The decade Republicans hijacked our democracy, via the gerrymander

In our broken political system, majorities often can't translate the will of the people to action. This is why

By David Daley
December 30, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
main article image
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

As this decade comes to a close, 59 million Americans live in a state where one or both chambers of the state legislature is controlled by the party that got fewer votes in the 2018 election.

In Wisconsin in 2018, voters elected a Democratic U.S. senator, defeated an incumbent Republican governor, picked Democrats for every statewide office, and favored Democratic candidates for the state assembly by more than 200,000 ballots. Republicans nevertheless controlled more than 63 percent of the seats.

Advertisement:

We end the 2020s with voter purges in Ohio, Wisconsin and Georgia, with precinct closures weaponized to lower voter participation across the South, with Texas, Tennessee and Florida making it harder to register new voters. The ball drops on the 2010s with state legislatures in Florida, Michigan and Missouri willing to undo voting reforms approved by upwards of 60 percent of the people via initiative.

One of our final images of the U.S. House will be the floor debate over impeachment, with its dueling images of older, white men defending the president’s actions over Ukraine and younger members, largely women and people of color, insisting that no one, even a president, stand above the law.

Advertisement:

White men make up a smaller slice of the American electorate with each election. Yet they maintain outsized power in Congress and state legislatures. A new decade dawns with a crisis of representation that threatens the integrity of representative democracy itself.

We’re in this mess, in many ways, because of gerrymandering. This was the decade that the gerrymander — perhaps the oldest political trick in the book — pushed American politics into a dangerous state of anti-majoritarianism, grounded in racial fear and identity politics, that may take at least another decade to overcome, assuming we ever do so.

It’s worth remembering how we got here. After all, the decade began with the likelihood that changing American demographics might push the nation in a very different direction.

Advertisement:
* * *

As thousands celebrated America’s first black president in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008, the smartest analysts on every network, left and right, watched Barack Obama defeat John McCain and wondered whether an increasingly diverse nation might render Republicans a minority party for decades.

Top Republican strategists had a different idea. The 2008 election might have been historic, they understood, but 2010 had the potential to be transformative. Every state legislative and congressional district in the nation would be redrawn after the 2010 census. State legislatures would draw most of the lines. If Obama and the Democrats suffered a difficult midterm election, as new presidents often do, Republicans could quickly change their fortunes, dominate redistricting, and draw themselves an enduring advantage, even in competitive states they’d lost in 2008, such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Advertisement:

The GOP plan — known as REDMAP, or the Redistricting Majority Project — was headquartered at the Republican State Leadership Committee, led by former party chairman Ed Gillespie. It was announced on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal by no less than GOP mastermind Karl Rove. The RSLC’s key benefactors included Koch Industries, Walmart, Reynolds American and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The RSLC identified just over 100 state legislative races in crucial states, and drowned Democratic incumbents in waves of sophisticated negative advertisements in the final weeks of the 2010 race. (It helped that cocky Democrats snoozed on the importance of redistricting and barely put up any fight.) And when it came time to remap these states in 2011, using the most exacting voter data and sophisticated mapping technology ever deployed on redistricting, the political operations of new House Speaker John Boehner, Paul Ryan and many other establishment figures would play key roles.

It worked. In 2012, the first election held under these lines, Democratic U.S. House candidates won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans nationwide. Republicans held the chambers nevertheless, decisively, 234-201. In targeted swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, Democratic candidates would earn tens of thousands more votes, but the Republican-drawn districts packed and cracked those votes so precisely that the GOP would win 13 of the 18 seats from Pennsylvania and nine of 14 from Michigan. Democratic state legislative candidates would routinely win more votes in these states as well; Republicans would hold both chambers in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin regardless.

So yes, it worked. But it also contained the seeds of the party’s unraveling, placed a frustrated and impossible-to-please base in charge, and set the stage for an outsider to sweep up the pieces four years later.

Advertisement:
* * *

But first, something else would happen in 2012: Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, and shaken Republicans realized they’d lost the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections, GOP leaders commissioned a warts-and-all diagnosis of the party’s brand. It wasn’t pretty. One-time Republican voters now described the party as “scary,” “out of touch,” “narrow-minded,” even “stuffy old men.”

