Electoral cheating means America’s political dysfunction is likely permanent
October 1, 2013 2 Comments
There were three dreams I had growing up in Elmwood, a gritty working-class neighbourhood northeast of downtown Winnipeg. One, thanks to parents who had lived in Europe before I was born, and to too many late Saturday nights spent watching James Bond movies, was to someday stand in the shadow of the British Parliament, stand atop the Eiffel Tower, and to touch the Berlin Wall with my own hands.
The second was to own my own television station, which would naturally have been programmed as I saw fit. (And, in hindsight, have been an almost certain ratings disaster.)
The third was to trade in life in the boring old Canada never deemed sexy enough for Agent 007 to set foot into, for life in President Reagan’s sexy, glamourous America.
The first dream, I have happily achieved.
The second dream was never all that realistic, and that’s probably just as well. Television stations were essentially regulated utilities at that time, their healthy profit margins protected by government policy. Now they struggle just to break even, and the industry’s woes have even forced some smaller stations to shut down entirely.
The third dream… well, what can I say about the third dream? The sexy America of my youth has gone to a dark place, far, far away, replaced with a modern America that’s hard to figure out, leaving me relieved that I stayed in a Canada whose relatively pleasant way of life I’ve come to appreciate.
And leaving me to wonder whatever happened to that once magical country whose border is a mere 95 kilometres (59 miles) south of where I sit writing this post.
Part of the decline of American glamour can certainly be attributed to its political system. For most of its history, the American political system worked reasonably well. There were occasions when tensions built up between a Republican president and a Democratic congress, or vice versa, but these would eventually be resolved by negotiation.
Yet the U.S. political system had its underlying hazards. One fault, increasingly apparent from the late ’70s onward, was the realignment of party identities — Republican for Christian church-going America, Democrat for those Americans who belonged to non-Christian faiths or to none at all, or who slept in on Sunday morning — a dangerous development in a country that had long been home to partisan and religious identities of a strength unknown in most of the rest of the affluent world.
The other lingering fault was the way in which the United States set its congressional electoral boundaries. In many affluent countries, these boundaries are set by autonomous electoral boundary commissions which are required to draw these boundaries in a reasonably impartial manner.
In the United States, these boundaries are often drawn by state legislators who obviously have an interest in seeing their party do better than the other party in an election, and hence tend to draw boundaries in such a way as to ensure de facto Republican and Democratic monopolies — just as long as the majority party can be assured of a majority of seats.
Prof. Justin Levitt of Loyola University has put together a detailed web site dedicated to explaining how the process of drawing congressional electoral boundaries — known as redistricting — works in each U.S. state. Only four states — Washington, Idaho, California and Arizona — have independent electoral commissions to draw congressional boundaries. The rest of the states have either political appointees draw these boundaries, or leave this job to state legislators who might harbour ambitions of securing these seats for themselves eventually.
How biased are the outcomes in favour of the dominant party? Prof. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium discussed a test that could be used to objectively determine whether or not a state’s congressional electoral boundaries have been rigged to ensure one-party dominance in a New York Times op-ed in Feb. 2013:
I have developed approaches to detect such shenanigans by looking only at election returns. To see how the sleuthing works, start with the naïve standard that the party that wins more than half the votes should get at least half the seats. In November, five states failed to clear even this low bar: Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Now let’s do something more subtle. We can calculate each state’s appropriate seat breakdown — in other words, how a Congressional delegation would be constituted if its districts were not contorted to protect a political party or an incumbent. We do this by randomly picking combinations of districts from around the United States that add up to the same statewide vote total. Like a fantasy baseball team, a delegation put together this way is not constrained by the limits of geography. On a computer, it is possible to create millions of such unbiased delegations in short order. In this way, we can ask what would happen if a state had districts that were typical of the rest of the nation.
In North Carolina, where the two-party House vote was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican, the average simulated delegation was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The actual outcome? Four Democrats, nine Republicans — a split that occurred in less than 1 percent of simulations. If districts were drawn fairly, this lopsided discrepancy would hardly ever occur.
But you don’t have to take his word for it, or mine. In a dispute with the U.S. Justice Department this past summer, in which federal officials accused Texas of redrawing its electoral boundaries to disadvantage ethnic minorities, the state’s Attorney-General, Greg Abbott, gave the following breathtakingly brazen response:
DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats. It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 551 (1999) (“[A] jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering, even if it so happens that the most loyal Democrats happen to be black Democrats and even if the State were conscious of that fact.”) . . . The redistricting decisions of which DOJ complains were motivated by partisan rather than racial considerations, and the plaintiffs and DOJ have zero evidence to prove the contrary. (pp. 19-20)
In the old days before bipartisanship became a dirty word in the ’90s, and before the traumas of 9/11, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial meltdown radicalized U.S. politics, Texas’s practices would have been obnoxious and distasteful, but not necessarily a threat to governability.
Now, with the U.S. government effectively shut down — and threatening to default on its debts within the month if a deal isn’t reached, which could set the U.S. up for a fourth trauma in the space of just over 12 years — the situation is looking more serious.
Yet, what motivation does the U.S. Congress have to compromise? Many of its members represent districts that are effectively one-party monopolies. Thus even if the U.S. government begins defaulting on its debt, undermining the economic recovery and global confidence in the U.S. as a low-risk place to do business, many will only face token opposition from the other party at the next election. Many members of congress are more fearful that accepting a compromise might alienate party activists, causing a challenger to run against them for the party’s nomination in 2014.
Because the process of drawing congressional boundaries is so decentralized, passing a federal law won’t nearly be enough: the battle to dismantle the Democratic and Republican quasi-monopolies will need to be won one state at a time over many years.
Until then, it’s a fairly safe bet that federal politics in the United States will be marked by bitterness and an inability to make meaningful progress on important projects — such as restoring the country’s finances to health, upgrading its aging infrastructure or improving the quality of its labour force. All projects that could help make America the sexy, glamourous place one Elmwood kid once thought it was.