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Rep. Peter King (R-NY) seems to think that Republicans in the House of Representatives were given a “mandate” by voters allowing them to prevent tax cuts for the rich from expiring, despite exit polls showing voters overwhelmingly support tax hikes. “[T]he fact is, in Congress, the American people have returned a Republican House of Representatives. So we also have, if you want to call it, a mandate.”
Except that’s not quite true, Mr King, and you know it. The American people didn’t vote for a Republican House, the Republicans didn’t actually win the House, and therefore there is no mandate. 53,952,240 votes were cast for a Democratic House candidate compared to 53,402,643 cast for a Republican; in other words, over half a million more Americans voted for Democratic House candidates than for Republican candidates. Republicans received less than half of the vote for members of the House of Representatives, and even lost seats in the House this election. Yet Republicans still took 55 percent of the seats in the House. In effect, they had to steal the House. Here’s how:
In 2010, Republicans won a substantial majority of state governments. Once they were in power, they then deliberately redrew congressional district lines in order to manipulate the 2012 House election for a Republican victory. It’s called gerrymandering, a very old, very nasty technique that has long been successful in affecting the outcome of elections, for both sides. And it’s getting worse now that computer modelling can precisely calculate districts to maximize political advantages. Citizens, advocates and political parties have filed 194 lawsuits challenging congressional or state district maps in 41 states. Lawsuits are still pending in eight states.
Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating geographic borders to create a political advantage for a particular party, obstructing the ability of voters who oppose a state’s ruling party to influence future elections. It works on the principle of “wasted voting” – a numbers game where opposition voters are shifted, or “packed” into districts where their party would win anyway even without their vote, then “cracking” any remaining opposition voters by moving them into districts where they are a significant minority, rendering their vote futile. Voters, of course, aren’t physically moved, just the lines on a map where they officially live, which end up bizarrely twisted and distorted out of any natural proportions. And it’s technically legal.
Thanks to Republican conservatives on the Supreme Court. In 2004, the Supreme Court heard the case of Vieth v Jubelirer, where the plaintiffs, Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, contended that Republicans, who then controlled both houses of the state’s legislature as well as the Governor’s office, had pressured the General Assembly to redistrict along partisan lines “as a punitive measure against Democrats for having enacted pro-Democratic redistricting plans elsewhere” and had gerrymandered districts in order to benefit Republican candidates and deny Democrats full participation in the congressional election, violating the one-person one-vote requirement in Article I of the US Constitution. Unsurprisingly, Scalia, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Thomas and Kenney ruled in favour of the appellees that political gerrymandering was not unconstitutional. Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer provided dissenting opinions.
During this election, Republicans tried hard to suppress the vote in the key states of Ohio and Florida. These two swing states were crucial to a Republican win, and the efforts in both states to reduce Democratic voter turnout were nothing short of blatantly draconian. So certain of a Romney victory were they that Republicans made no effort to hide their dirty tricks. Ohio Republican Secretary of State John Husted stooped to underhanded attempts to disenfranchise liberal voters – inundating minority neighbourhoods with menacing posters about voter fraud penalties, and trying to fire Democratic officials who disagreed with him. When he was overruled in the court, he defied its orders and cut early voting hours by a third in any part of the state with a Democratic majority. Much to Republican surprise, far from this suppression cowing voters into submission, it instead fired them up with an almost buoyant zeal, thousands waiting in freezing temperatures for hours to vote – including the crucial Cuyahoga County. Ohio will be remembered most for this election by the spectacular on-air meltdown of Karl Rove, pop-eyed in disbelief that the state could actual have gone to Obama.
In Florida, the other crucial swing state, Governor Rick Scott deliberately attempted to suppress the vote in order to deliver his state for the Republicans, first by trying to change registration laws, then by reducing voting hours. He refused to keep polling sites open, despite voting machines failing, supplies running out, and inadequate personnel manning polling stations. His own constituents had to sue him to get him to even do his job as governor, and he was forced to accept absentee ballots on Sunday before the election. But despite his best efforts, by the time Florida finally managed to count their vote, the rest of the United States had already swept Barack Obama into the White House by a landslide and made that once key swing state irrelevant.
