Most Americans claim they are tired of bitter partisanship and Congressional gridlock in Washington. The non-stop manufactured crises, including the show-downs over the federal budget and debt ceiling, the more than 40 House votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the unprecedented use of the filibuster in the Senate to block even routine executive and judicial appointments, are just some of the ways politicians have log-jammed our democracy. Last October’s unpopular government shut down led to the furlough of nearly 1 million workers, while another million were compelled to work without pay. Any astute observer of American politics knows that one of the primary reasons for this Congressional dissonance is hyper-partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering.
Most Americans support raising the minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, and universal background checks on gun buyers. Americans do not want subsidies for oil companies and tax breaks for corporate jet owners. And Americans are in favor of balanced deficit reduction that includes both new revenues and spending cuts. Yet, partisan gerrymandering is why these and many other highly popular proposed reforms have no chance of passing in the current Congress.
An Undemocratic House
2010 was a bad year to have a bad year for Democrats. Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. But more importantly, they lost 680 seats in state legislatures and lost governorships in 6 swing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Republicans ended up with absolute control in half of all state legislatures. Because 2010 was a Constitutionally mandated census year, states without independent redistricting commissions were free to radically alter their Congressional district boundaries in favor of partisan priorities. The end result was a U.S. House in 2012 that did not accurately represent the American people.
Even though Democrats received about 1.4 million more House votes than Republicans in 2012, Republicans held on to a strong majority with 234 seats to the Democrats’ 201. Perhaps the most egregious example of gerrymandering was Pennsylvania, where Republicans made strong state-level gains in 2010. In 2012, Democratic House candidates across Pennsylvania received 50.2% of the cumulative vote whereas Republican candidates received 48.9%. However, Republicans won 13 House seats with Democrats winning only 5. Other swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia (which all experienced Republican-tilted redistricting in 2010) had similarly skewed House results. Only a tyrant would call those election results just. Consider how different things would be in Washington right now if the House was approximately apportioned to the vote each party received. Democrats would have a slim majority. There would have been no government shut down. And many of the aforementioned highly popular proposed reforms could have become law.
Both parties have a history of using gerrymandering in their favor, which is why Congress should pass legislation requiring an independent redistricting process across the nation. But that is a topic for another post.
Prioritizing State-Level Elections
Democrats must prioritize state-level elections in 2014 in order to reverse the GOP’s hold on the U.S. House. While 2020 is the next census year, mid-cycle redistricting is possible in many states. Even though polls show that Democrats currently have a slight lead over Republicans in a generic Congressional ballot, the upcoming 2014 mid-term elections do not portend well for Democrats at the federal level. Because of the uneven playing field, Democrats have virtually no chance of capturing the House. And Democrats will likely lose some seats in the Senate, and could even lose their Senate majority. Of the 21 Senate seats Democrats are defending in 2014, seven are in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Republicans only need 6 more seats to have a majority. Democrats must wage a tough campaign if they want to hang on to the Senate.
However, polling shows that the national mood is not strongly in favor of Republicans, contrary to the rhetoric in the popular media. As noted above, generic polling is currently evenly divided. The flawed rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges damaged Democrats’ poll numbers, but those numbers have been improving as the HealthCare.gov debacle has abated, and they will likely continue to improve. Democrats have the potential to make significant gains at the state level. In order to do so, Democrats must overcome their tendency to sit-out mid-term elections and show up at the polls in November.
Projected demographic changes in America bode well for Democrats. As minority populations expand, older traditional conservative white Anglo-Saxon Protestants will lose their grip on our political system. George W. Bush helped speed the shift in the political landscape by largely alienating millennial voters. But progressives cannot be lackadaisical and simply wait for demographic shifts to work in their favor. Republicans have been highly effective at using voter suppression and gerrymandering in their favor. Just last month, Ohio eliminated early voting on Sundays, a day favored by African-Americans in their “Souls to the Polls” voter drives, and cut six additional days from the early voting period, among other new restrictions. These changes come after exit polling has shown that early voters tend to be Democratic. Similar voter suppression tactics are being used in Republican-controlled states across the country.
Democrats and progressives must fight back. We can erode Republican-induced paralysis at the federal level by focusing on state legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2014. Please do not forget to vote this November!