GOP attack on democracy exposes deeper flaws

The GOP has ditched a scheme that would have elected Romney with a 47 percent vote – but a deeper rottenness remains.

If all the states had adopted Senator Carrico's plan, Romney would have been elected President [Reuters]
If all the states had adopted Senator Carrico's plan, Romney would have been elected President [Reuters]

“This is not a relatively small Electoral College ‘misfire’ on the order of 1888 or 2000. Instead, it is a corrupt and cynical maneouver to frustrate popular will and put a heavy thumb – the whole hand, in fact – on the scale for future Republican candidates. We do not play presidential politics with a golf handicap awarded to the weaker side.”  – Larry J Sabato, Director, University of Virginia Center for Politics, on GOP plan to change the rules for how electoral votes are counted. 

Last November, Barack Obama became the first President to win back-to-back 51 percent majorities since Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 – and the first Democrat to do so since FDR more than a decade earlier. But the Republican party has responded in part by seriously considering electoral college schemes – based on gerrymandered congressional districts, rather than statewide totals – that would have elected Mitt Romney instead… despite the fact that he only got 47 percent of the popular vote. They’ve backed off for now, under unexpected and most unwanted national scrutiny, but there are strong imperatives driving them, which could well bring those schemes back in future. 

The underlying reason is that their increasing extremism plays well to the base, but makes it harder and harder to win a popular national majority – particularly as the electorate grows younger, more socially tolerant and more racially diverse. What’s more, voter suppression efforts aimed against that rising electorate in the last election only served to help mobilise it. Add to that the fact that formerly safe red states like Virginia and North Carolina are battleground states now – with Arizona and Texas on track to join them in the next decade or two, and the GOP’s prospects look grim. 

But even the past is devastating enough: the Democratic presidential candidate has outpolled the Republican candidate in every election since 1992, with the sole exception of 2004, which in turn was the weakest presidential re-election victory since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Without winning the 2000 election in the Supreme Court, Bush wouldn’t have been running as an incumbent in 2004, and thus it’s likely the GOP would have been shut out entirely for the past 20 years. That’s the sort of record that breeds desperation. And desperate men turn to desperate measures. 

Desperate measures

One such desperado is Virginia State Senator Charles W Carrico, Sr had voted Republican in every election since 1964, until Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, and won it again in his re-election campaign last year. The fact that Democrats were winning Presidential races in Virginia again, after a four-decade hiatus, must have seemed to Carrico as if it violated some fundamental God-given principle. And so he responded in December by introducing a bill to apportion Virginia’s electoral votes by congressional district, with the final two votes going to the winner of the most congressional districts. 

Under this scheme, Virginia’s already gerrymandered Congressional districts would pay an extra round of dividends. Mitt Romney’s 47 percent of the popular vote in Virginia would have yielded him 70 percent of Virginia’s electoral college votes, 9 out of 13, while Obama’s 51 percent of the popular vote would have yielded him just 30 percent of Virginia’s electoral votes. Thus, every Virginia Republican’s vote would have counted for more than two Democrats. 

“The last election, [my] constituents were concerned that it didn’t matter what they did, that more densely populated areas were going to outvote them,” Carrico told the Washington Post, arguing that he wanted to give smaller communities a bigger voice. If anyone was going to get outvoted, it should be Democrats, obviously. That’s the way it always had been – at least since 1964. 

“This is coming to me from not just my Republican constituents,” Carrico added, as the Post noted that his district “voted overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney” in the last election. “I want to be a voice for a region that feels they have no reason to come to the polls.”

Transparently self-serving though he may be, Carrico does have a point: giving 100 percent of the power to the winner of 50 percent+1 of the votes does deprive the minority of a voice. Of course, Carrico’s plan would be even worse, depriving a majority of its voice, particularly since deep red states like Texas are not about to give their Democratic minorities a similar share of the power. 

Indeed, Republican Party attention was intently focused on six states that Obama won and one that narrowly lost, where Republican House candidates won a 73-34 landslide majority, thanks to particularly aggressive partisan redistricting, following the 2010 mid-terms. If these states had split their delegations 50-50, roughly in line with how their people voted, then Democrats would have gained another 19 or 20 seats, and retaken control of the House. 

