congressional Districts begin in the state’s rugged northwest but then dive southeastward into suburban Montgomery County. The city of Baltimore is split between three new districts: the Second, Third, and Seventh. The new Fourth District joins heavily African-American Prince George’s County with heavily white Anne Arundel County.