Barack Obama and Eric Holder take on Gerrymandering

Barack Obama and Eric Holder focus on gerrymanderingOne of the intriguing sub-themes to emerge from the 2016 elections is the news, first reported by Politico, that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder intend to focus their future political efforts on a broad-based Democratic Party program to right the perceived wrongs of Republican Congressional gerrymandering. The donors have been lined up, Super PACs are taking shape, and some new web sites have been soft-launched that highlight the evils of gerrymandering. It’s early days, but the signs point to this being a missed opportunity for American governance. Gerrymandering itself doesn’t seem to be the problem for these Democratic efforts: the problem seems to be that Republicans and not Democrats are doing the gerrymandering.

Being the Aggrieved “Party” doesn’t make you a Legitimate Stakeholder

This is not to say the Democrats shouldn’t be complaining. As many have argued, including me in this blog, the most egregious current examples of Congressional district gerrymandering were brought about via Republican statehouses. Obama is undoubtedly correct and has been remarkably consistent in complaining that House gerrymandering is a driving force behind hyper-partisanship and endless obstructionism. Nobody in their right mind is arguing that the House of Representatives is working well and that no changes are required. It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that the problem is an uneven playing field between Republicans and Democrats about who gets to draw the maps. But that, sadly, seems to be the tack the new Democratic initiative is is taking.

The umbrella group that Eric Holder is set to lead is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Nothing much has been heard from this group but its approach is clear from the few early statements that have been made and by the makeup of its leadership. Alongside Holder at the head of the NDRC is Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, and Alixandria “Ali” Lapp, the founder of House Majority PAC, a Super PAC collecting money from labor unions and individuals focused on achieving a Democratic majority in the House. They have framed the problem as one in which Republicans have captured state house legislatures and governorships to the degree that they get to draw the lines between district boundaries, and the solution as being that Democrats have to organize to win back these state-level offices so that they can draw the lines. Ostensibly, this would result in more “fair” district boundaries.

If, as it appears, this is actually what Obama’s return to his roots in community organizing entails, it is misguided on several levels. First and foremost, it is wrong-headed to assume the Democrats— any more or less than the Republicans— are a legitimate stakeholder in House redistricting. Thinking this way leads to the equally flawed idea that this whole gerrymandering thing can be solved by finding a fair balance between what the Democrats want and what the Republicans want. We all have to remember that the only legitimate stakeholders in this dispute are the citizens of the United States, and their one overriding need is for good governance. Good governance is not the option to have a House representative who looks like you and thinks like you: that is identity politics and simply won’t work in a nation of over 300 million people with ever-changing definitions of “identity” represented by 435 House members. It is also a prescription for partisanship in Washington, which is a poor substitute for engagement and compromise at the local level. House districts should not be drawn by anybody under any mistaken formula for grouping like-minded people (AKA “communities of interest”) in the same district. Districts should be drawn so that people who live near each other vote together, and their representatives should arrive in Washington with the first round of compromise having already happened back home.

This, of course, is the argument for Hands-Off Redistricting. Nobody should be drawing lines at all. Representative government works best when representatives respect and fear the voters in their districts and not the preferences of party leaders. Find a mathematical way to create compact Congressional districts and let the chips fall where they may. That means the political parties respond to political reality rather than creating political reality.

Democrats Need to Decide: Endless Tit-for-Tat Gerrymandering or Sustainable Hands-Off Redistricting?

Democrats and Republicans gerrymandering

In a partisan atmosphere, the argument for Hands-Off Redistricting may seem to have little air to breathe. But organizations like the NDRC, the DCA and the House Majority PAC should realize that if they insist on a pitch that boils down to “Democrats Draw Better Maps”, hyper-partisanship will starve them of political oxygen just as completely. If they think hard about what they are trying to do, they have to realize that what seems like an opportunity to run the table is much more likely to result in stalemate and delay. Embracing Hands-Off Redistricting as the Democrat’s call to arms can be a much more effective play for them.