But, as they themselves bragged in a report on their success, Republicans spent $30m on a plan to capture state legislatures in 2010 for the express purpose of redrawing Congressional maps to keep the Congress Republican for the rest of the decade, regardless of how many people vote for Democrats for Congress.

What’s more, if all these states had adopted Carrico’s plan, Mitt Romney would have been elected President.

Even beyond Carrico’s selective and hypocritical concern for “minority rights”, there’s a deeper point that needs exploring. Twenty years ago, a major Clinton appointee was denied even getting a hearing because she had argued this exact same point – except that she did it primarily on behalf of disenfranchised black voters, whose lack of political voice was an undeniable historical reality.

Lani Guinier had been a top civil rights lawyer, specialising in voting rights cases before turning to academia. She took that opportunity to reflect long and hard on the struggles she had been part of and their relationship to broader historical currents in democratic theory. She wrote a series of brilliant law review articles (republished in the book, The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy) exploring the systematic weaknesses hidden from view by seeing democratic struggles through the lens of electing individual candidates, while the larger framework of democratic culture continues to decay. 

Among other things, Guinier argued that proportional representation in multi-member districts represented a promising way forward, giving voice to a larger share of the community. The logic here is ultimately mathematical. If two candidates run for one office, then 50 percent-1 voters waste their votes: they either vote for a losing candidate, or cast a vote for the winner that the winner did not need. 

But if three (or more) candidates run for two slots in the same election, it only takes 33 1/3 percent+1 votes to get elected to each slot, so only 33 1/3 percent-1 voters waste their votes. The more seats there are in a single race, the fewer the number of voters who have no say. The Illinois state assembly used such a system for roughly a century, giving representation to Republicans in Chicago and to Democrats downstate.

Racial polarisation

One reason Guinier was drawn in this direction is because single-member districts tend to exacerbate racial polarisation, while multi-member districts with proportional representation present opportunities to both elect strong community representatives and politicians who cross racial lines. Particularly in the South, proportional representation seemed to offer the best opportunity for building and sustaining a cross-racial progressive electorate.

But the logic of this sort of strength is not limited to racial communities. It applies to any self-organising community of interest. Democracy works best when there are strong advocates and strong mediators working together to craft policies sensitive to the widest possible range of legitimate interests and needs. 

Strictly speaking, Guinier’s ideas were irrelevant for the office she was appointed to – Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, since that job consists of applying existing law, not advancing ideas for new law. But they did indicate a rare combination of critical and creative thoughtfulness, scholarly diligence and dedication to developing inclusive solutions that was completely germane – exactly the sorts of qualities that one might wish for in such a position. Her ideas also help illuminate the broader possibilities of how a healthier, more robust and inclusive democracy might look. 

Of course, Guinier was mercilessly demagogued – most notably as a “quota queen” -buried beneath an avalanche of false and malicious accusations, which the Clinton administration did nothing to defend her against. Joe Biden, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, made matters even worse, as he carelessly validated some of the pernicious mis-readings of what Guinier had written, like Clinton himself, never bothering to actually sit down with Guinier and give her a chance to explain what she was actually saying and how she was being misrepresented. 

Clinton’s eventual disowning of Guinier signalled a profound concession to the power of right-wing propagandists, which only grew more powerful as a result. Six years later, Clinton would become the first President in over 100 years to be impeached as a partial result. But another negative consequence was that Democrats as a whole simply stopped thinking creatively and proactively about voting rights issues – and that has opened the door for Republicans to become ever more aggressive in promoting their own phony “solutions”, which typically only make matters worse. The plans pushed by Carrico and others are but the latest examples of where this unchecked Republican dynamic leads. 

Guinier’s ideas, and broader perspective they’re representative of, did not just go away, of course. But they were largely excluded from the mainstream of Democratic Party thinking, and have flourished primarily among issue activists devoted to voting rights and democracy promotion.   

