November 16, 2012

HAROLD MEYERSON: Gerrymandering, not popular will, helped GOP keep control of House

Harold Meyerson

When Republicans claim that this was a status quo election, they point to their continued hold on the House. The 2012 congressional vote, some have said, didn't undo the party's 2010 successes.

True enough, but that's not because Americans didn't vote to undo them. It's because Republicans have so gerrymandered congressional districts in states where they controlled redistricting the past two years that they were able to elude a popular vote that went the Democrats' way last week.

As The Washington Post's Aaron Blake reported, Democrats narrowly outpolled Republicans in the total number of votes cast for congressional candidates. The margin varies depending on whether you count the races in which candidates ran unopposed and those in which members of the same party faced off (as happened in several California districts). Any way you count it, however, the Democrats came out ahead -- in everything but the number of House seats they won.

Consider Pennsylvania, where President Barack Obama won 52 percent of the votes cast, and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey defeated his Republican rival, 53 percent to 45 percent. Yet Democrats won just five of that state's 18 U.S. House seats.

Why such lopsided numbers? Because Republican-controlled redistricting after the 2010 Census packed Democratic voters into a handful of imaginatively shaped districts around Pennsylvania's urban centers and created a slew of GOP districts in the rest of the state.

The overwhelming Democratic margins in the two heavily African American Philadelphia districts didn't require constructing oddly shaped districts, but carving up the rest of the state to minimize districts that Democrats might win required politically driven line-drawing of the highest order.

So it went in several other swing states. Obama won Ohio by two points, and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won by five, but Democrats emerged with just four of Ohio's 16 House seats.

In Wisconsin, Obama prevailed by seven points, and Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin by five, but their party finished with just three of the state's eight House seats.

In Virginia, Obama and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine were clear victors, but Democrats won just three of the commonwealth's 11 House seats. In Florida, Obama eked out a victory and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won by 13 points, but Democrats will hold only 10 of the Sunshine State's 27 House seats.

In these five states, where both Obama and Democratic Senate candidates won, Democrats will hold 25 House seats in the next Congress to the Republicans' 55. If the control of these House seats reflected the Democrats' statewide margins in presidential and Senate contests, the Democrats likely would be at parity or in the majority in the new House.

Now, this isn't to say Democrats don't play similar games. On Election Day, they picked up five House seats in Illinois after a Democratic-controlled redistricting in 2011, so they will hold 12 of the 18 Illinois House seats come January. Obama, however, carried his home state by a 16-point margin, and the Democratic pick-ups help create a delegation that fairly reflects the state's partisan balance.

A model for a fairer war to carve congressional districts -- so that they more closely reflect actual voter sentiment -- exists in California. Years ago, Golden State voters entrusted redistricting to a nonpartisan commission. Last week's election was the first conducted using the new boundaries.

Some longtime incumbents (among them Democrat Howard Berman and Republican David Dreier) were displaced, and some rising constituencies were empowered; California's new congressional delegation will include five Asian Americans, nine Latinos and 18 women -- all Democrats.

No one, however, is arguing that the new members don't reflect the state's balance of power. Obama carried California by 21 points; Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein won by 23; and Democrats are likely to hold 38 of the state's 53 House seats when the counting concludes (two races are still out).

Republicans love to proclaim their affinity for the marketplace and the genius of competition. It's precisely by suppressing competition, and crafting uncompetitive districts, however, that they maintained their hold on the House last week.

Any notion that House Republicans have a mandate of their own that they can bring to a fight with the president is spurious. Their grasp on the House derives not from voter sentiment but almost entirely from the line-drawers' art.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.This column was distributed by The Washington Post, where it first appeared.

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