Consider what would happen in the real world if the Democratic Governors Association doubled down on the pitch shown in their website Unrig the Map. Their obvious election-day pitch will be “vote for Joe Democrat for governor to get rid of gerrymandering”. The easy response from Republicans in each gubernatorial race is that a vote for Joe Democrat is a vote for a Democrat-controlled Congress and all the fearful consequences that would entail. Which party controls redistricting becomes a single-issue trigger for partisan fear tactics and a rich vein for special interest fund-raising, just as the selection of Supreme Court justices has become in presidential politics. Especially since Texas has established that redistricting can occur at the whim of statehouse officeholders and doesn’t need to only occur every ten years, how do Democrats imagine that this will lead to a sustainable advantage for them? Or that it will in any way remove the partisan impulses and financial incentives to gerrymandering?

A far more clever strategy would be for the Democratic organizations and Super PACs to fully embrace the advantages of Hands-Off Redistricting as a Democratic talking point. They are much better positioned to win in individual state-house races when they are unequivocally opposed to gerrymandering, no matter who is doing it. That puts them squarely on the side of creative progressive government and inoculates them from charges that they are acting hypocritically. Hands-Off Redistricting, once installed at the state level, would be very difficult to overturn (who, after all, is in favor of gerrymandering?) and would thus be a sustainable fixture of governance.

Do Democrats really think they better represent a broad consensus of America’s values and wants? If so, they should prove it.

Democrats: drop the map-drawing, let the chips fall where they may, and prove to America’s voters you are their best choice up and down the ballot.

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16 Responses to Barack Obama and Eric Holder take on Gerrymandering

  1. NJ says:

    Are there any organized efforts aimed at hands-off redistricting? Any influential donors? Seems like someone like Buffett, Gates or Zuckerberg should spend some money to educate people about how huge this problem is. And I guess the only way to address it is to ask for poll referendums to take redistricting off the hands of partisan politicians?

  2. noahkennedy says:

    NJ- wish I had a better answer. You might scroll down to the post “How do we get rid of Gerrymandering?” for some links and suggestions.

    It would help in one way if you were to follow the blog and be liberal in sharing any good posts on Facebook, Twitter etc. Greater awareness of hands-off redistricting approaches (and the arguments for math-based approaches rather than any form of manual map-drawing) seems to me to be the important task at hand.

  3. martit00 says:

    Hi- I’m a systems analyst, so I’m curious if any math based models have been put forward. Are you aware of any?

  4. Tom Gillaspy says:

    I am a retired state demographer with 4 decades (1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010) of census and redistricting experience, working in a non-partisan capacity. Is there some place I can volunteer with AG Holder’s work on redistricting? All i can find is stories about the effort but no direct links to the effort.

    • noahkennedy says:

      Tom- Sorry but I’m mystified as well. I’m guessing the effort is either in stealth mode or perhaps delayed or otherwise coming together slowly. I’ll be sure to post something if I find out more.

    • irmabob219 says:

      Tom, My impression is that the Obama/Holder plan is to raise tons of money to do to the Reps what the Reps stealthily did to the Dems after 2010. IMHO better approaches are happening on a state-by-state basis where independent commissions have been established, taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislators. Courts continue to rule IC’s are constitutional and fair, which is a huge positive development. I suggest you take a close look at Kevin Baas’ Then, depending on your state, check in with League of Women Voters, Common Cause, or Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law to learn where your skills might be appreciated. Please check my FB page, Gerrymandering–Let’s Get Serious (Silver Spring, MD). I would be happy to work with someone who can help explain the features of Kevin’s program in language that is understandable to the average voter, journalist, TV host, etc. Irma Sheon