One prominent example is the organisation FairVote, which promotes a variety of approaches to enhance democratic participation and representation, including a sensible way around the profound dysfunction of the electoral college. Because entrenched interests are highly unlikely to allow the direct repeal of the electoral college (it would require a Constitutional amendment), FairVote is promoting a de facto work-around: a binding multi-state agreement to cast electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote.  

This agreement will only become operative once enough states have signed on to constitute a majority in the electoral college. They’re just under half-way there by now, and (Surprise! Surprise!) all the states that have signed on so far have been Blue states – although Republican legislators have supported the measures as well. It sounds a bit gimmicky, and it is: it’s a slightly gimmicky way out of an extremely gimmicky situation. But the end result is quite straightforward: the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes will be elected President. 

That’s not the only thing FairVote does, though. They also promote proportional representation. As explained on their website last July, North Carolina presents a classic example of the pernicious effects of partisan gerrymandering and the contrasting benefits that proportional representation could provide. First, the gerrymandering: 

North Carolina lawmakers have approved one of the nation’s most extreme partisan gerrymanders this year. Four of the state’s seven Democratic incumbents are clearly targeted for defeat. The new map reduces the number of the state’s 13 congressional districts carried by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race from eight to only three, with the remaining 10 district all ones where John McCain won at least 55 percent of the vote.

Proportional representation

While academics have argued that districting itself is the primary culprit in protecting the GOP’s minority control in the 2012 election, the situation in North Carolina was much the same as the other six states that Obama won in 2008, but which Republicans completely controlled after the 2010 mid-terms, when redistricting took place. And as already noted, if these seven states had been roughly equitable, Democrats would have retaken the House. That puts the partisan gerrymandering in these states in a class all by themselves.  

“The failure of Democrats to significantly reform the Senate filibuster shows that they, too, value personal power over good government for all.”

Still, those pointing to districting itself as the root of the problem do have a point, as Guinier argued 20 years ago. Especially when combined with the urban concentration of Democratic voters, it makes GOP partisan gerrymanders particularly easy to pull off. So what’s the solution? According to FairVote:

FairVote has drawn a “super district” map designed for election with a proportional voting system. Our proportional plan upholds Supreme Court rulings on equal population while guaranteeing competitive voter choice for all voters in every election, fairer representation for backers of the major parties and more opportunities for candidate who are women, politically independent and/or African Americans. 

Their map consisted of three super districts, each covering a distinctive region of the state, with three seats in one super district, and five each in the other two. They went on to explain: 

With a proportional voting plan, a like-minded group of voters with just over 25 percent of the vote would be sure of electing a candidate in the three-seat super district and could win two if earning more than 50 percent of the vote. In a five-seat super district, winning one seat would take about 17 percent of the vote, winning two would take about 34 percent and winning a majority of three seats would take just over 50 percent. 

The voter make-up of the districts allowed for blacks to elect black representatives, meeting the requirement of the voting rights act without necessarily pushing people into racially polarised voting. Both the old set of districts and the GOP gerrymander produced two safe black seats, with little chance of any other black representation. The super-districts made two black seats extremely likely, with a strong possibility of a third.  

Although rarely used in the US, except at the local level, proportional representation of one sort or another is the most widely used form of democracy around the world, where it first put down roots in the 19th century. Getting it adopted in the US would take quite some doing, because it goes against entrenched ways of doing things – ways that favour politicians much more than voters. Put simply, elections let people choose their representatives, but districting lets politicians choose their voters. Why give up the edge? 

It’s much more achievable to gain popular election of the US President. As already noted, the process to making the switch is almost at the half-way point – and most people haven’t even heard about it. But both reforms could significantly improve US democracy, along with others FairVote advocates for as well. 

The longer that the US resists such reforms, the more those in power exploit the existing weaknesses of the current system. Republicans are in a league of their own, of course.  But the failure of Democrats to significantly reform the Senate filibuster shows that they, too, value personal power over good government for all. It’s up to the citizens themselves to take their democracy back – and bring it into the modern world. Or at least into the 19th century. That would be a start.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

More from Author
Most Read