by Admin Jen
I’m afraid I owe you an apology, Ohio.
You see, I’m reading up on the deeply unsexy subject of gerrymandering. Because I couldn’t figure out how you wound up with a governor and legislature so hostile to women’s rights that it was passing regressive, probably unconstitutional legislation with such wild abandon. And I want to thank our dear readers of Ohio, because they pointed out that my frequent contention that bad legislators find jobs in the statehouse thanks to voters not paying attention… well, it isn’t the whole story.
You can’t plan an invasion without a map, as it turns out, and that goes for when you’re invading your constituents’ uteruses too. Specifically, this map:
What is that? That’s a Congressional district map of urban, liberal stronghold Columbus, Ohio, in the center of Franklin County. What do those colors mean? Did I redecorate it for Pride Month? Alas, no. That’s Columbus, being brutally dismembered into three separate districts. All three segments peel off a hunk of that liberal base and bury it into a district with a large swath of conservative suburbs. This is a gerrymandering technique known as “cracking”, and it’s remarkably effective. Were the entirety of Columbus its own district, it would no doubt be sending a Democrat to Congress with reassuring regularity. But this way, not so much.
So this is how we get curious situations like Ohio, in which a small but real majority of the electorate really, really hate what the legislature is doing yet can’t seem to get them to stop, and can’t seem to get rid of them. Lots of people vote out of habit, out of party affiliation, out of reasons that don’t have much to do with who the actual people occupying those state offices actually are; but also, lots of people do show up to pull the lever in a wasted effort because whoever’s in power gets to redraw the district maps any which way they like. And yes. State level offices work in the exact same way.
President Obama won re-election in the state by a margin of about 2%. Yet, since Republicans controlled the statehouse in 2010, at the time of the last census, they got to draw the district map, and won House of Representatives seats by a margin of 12-4. You can chalk that up to the President’s bi-partisan appeal if you want, but I call shenanigans.
Except, I don’t need to. The Republican party has been pretty unable to keep from congratulating themselves on it. In their Republican State Leadership Committee report, “How a Strategy of Targeting State Legislative Races in 2010 Led to a Republican U.S. House Majority in 2013,” they admit pretty readily that gerrymandered maps in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were responsible for them overcoming a vote deficit to the tune of 1.1 million. That’s right. More people actually voted for Democrats but thanks to the gerrymander, Republicans nevertheless hold the majority.
(I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the pro-choice Republicans who are out there, shaking their heads over this junk along with us. I imagine you as sort of lonely and closeted, not wanting your party to turn on you like a pack of angry wildebeests. Guys, it gets better. At least I hope so. I’d like to also acknowledge that I have never met a wildebeest and am only guessing that you would not want to make one mad.)
It’s amusing that Rick Perry was wailing about the will of the people being subverted by Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster; Perrymandering has given America one of the most hostile legislatures in the country, but also one that doesn’t entirely represent its constituents. That’s right – the Lone Star State’s demographics are changing. It’s just that we’re still conditioned to expect macho legislative crotch-grabbing from Texas.
But Ohio? Michigan? Wisconsin? Union bastion Michigan gave us “right to work” and a far-reaching abortion bill among other legislative atrocities. Wisconsin repealed equal pay for women under cover of darkness and steamrolled a forced-ultrasound law through, over the objection of thousands of protestors. And Ohio’s Swamp Thing of a budget, jam packed with bad news for low income women and their reproductive care, is just the latest example of a pattern of discriminatory legislation passed by legislative bodies that haven’t the first interest in representing their states. Just their narrowly drawn, contorted districts.
Yes, there are districts that have been gerrymandered to Democratic advantage: Rep. Joe Walsh, who I do not miss in the least, lost in part thanks to his own cartoonish buffoonery, but also in part thanks to a gerrymandered district that gave Tammy Duckworth an advantage. What was a probable victory for her became an “over-my-goddamned-artificial-knee” spanking. There are districts in California that have been similarly tinkered with. Our friend and sometimes guest blogger Marc Belisle, has a swell article here showing some of the other contorted districts around the country, designed to dilute the opposing party’s influence. (The Everlasting GOPStoppers have written some interesting bits on the history and practice of gerrymandering, which you can find here and here.)
Bottom line: partisan hacks should not get to draw the districts anymore. Like the filibuster, this isn’t necessarily a good weapon for either side to have in an unlimited way if we’re interested in actual representative democracy. The idea of one party government is certainly appealing when you’re the party in power, but a strange thing happens when one party holds too much power for too long without fear of losing it; it encourages corruption and overreach, because they aren’t accountable to people they’re supposed to represent anymore. And that’s what we’re seeing in some of these middle-America center-left states right now, who are laboring under legislatures that don’t particularly represent them.
So what’s the answer? The answer is, I’m not sure. Having the Census Bureau itself drawing the districts seems like a logical notion. Or maybe statehouses’ proposed districts have to meet some form of judicial approval before they’re implemented. I’m interested in your ideas, dear readers, because this affects all of us. I don’t live in Ohio, but it’s my next door neighbor and I don’t need my representatives getting any more terrible ideas than what they come up with on their own.
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