Through gerrymandering, voter suppression and legislative tricks, the GOP has managed to hold on to power while more and more Americans reject their candidates and their ideas
by Tim Dickinson
As the nation recovers from the Republican shutdown of government, the question Americans should be asking is not “Why did the GOP do that to us?” but “Why were they even relevant in the first place?” So dramatically have the demographic and electoral tides in this country turned against the Republican Party that, in a representative democracy worthy of the designation, the Grand Old Party should be watching from the sidelines and licking its wounds. Not only did Barack Obama win a second term in an electoral landslide in 2012, but he is also just the fourth president in a century to have won two elections with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. What’s more, the party controls 55 seats in the Senate, and Democratic candidates for the House received well over a million more votes than their Republican counterparts in the election last year. And yet, John Boehner still wields the gavel in the House and Republican resistance remains a defining force in the Senate, frustrating Obama’s ambitious agenda.
How is this possible? National Republicans have waged an unrelenting campaign to exploit every weakness and anachronism in our electoral system. Through a combination of hyperpartisan redistricting of the House, unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate and racist voter suppression in the states, today’s GOP has locked in political power that it could never have secured on a level playing field.
Despite the fact that Republican Congressional candidates received nearly 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates last November, the Republicans lost only eight seats from their historic 2010 romp, allowing them to preserve a fat 33-seat edge in the House. Unscrupulous Republican gerrymandering following the 2010 census made the difference, according to a statistical analysis conducted by the Princeton Election Consortium. Under historically typical redistricting, House Republicans would now likely be clinging to a reedy five-seat majority. “There’s the normal tug of war of American politics,” says Sam Wang, founder of the consortium. “Trying to protect one congressman here, or unseat another one there.” The Princeton model was built, he says, to detect “whether something got pulled off-kilter on top of that.”
Did it ever. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates took 51 percent of the vote across the state’s 18 districts, but only five of the seats. In Wang’s model, the odds against Democrats emerging at an eight-seat disadvantage are 1,000-to-1. And Pennsylvania was not alone. According to the Election Consortium analysis, gerrymandering helped Republicans secure 13 seats in just six states – including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina – that, under normal rules of engagement, Democrats would have won.
This tilting of the electoral playing field was the result of a sophisticated campaign coordinated at the highest levels of Republican politics through a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) – a Super-PAC-like entity chaired by Bush-era RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and backed by Karl Rove. Shortly after President Obama’s first election, the RSLC launched the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) with an explicit strategy to “keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting.” The logic was simple. Every decade following the census, the task of redrawing federal congressional-district boundaries falls (with some exceptions) to the state legislatures. If Republicans could seize control of statehouses – and, where necessary, have GOP governors in place to rubber-stamp their redistricting maps – the party could lock in new districts that would favor Republican candidates for a decade. As Rove wrote in a Wall Street Journal column in early 2010: “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
In short order, the RSLC raised more than $30 million to fund Rove’s vision while its hapless counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised barely one-third of that amount. “The Obama people simply didn’t understand what was happening to them in 2010,” says a prominent Democrat. “They just sat it out, and Republicans ran up the score.”
The RSLC was particularly focused on states that stood to gain or lose seats. Ohio, for example, would lose two to states with faster population growth. Instead of tweaking the boundaries of existing districts, mapmakers would be empowered in these states to draw new boundaries more or less from scratch – providing “maximum opportunity for mischief,” in the words of RSLC president and former REDMAP executive director Chris Jankowski. “You certainly don’t want your opponent drawing those lines.” On election night in 2010, propelled by Tea Party anger and the RSLC’s millions, the GOP seized full-party control of 21 state governments – up from nine the previous year and enough to put the party in charge of redistricting 173 House seats. “Democrats,” bragged Jankowski, “will not soon recover from what happened to them on a state level last night.”
In past elections, a gentleman’s agreement prevailed among sitting politicians of both parties that redistricting would keep them safe. But in 2010, Gillespie told reporters, the Republican strategy would be “to maximize gains.” Incumbent seats would be made somewhat less safe in service of spreading the GOP’s advantage more broadly. “You’d go from these [incumbent] seats that would carve at 60 percent to seats that get carved at 54 percent,” he said.
RSLC’s impact was particularly clear in North Carolina. Leading up to the 2010 election, RSLC steered $1.2 million into the state to fund withering attack ads. Democratic incumbents from poor, rural districts simply didn’t have the resources to defend themselves against the onslaught of outside spending – and national Democrats didn’t call in the cavalry. As a result, Republicans seized control of the North Carolina state assembly for the first time since Reconstruction and began plotting to take control of the state’s 13-seat congressional delegation, which still swung Democrat, seven seats to six.
In a letter to state legislators, Jankowski wrote, “We have taken the initiative to retain a team of seasoned redistricting experts that we will make available to you at no cost to your caucus for assistance.” The RSLC brought on GOP operative Tom Hofeller, who has been in the Republican redistricting game since the 1970s.