Its authors named the report the Growth and Opportunity Project but it soon became known by everyone as something catchier and more urgent: the Republican autopsy. Among the causes of death? Republicans had “lost their way with younger voters.” Many minorities “think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”

It recommended that the party modernize itself, learn how to persuade and appeal to a wider variety of people, champion policies that make life better for working Americans rather than the rich, then head to communities Republicans had tended to avoid and make their case. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too,” the autopsy concluded.

Advertisement:

When Donald Trump captured the GOP nomination in 2016, many Republicans bemoaned not following this advice from the autopsy and more, such as championing immigration reform and becoming genuinely welcoming and inclusive on social issues. But it was already too late. The autopsy itself had been dead on arrival, and long before Trump descended his gilded Manhattan escalator and joined the Republican race. It had already been smothered, unaware, by the very Republican establishment who commissioned the report.

REDMAP made it impossible.

The new districts drawn by Republicans made their districts older, whiter, and more conservative. These new districts — where the Republican primary was the only race that mattered — produced a different kind of congressman (and most of them were men), incentivized against compromise, insulated from the ballot box, interested in listening only to their base.

These members also didn’t much care for the Republican establishment in Washington. They would bring a much different tone and tenor to Congress. Boehner, now the House speaker, learned this right quick. In summer 2013, a first-term congressman from North Carolina’s 11th district wrote Boehner a letter, suggesting that the GOP look to defund Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown. Boehner knew it was folly. Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate. It was a strategy doomed to fail. Rove blasted it in the Wall Street Journal.

Advertisement:

But Mark Meadows enlisted 79 other Republicans in this quest. His own district, previously a swing district that most recently produced a conservative Democrat, had been redrawn so that he captured it by more than 15 percentage points. It was 87 percent white.

In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza and David Wasserman looked at the districts of the 80 signatories. They were, on average, 75 percent white and just 9 percent Latino, compared to an average district that’s 63 percent white and 17 percent Latino. In 2012, Obama won the national popular vote by 4 percentage points. In those districts, Romney won by an average of 23. The Republican members exceeded even that landslide margin: They won their seats by an average of 34 percentage points. As the nation changed, redistricting not only held back demographic change, but it turned back the clock and solidified conservative white power. As Lizza concluded, “these 80 members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.”

Boehner, given little choice, followed the “suicide caucus” over the cliff. Predictably, disaster ensued and he had to change course. And predictably, the “suicide caucus” saw no reason to compromise or change its own. This was just one of more than four dozen battles to repeal Obamacare in the House, none of which stood any greater likelihood of victory. Immigration reform, one of the only policy options the autopsy’s authors saw as crucial for the party’s future, stood no chance in this climate.

Neither did the GOP leadership. A year later, Meadows would turn on Boehner, filing a parliamentary motion to “vacate the chair” that would ultimately lead to the speaker’s resignation.

Advertisement:

The House had been set on a dangerous new course. REDMAP, like some Frankenstein’s monster, would not only devour Boehner, but the new members empowered by these toxic, technology-driven gerrymanders would accelerate all of the worst polarizing trends in our politics. The Freedom Caucus, legislators created and empowered by REDMAP, would run the House. Ryan, Boehner’s  successor, would later step aside in frustration as well, proven ineffective despite GOP control of Congress and the White House. The autopsy wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on. The GOP establishment hoped that controlling redistricting would buy themselves time to set a new course. Instead, the party’s course, and our nation’s history, would beset by the new leaders that their gerrymandering rendered unbeatable and uncontrollable.

Did Boehner learn any lesson from his unholy creation? Well, earlier this month he and Ryan signed on as chairs of a Speakers Advisory Council generated to fundraise for the REDMAP creators’ 2020 redistricting strategy.

