Friday, October 7, 2011

Why I Oppose Most Independent Redistricting Plans // Placing Maryland's Maps in a National Context

UPDATE: Politico has a round-up of the Maryland Congressional Delegation's response to the new maps. In the article, other Democrats join Maryland Juice in questioning Rep. Bartlett's newfound love for minority representation. But the article also notes the following: "[Rep. Donna] Edwards, concerned that some of her black base is being stripped away, is mulling a legal challenge to the map, sources familiar with her thinking said. And Van Hollen, who also met with O’Malley on Thursday night, is seeking much more marginal changes in his Montgomery County areas..." 

The Sun also reports that Common Cause Maryland is now weighing in against the proposed map, and they seem to disagree with my points below. I should note that I used to spend a lot of time on redistricting reform advocacy when I worked at FairVote, but I became skeptical of Congressional redistricting proposals that do not require a sacrifice from Red States. This is mainly because I was coming of age on redistricting advocacy while the GOP was putting out its insane re-redistricting proposals in Texas and Georgia. As a result, I spent some time working with Tennessee Blue Dog Democrat Rep. John Tanner's office on national redistricting standards that would take the partisan game theory out of the process.  But I still recognize that solving the zero-sum problem does not address my fundamental point below -- independent redistricting naturally leads to Districts that favor the GOP. Counter-intuitively, you are more easily able to draw districts that actually mirror the State's political demography if you allow mapmakers to super-gerrymander, as opposed to limiting their options. I may explore this paradox further in the future.

With the release of Maryland's new Congressional Districts, the battle lines are beginning to form. But Maryland Juice has been hearing a range of opinions on how to proceed: Some Democrats and Republicans (ie: those unhappy with the proposed maps) are beginning to talk about the need for independent redistricting. Granted, Maryland Juice does not like pure incumbent protection or partisan plans -- but that does not mean so-called independent or apolitical redistricting is the answer.

In order to understand why this is a problem, you need to acknowledge a few facts of political demography. Let's start by imagining we live in a 50/50 nation (ie: an equal number of Democrats and Republicans). But, let's say that they live in much the same way Americans currently live:
  1. Republicans live in more spread out territory (ie: rural or suburban) than Democrats, who often live in more concentrated clusters (ie: urban areas).
  2. That means that if you were to draw Districts in a simple square grid (ie: super compact/contiguous districts), Republicans (even in a 50-50 nation) would naturally have a majority in more Districts than Democrats. This is a very important point to understand. In many states, a compact/apolitical plan would cause more Democrats than Republicans to be packed into single congressional Districts with a super-majority of their Party (ie: 70-90% majority Dem district). Meanwhile Republicans will spread their voters more thinly over a larger territory -- ie: they will control a smaller majority in each District, but they will also control a larger number of districts. This happens simply because Republicans live further apart and we happen to use a district/geography-based system for Congress.
This problem is not a theory I have -- this is verified by data and research that I think most Democrats ignore. Indeed, the idea of something being independent and free from political considerations is very alluring. But data is data, and as I mentioned, policymaking should be driven by data, not by "conventional wisdom." In fact, Democrats in Florida this year wanted to create an independent redistricting commission, thinking this would help them stop the looming GOP gerrymandering shenanigans. But for the reasons outlined above, this was not a smart move. In fact, The Orlando Sentinel pointed this out during the state's independent redistricting debate, highlighting research showing how an apolitical plan would screw Democrats:
...researchers from Stanford University and the University of Michigan presented a yearlong study of where Florida voters live that ran thousands of complex simulations of elections in computer-drawn contiguous and compact districts. 
Their models found that even using maps drawn by nonpolitical algorithms, Republicans would still win 59 percent of all the districts. 
That's basically because more Democratic voters live in concentrated clusters in urban cores, while Republican voters are spread out along the suburban and exurban landscape, they concluded. 
"Their [Democrats'] larger problem is with the extreme concentration of support in cities, and the constitutional reforms will … not help them there," said Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford who presented the research with University of Michigan professor Jowei Chen at the American Political Science Association annual conference in Washington, D.C.. 
"In order to achieve a 'fair' translation of votes to seats, the Democrats would need to draw very non-compact wedge-shaped districts starting in downtown Miami and reaching out into the suburbs," Rodden said.
If you need further proof that independent redistricting is a de facto GOP policy, look no further than GOP use of racial vote dilution claims (ie: recent comments from Roscoe Bartlett). Why would the GOP be in favor of packing more minority Democrats into supermajority Districts? Because, then those voters can't help unseat neighboring Republicans  -- and due to America's long history (and continuance) of racial segregation, it is very easy to ghettoify the representation of minority communities. This is a tough conflict for Democrats, who are often forced to choose between Party representation and race representation.

What's worse is that many Democrats would endorse an independent redistricting plan that only applies to Maryland's U.S. House Delegation. That is absolute madness. As I've pointed out in the past, Congressional redistricting is a zero-sum game. Every state is adding D's and R's to the national tally sheet. Why would Democrats move to independent redistricting in every Blue State (which would already give R's the aforementioned geographic advantage), all the while Republicans are using super-partisan gerrymandering processes in Red States. This is not about good government -- it is about survival. They're trying to exterminate our officials!

To fully understand this problem, you also need to know what the Republicans are doing outside of Maryland. One Annapolis lawmaker emailed Maryland Juice the following shocking report from North Carolina. It is a must read New Yorker article, but I provide excerpts below:
...lopsided campaigns will likely become more common, thanks to the Supreme Court, which, in a controversial ruling in January, 2010, struck down limits on corporate campaign spending. For the first time in more than a century, businesses and unions can spend unlimited sums to express support or opposition to candidates.... 
[North Carolina Common Cause head] Phillips argues that the Court’s decision, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has been a “game changer,” especially in the realm of state politics.... “We didn’t have that before 2010,” Phillips says. “Citizens United opened up the door. Now a candidate can literally be outspent by independent groups. We saw it in North Carolina, and a lot of the money was traced back to [conservative millionaire funder] Art Pope....” 
Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed. 
The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state. For example, as Gillespie had hoped, the REDMAP strategy worked: the Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have redrafted congressional-district boundaries with an eye toward partisan advantage. 
Experts predict that, next fall, the Republicans will likely take over at least four seats currently held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, helping the Party expand its majority in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is raising issues that are sure to galvanize the conservative vote in the 2012 Presidential race, such as a constitutional ban on gay marriage. 
Republican state legislators have also been devising new rules that, according to critics, are intended to suppress Democratic turnout in the state, such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to display government-issued photo I.D.s. College students, minorities, and the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, will likely be most disadvantaged. Obama carried North Carolina by only fourteen thousand votes and, many analysts say, must carry it again to win in 2012, so turnout could be a decisive factor. Paul Shumaker, a Republican political consultant, says, “Art’s done a good job of changing the balance in the state.”
So in conclusion, it is a rare situation where Maryland Juice will support a Congressional "independent" redistricting plan. The same reasons that may make such proposals sensible for state and local bodies do not apply to the zero-sum national redistricting scenario.

Besides, I'm tired of getting out-hustled by sociopath billionaires. Time to fight back!

No comments:

Post a Comment