  5. Kim Williams says:

    How can one help?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Our nation is divided on so many issues and much of our government is out of touch and non-responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. It lacks real leadership for real change. What we are seeing is “alternative change.” Granted President Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” but it is clear that much of the swamp has been left intact.
    The following proposals are made to deal with governmental structures that in my opinion, have to change before the swamp will be drained. These proposals are followed with an explanation of why it is believed the proposed change will help move our government from the current extreme polarization we see today.
    1) The Justices of the Supreme Court shall have one 9 year term except the Chief Justice whose term shall be 15 years. Justices shall return to the Court from whence they were appointed when their terms expire, unless they retire or become professors. The Chief Justice shall be confirmed by 75% affirmative vote of the Senate and vacancies on the Supreme Court will be filled by Nomination of the President. If the Senate does not give an up or down vote within 45 days of the Nomination the Nominee shall be sworn in. (Limiting the term of a S.Ct. justices makes the political impact of any appointments to the court less politically charged. This may force Democrats and Republicans to grow up.)

    2) Gerrymandering shall be illegal for all elections. (This ends the Hatfield and McCoy war of political district boundary drawing. It is hoped that having more competitive legislative districts will allow more middle of the road politicians to be elected. Face it, most of us are middle of the road people. Our government has become a government of extremes because our political districts are extremes.)

    3) Political Action Committees shall be illegal as to candidates. (This reinforces the one person-one vote concept of government.)

    4) The President of The United States shall be elected by popular majority vote to one 6 year term, but can serve one additional 6 year non-consecutive term. Presidential Election Day shall be a national holiday. (This avoids to a great extent that the President starts running for re-election, on our dime, from the minute he/she is sworn in for their first term. Election Day should be the greatest holiday on the calendar in a democracy.)

    5) Congressmen and Governors shall receive no pay when running for Senate or President. Senators shall receive no pay when running for President or Governor. Better yet, they shall resign from federal office before running for federal office. (Again, not on my dime.)

    6) The salary for Members of the House shall not exceed 5 times the Federal Minimum Wage, Senators pay shall not exceed 6.5 times the Federal Minimum Wage and the President and Vice-President’s salaries shall not exceed 8 times the Federal Minimum Wage. (This proposal simply puts the pay rate of our national servants in the hands of those they are serving. Some other multiple could be used, but wages should be set by the bosses, this nation’s citizens.)

    7) Citizens shall have the right to opt into a Federal Health Care system, (what is now known as Medicare.) Premiums shall be based upon the ability to pay. (This is a Christian proposal as an alternative to the Affordable Health Care Act, because the governing party has no clue how to replace Obama care.)

    8) The Fed Election Commission shall set up a crowd funding type web site to accept all contributions for all Federal Elections. A person shall not contribute more than $150.00 to each federal office for which he/she is eligible to vote for in the general election. For primary elections the amount is $75 for each office the person is eligible to vote for. Corporations cannot contribute to Federal Elections. (This again helps with the concept of one person-one vote and avoids the problems associated with public financing of elections. Both Obama and Sanders proved that a campaign can be financed with small donations raised via the internet.)

    9) There shall be no more than 5 regional primary elections for office of the President with the first no sooner than 120 days before the general election and the last no later than 75 days prior to the general election. (Election fatigue, election fatigue, election fatigue. This proposal also does away with caucus primaries which are unfair to those who have to work, have physical or mental challenges and the elderly. Also, it insures that a foul weather day does not significantly impact voter turnout.)

    10) People are allowed to obtain medications from any FDA approved manufacturer regardless of where that manufacturer is located and the U.S. Dept. of HHS must negotiate the best possible prices with pharmaceutical companies. (This proposal is just common sense trumping the lobbing of the drug companies.)

    11) Corporations are not “people” or “persons” for purposes of freedom of religion, speech or voting. (Our government is one that is “Of the people, by the people and for the people.)

    12) All laws respecting the rights of voters shall be subject to strict scrutiny and shall be struck down if either the intent or effect is discriminatory. (This expands the voting rights act to all states. It is a sad and failed democracy that has to work hard to disenfranchise voters in order to stay in power.)

    It is proposed that citizens across the nation unite and require any candidate running for state or federal office to agree to support these or similar “good government” proposals. Perhaps if only candidates who supported these proposals were elected, that our differences on the issues would not be as great as they are today.
    Mike V. Toledo Ohio

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