* * *

Here’s the thing: When you’re trying to ensure that the side with less support continues to hold power, when you’re trying to maintain control without talking to a changing nation, your tactics aren’t likely to end with redistricting. Indeed, efforts to make it harder for citizens to vote were among the very first actions by gerrymandered state legislatures, especially in Wisconsin and North Carolina, where a federal court found that those barriers were “surgically” crafted to target blacks. Gerrymandered legislatures can take such anti-democratic actions because the people’s representatives need not fear the judgement of the people. And after the U.S. Supreme Court undid essential protections within the Voting Rights Act, in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, states and other entities didn’t have to fear the courts, either, when they wanted to change the rules around voting. Across much of the nation, but especially in the South, as well as in states with one-party control and newly gerrymandered legislatures, came a flood of voter ID bills, cutbacks in absentee and early voting, voter roll purges, precinct closures and more.

Gerrymandered legislatures felt free to ignore the will of the people. Other legislatures followed along. In Florida, for example, where 64 percent of voters approved a 2018 state constitutional amendment ending felony disenfranchisement, lawmakers added an additional burden instead — complete repayment of any fines and fees connected to the sentence or prison term — that many critics compared to a poll tax. Legislators also undermined a legal victory allowing campus sites to be used for early voting with a sneaky provision that requires something always at a premium on colleges: Easy parking.

Texas would make it a felony for anyone to cast an ineligible ballot, even by accident. Arizona looked to dial back early voting and expand voter ID requirements. Tennessee passed legislation that would make it put those who run voter registration drives in jeopardy of massive fines if they submitted too many incomplete applications. Indiana made it harder to sue in state court to extend voting hours, often necessary when machines malfunction or when lines are long. Legislatures in Missouri, Utah, Michigan and Idaho worked to unwind popular 2018 initiatives won by citizens demanding reforms politicians had refused to make.

And so we end this decade with the water in Flint still undrinkable, thanks to gerrymandering.

In 2011, Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature dramatically expanded the state’s power to take over financially struggling municipalities and place them under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Angry voters toppled the law in a November 2012 ballot initiative, concluding that it gave the state too much power to usurp local control and run roughshod over elected officials. One month later, lawmakers ignored the public and reinstated the program.

Then, in 2014, the emergency manager appointed to run Flint changed the city’s water supply to the Flint River and decided against installing corrosion inhibitors to properly treat the water, saving an estimated $140 a day. It sparked a lead contamination crisis and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that killed 12 people and sickened hundreds of children.

And so we end this decade with fetal heartbeat laws on the march in aggressively gerrymandered states like Ohio, Georgia and Alabama, that would enact abortion restrictions dramatically out of sync with the wishes of voters even in these red states.

And so we end this decade with a national consensus on gun control and putting an end to the horrifically numbing routine of mass shootings, but an anti-majoritarian and broken political system where large majorities are ever-stymied and unable, again and again, to translate the will of the people into action. The decade closes with consensus on climate change, but progress and agreements being rolled back.

We stand on the verge of the next redistricting cycle, which will begin in 2021, without the prospect of intervention from the federal courts, with the gerrymander wars headed south and the prospect of states using citizen population, rather than total population, to draw state legislative districts, all, again, with the goal of standing athwart demographic change and shouting “stop.”

These wars will be fought with Democrats, at last, fully awakened and focused on state legislatures. They’ll take place with dramatically more public awareness and media attention paid to the importance of structural voting issues that once made eyes glaze over. And they’ll be undertaken with solid majorities of Americans of all ideologies backing rules and reforms enshrine the best promises of our democracy.

But the damage that has done is severe and will be long-lasting. Forty years ago, when Raymond Donovan, the labor secretary under Ronald Reagan, was acquitted on fraud and larceny charges, he famously asked “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back.” We should all pose the same question about the way urgent issues went unaddressed during this bitter and polarized decade, stolen from us, in part, by the gerrymander.

It may require a generation to repair the damage to our civic fabric from this decade’s cynical and corrosive festival of partisan gerrymandering. It helped heightened and accelerated polarization, extremism and our dysfunctional politics. It’s incumbent on all of us to ensure it doesn’t get worse before it gets better. There may not be any battle in the next decade that’s more urgent.


David Daley

David Daley is the author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy" and a senior fellow at FairVote.

MORE FROM David Daley