But there’s an interesting difference between Ohio and Florida; in Ohio, Republicans redrew new congressional district maps before the election in what has been called “the most grotesque partisan gerrymander” that political scientist, Professor Richard Gunther of Ohio State University had ever seen, designed explicitly to give Republicans 75% of congressional seats. He, like Nate Silver, accurately predicted Ohio Republicans would hold 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats even though they would likely (and didn’t) receive half of the vote. And the rot runs clear to the top – Ohio state Senate President Thomas Niehaus refused to approve a revised map without House Speaker John Boehner’s support. State leaders extended one district line to include the headquarters of a top Republican campaign donor, and split the city of Toledo into three separate districts. Toledo’s deputy mayor denounced that move as rendering the town “politically irrelevant.”
Despite Ohio overwhelmingly voting for Barack Obama, the vast majority of the state’s congressional districts stayed firmly in Republican control. David Weigel’s graphics demonstrate just how thoroughly gerrymandering saved the Republican majority in the House, even though voters overwhelmingly preferred Democratic candidates.
To Florida’s credit, however, unlike Ohio, two Fair District constitutional amendments were enthusiastically passed in 2010 prohibiting incumbents from shifting the boundaries of electoral maps to suit their own parties. As a result, local and national races were more competitive and fair, and Democrats gained four congressional seats, will likely pick up a fifth, as well as six state legislative offices.
In states with much fewer gerrymandered districts, such as Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire, there was little variance between the presidential vote and the House votes. If Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina had had their districts more fairly divided, allowing Democrats to distribute their votes more evenly, Democrats likely would have won at least a dozen more seats, and probably the House majority.
Republicans have over the past decade raised fear-mongering to a fine art in order to erode the civil liberties of the population and maintain their own power. And for quite a long time, it’s worked. But this election, Republicans went one step too far. All they had left was fear and voter suppression – their policies were morally bankrupt, and their disenfranchisement of everyone other than rich, old, white men backed them into a minority of their own. To their astonishment, those they would have disenfranchised turned out in record numbers and waited in lines for hours to vote. Nor was money enough to save them; the Romney campaign spent over a billion dollars... and still failed. Republican smears against women, their disdain for the 47%, their naked pursuit of more for the ultra-rich at the expense of anyone else were finally enough to invigorate a very pissed off electorate. Obama won 70% of every non-white group - 93% of the African-American vote, 71% of the Hispanic American vote and 73% of the Asian-American vote. He also won 55% of the female vote - 96% of black women, 76% of Hispanic women, and 66% of women of other races including Asians. 67% of single women, of all races, supported Obama.
Romney and the Republicans depended on a single demographic for any hope of victory – whites. Even so, Obama won 39 percent of the white vote, matching Bill Clinton in 1992, and more than Walter Mondale in 1984, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George McGovern in 1972. Whites as a demographic have been in decline for decades, making the white vote far less crucial than ever, as well, and Obama’s percentage of the white vote even more significant.
We would be unwise to think that Romney’s overwhelming defeat is the end of the Republican party, despite dummy-spitting temper tantrums and third grade level “poopy-head” insults. That Republicans didn’t win the Presidency, but did manage to hang on to the House, despite half a million more votes for Democrats than Republicans, is proof of just how effective they are at clinging to power at any cost.
So, no, Mr. King. This isn’t a “mandate” from voters to Republicans allowing you and your rightwing colleagues to press for ever more exclusionary and unpopular agendas – it’s a wake-up call for voters. Partisan gerrymandering undermines the very foundations of democracy. It is immoral, unjust and un-American, no matter which side engages in it.
Our country needs voter reform, badly. We can start by getting rid of gerrymandering.