Opinion

Democracy in the Balance: Gerrymandering and Voter Nullification

By: Larry J. Schweiger

 

In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry led a backroom redistricting plan. One rigged district was so contorted that it looked like a salamander. Since then, the practice of manipulating electoral maps for political advantage has been called gerrymandering. When Gerry carved up Massachusetts district, it was an art not a science. Politicians sitting around some smoke-filled room would draw district maps by imprecise political instincts, and handwritten street lists. 

Today, sophisticated computer models using massive amounts of personal data from commercial sources, including social media like Facebook, drive gerrymandering. Big data and advanced mapping technology have been available to Republicans paid for by the Koch Brothers. Politicians can now use advanced mapping technology to carve districts with surgical precision. They can track their voters using this sophisticated data base. Politicians pick who they want in or out of a voting district and are now able to choose voters as never before. 

Modern high-tech gerrymandering has happened in several states, including Pennsylvania. Based on simple statistical tests, Pennsylvania is one of eight severely gerrymandered states, including Florida, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. A large number of seats are uncontested because rigged districts are so uncompetitive. Yet, the partisan U.S. Supreme Court has washed its hands and the hands of Federal Courts to address the blatantly undemocratic threats.

Republican Governor, Senate, and House gerrymandered Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts, and House drew the legislative boundaries. A Republican-controlled State Supreme Court ratified it. The original map ensured that Republicans would win control even though there were 4,172,826 Democrats, and 3,280,202 Republicans voting in Pennsylvania. This gerrymandered electoral map produced 6 Democrats and 12 Republicans despite the 892,624 democratic voter lead. Through precise gerrymandering, Pennsylvania GOP dominates both the House and Senate.

Pennsylvania is known for its gerrymandered districts—in fact, in 2016, researchers at the independent Electoral Integrity Project gave our redistricting practices an 11 out of 100—the third-worst rating in the Nation. More recently, the State Supreme Court redrew the Congressional boundaries more fairly but not the State House or Senate districts. After a lengthy court battle, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was eventually forced to redraw congressional districts. This is a temporary fix in Pennsylvania, as we must establish a non-partisan “fair districts” mechanism to curb future gerrymandering. 

The Koch Brother’s gerrymander plan worked spectacularly around the country and it’s why in 2012, Democratic statehouse candidates won 51 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, which voted for Barack Obama in the presidential election, yet democrats ended up with only 28 percent of the seats in the legislature.

 

Shelby County v. Holder, and the Erosion of the Voter Rights Act

In an unbelievable decision on June 25, 2013, the right-wing United States Supreme Court decided that racism is no longer a political factor in America when they ruled in a partisan 5-to-4 vote in Shelby County v. Holder. The U.S. Supreme Court is either dangerously cloistered or deliberately bent on undercutting the minority vote when they decided to undermine voter rights in southern states. 

The high court overturned a vital provision of the hard-fought Voting Rights Act of 1965, declaring it unconstitutional. Founded on a false assumption that forty years have healed past discriminatory practices, they ruled Section 4(b), the provision that spells out the formula identifying the jurisdictions subjected to pre-clearances based on their histories of discrimination, unconstitutional and no longer needed. This also nullified Section 5 that required certain states and local governments with long histories of voter discrimination to obtain federal pre-clearance before implementing changes to their voting laws or practices. 

Eight years after the ruling, we are witnessing polling places being systematically and cynically closed across the country, and voter rolls purged of tens of thousands of disenfranchised voters. Far too many closed polling places were in predominantly African-American counties to be a coincidence. Following the Shelby County v. Holder, new voting restrictions were put in place before the 2016 Presidential election, and 868 fewer polling places were closed across the country. While these laws have disproportionately targeted Black people, at least 17 states saw voter suppression cases targeting American Indian and Alaskan Native voters in 2016.”

Through several troubling decisions, Roberts Court has done more to destroy our democracy than any other court in history. Chief Justice Roberts has dodged responsibility by blaming voters’ lack of education. He should look in a mirror and own the damage his court has done to our democracy. Unchecked now, several state departments and local governments have deployed brazen, and often illegal attempts to suppress turnout. Recent research by Stephen Pettigrew at the University of Pennsylvania, found minority voters are six times as likely as whites to wait longer than an hour to vote. In many states, this disparity is intentional. States controlled by Republicans made several changes from strict voter ID laws and polling place closures to make voting harder targeting minority communities that tend to vote Democrat. Mr. Pettigrew’s research also suggests that this discourages voters. For each hour would-be voters wait, their probability of voting in the next election drops by one percentage point.

Georgia’s current Governor Brian Kemp stole the election from Stacey Abrams. Running as Secretary of State, Kemp closed polling places, lock up hundreds of voting machines and purged 340,134 voters by falsely asserting they had moved. He carried the state by just under 55,000 votes after the purge. Georgia’s well-publicized strategy to purge black voters and close voting locations got a new dimension last week. Defective voting machines, incorrect passwords, and untrained and ill-equipped poll workers did the trick to make voting extremely difficult while black. Last week in Georgia’s primary, minority districts were targeted, forcing voters to stand in line for 3-6 hours while nearby white districts seemed to have no problems. While the voting location irregularities received little oversight, they are theoretically being investigated now. Voters must be on guard voter suppression in November. The shenanigans in Georgia will only expand. The stakes are much higher there with two U.S. Senate seats and the Presidency in the balance.

Abuses are not limited to Georgia. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that “election officials removed at least 17 million voters from the rolls between 2016 and 2018, on top of the 16 million registrations that were canceled between 2014 and 2016.” The report found “counties once covered by Section 5 purged voters at a higher rate than counties that were not required to seek pre-clearance. The counties with histories of discrimination now purge about 10 percent of voters on their roles, while counties that did not require pre-clearance canceled about 7 percent of registrations.”

William J. Barber, II, Episcopal Bishop and the head of the Poor People’s Campaign, asks, “Did you know that there are fewer voting rights in 2018 than there were 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed? Since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including racist gerrymandering, reduced early voting days, and fewer hours, purging voter rolls, closing targeted voting locations, and more restrictive voter ID laws that make it harder to register. We must add to Barber’s list, the GOP’s efforts to block voting by mail as they are doing in Iowa.

America’s democracy is dysfunctional and that threatens every voter. The weaponization of gerrymandering coupled with voter suppression has distorted the outcome of elections and creates a cloud of illegitimacy. It contributed to the decline of black voters in 2016, according to a Pew Research study. The study found black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, falling to 59.6% in 2016 after a record-high 66.6% in 2012.

As we watch Pennsylvania Speaker Mike Turzai’s taillights as he departs Harrisburg, let’s not forget his attempts to suppress voter turnout. Mike Turzai became the poster child for voter suppression when he was caught on tape bragging about rigging registration requirements. Leading up to the 2012 election, Turzai bragged on tape that the state’s new ID law would “allow Mitt Romney to win the state in November. Done!” Fortunately, the State Supreme Court found Turzai’s voter suppression bill reinforced by his claims unconstitutional before the 2012 election. 

The Republicans are now throwing sand in the gears for the 2020 election to keep us from voting by mail. We must demand the right to vote by mail everywhere, end gerrymandering and demand an end to voter suppression. Time is long overdue for restoring democracy to America. Our Supreme Court has failed us and it’s up to every American to protect democracy and demand vote by mail in the upcoming Presidential election.

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