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Gerrymandered districts pose threat to Obama 2014 midterm strategy

March 3, 2013

By John F. Kirch

President Obama’s plan to help Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2014 is likely to be stymied not by the will of the American public, but by gerrymandered congressional districts that give the Republicans a political firewall against any popular surge in Democratic support.

Since 2010, the Republicans have played a major role in almost every state of setting up congressional boundaries that will give their side an electoral advantage in House elections over the next decade.

This practice meant two things for the 2012 election: Only 35 House seats were truly competitive, and the Republicans won a 234-201 House “majority” even though GOP candidates received 1.1 million fewer votes than Democratic congressional contenders.

Today, as Obama strategists begin raising money and laying the ground work to pickup the 17 House seats they will need in 2014 to pass the president’s agenda before he leaves office, they face an uphill battle that will most likely end in defeat.

Not only will the White House have to overcome the historic precedent in which the president’s party normally loses House seats during midterm elections, it will have to deal with a congressional map that has squeezed Democratic voters into a decreasing number of districts.

Named after Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, gerrymandering is also a contributing factor to the gridlock that now plagues Capitol Hill.

Because most incumbents believe that they are immune to any real challenge from the opposition party — and, in fact, know that the only serious competition can come from within their own party during a primary — they are encouraged to dig in their heals to oppose (or support) anything the president does, regardless of how politically popular the measure may be with the nation as a whole.

For example, while the president’s agenda of gun control, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and a renewed effort to tackle climate change all poll strongly with the country, these measures are unlikely to pass the House because they have little support in congressional districts controlled by Republicans.

Put another way, most GOP members of the House are insulated from national public opinion.

The practice of gerrymandering dates back to at least the early 1800s, and it has been used by both major political parties throughout American history. (In my home state of Maryland, for example, the Democratic-controlled legislature redrew congressional districts last year to, among other things, knock out one Republican congressman.)

But the latest and most egregious round of congressional gerrymandering has been conducted by the GOP and started in 2009-2010, when the Republican State Leadership Committee raised nearly $30 million to “keep or win Republican control of state legislatures,” which are responsible for drawing House districts once every 10 years.

According to a report the group released last year, the RSLC targeted state legislatures in New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington to ensure that those states redrew their congressional districts in a way that virtually guaranteed a GOP majority in the House.

The result, the group said, is that while “Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won 1.1 million more votes than their Republican opponents … the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a Republican and presides over a 33-seat House Republican majority during the 113th Congress.”

The report continued:

Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington,” the report said. “Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.  Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote.

In essence, the RLSC was bragging that it was able to help Republicans maintain control of the House despite the public’s will for a Democratic majority.

What is the solution?

First, the mainstream media needs to focus more attention on the problem of gerrymandering when it writes stories about congressional elections.

As it is now, most political reporters frame House campaign stories in terms of fundraising efforts, polling data, political strategy and the power of persuasion to alter election results. The impact of gerrymandering receives some attention, but not nearly enough to put it on the public agenda.

Second, the public needs to push its state legislators to adopt nonpartisan ways of drawing congressional boundaries. Instead of relying on voter registration roles to determine the makeup of a congressional district, these nonpartisan commissions would focus on natural geographical boundaries, such as city and county lines.

The goal of these commissions would be to increase competition in each district so that a state’s congressional delegation more accurately reflects the makeup of its population. Nine states currently use nonpartisan commissions.

A third option would be for states to move away from the single-district congressional system used today to proportional representation. Under this scenario, a state’s congressional delegation would be based on the proportion of the vote each party received on Election Day. For example, if the Republicans received 55 percent of the congressional vote in the state, then 55 percent of its delegation would be from the GOP.

Finally, states could adopt a system under which citizens could vote for several at large congressional candidates, with the top x candidates being elected. For example, if 24 candidates were running for 12 congressional seats in a state, voters would have the opportunity to vote for, say, six. The top 12 candidates would then be elected.

Each of these options have their own problems that would have to be addressed. But each one would add more competition to congressional races and avoid the problem we face today in which politicians choose their voters — rather than have  voters choose their politicians.

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