Employing computer software known as Maptitude, Hofeller and his team used sophisticated data-mining techniques to draw new districts that maximally disadvantaged Democrats. Maptitude advertises the ability to merge precinct-level returns from past elections with federal census data to “identify communities of interest,” including “racial or ethnic enclaves that tend to have similar interests and vote as a bloc.” Explicit racial gerrymandering is illegal under the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. So Hofeller used a proxy for race, redrawing boundaries by identifying the wards where President Obama received the highest returns in 2008. According to court documents, this approach “allowed black voters to be carved apart from their white neighbors and friends, on a block-by-block basis.”
Hofeller’s final state map featured 10 districts gerrymandered to give Republicans a solid edge – between nine and 12 points – matched against just three districts in which Democrats would have a massive advantage of 17 to 23 points. On Election Day, Democrats outpolled the GOP by 81,000 votes, but Republicans took nine of the 13 seats. The RSLC’s map was spoiled only by Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democratic incumbent, who eked out a 654-vote victory in a district drawn to favor the Republican by 11 points. Following Gillespie’s share-the-wealth strategy, only two Republicans won more than 60 percent of the vote. By contrast, three of the four Democrats won in landslides of greater than 70 percent. Mel Watt, a black congressman from the 12th district, won an eighth term with 80 percent of the vote. Even before the election, Watt decried his new district lines as part of a “sinister Republican effort to use African-Americans as pawns in their effort to gain partisan, political gains in Congress.”
The triumphant GOP made no effort to conceal these machinations. “REDMAP’s effect on the 2012 election is plain,” reads a post-election RSLC report. “Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates . . . but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.” In Wisconsin, where $1.1 million in RSLC cash helped flip both chambers of the state legislature, empowering union-busting governor Scott Walker, Republicans prevailed by a five-to-three margin in House seats despite losing the popular vote by more than 43,000. In Ohio, only 52 percent of voters cast ballots for Republicans, but thanks to maps drawn in a Columbus-area Doubletree Hotel, referred to by GOP operatives in court documents as “the bunker,” John Boehner’s home-state delegation swings 12-4 for the GOP.
Republican redistricting has made a mockery of the ideal of “one man, one vote.” To take back the House next year, 100 Democratic voters would have to turn out for every 94 Republicans. “Given the GOP-tilted nature of the congressional map,” writes David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, “Democrats would need to win the national popular vote by between six and seven points in order to win the barest possible House majority.”
Through redistricting, Republicans have succeeded in making the House more like the Senate – which the founders established as an anti-majoritarian institution to safeguard the interests of small states. At the time of the constitutional convention in 1787, the most populous state, Virginia, counted nearly 10 times the free population of Delaware. Yet both would have the same number of senators. In the more than two centuries since, America has expanded, and its population became concentrated, in ways the founders could have scarcely imagined – rendering the original 10:1 standard quaint. Today, the population of California outpaces Wyoming’s by a ratio of 65:1. This extreme example underscores a nationwide trend: Half of the U.S. population now resides in just nine states. Which is to say that the other 50 percent of Americans control 82 votes in the U.S. Senate.
This state of affairs would be shocking enough if the Senate were governed by majority rule. But since 2007, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has subjected the daily business of the chamber to the filibuster, which means that legislation cannot advance and a presidential nominee can’t be confirmed without a supermajority of 60 votes. Republicans have used this parliamentary roadblock to stop greenhouse-gas regulations, stall the DREAM Act and delay judicial confirmations.
The filibuster adds an undemocratic overlay to a chamber that is already rankly undemocratic. In today’s Senate, 41 small-state Republicans can mount a filibuster on behalf of 28 percent of the country. And the departure from historical practice is shocking: LBJ faced one filibuster as Senate majority leader. Harry Reid, the current majority leader, has faced more than 430. Nearly half the filibusters of executive-branch nominations in the nation’s history – 16 of 36 – have occurred under Obama.
The modern filibuster has only been in place since 1917, but McConnell defends the procedure as though it were central to the creation of the republic. “The founders purposefully crafted the Senate to be a deliberate, thoughtful body,” McConnell said during a 2010 hearing. “A supermajority requirement,” he said, “ensures that wise purpose.” In reality, the founders railed against the dangers of supermajority rule. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton warned of the “tedious delays” and “contemptible compromises of the public good” that result when “a minority can control the opinion of the majority.”
Republicans aren’t finished in their campaign to rig the political system. The party has been seeking to carry over its built-in advantage in the House into a new edge in presidential elections. In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College. These states would instead apportion electoral votes by the favored candidate of each congressional district – a method currently practiced by only two, small, homogenous states, Maine and Nebraska. Thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering, such a change would all but guarantee that a Democratic presidential candidate in a big, diverse state like Michigan would lose the split of electoral votes even if he or she won in a popular landslide.
“You’d see a massive shift of electoral votes,” a senior Republican official who backed the proposal told the National Journal, emphasizing that the change would be much less work than persuading a majority of voters to back the GOP candidate: “There’s no kind of . . . outreach,” the official said, “that can grab us those electoral votes that quickly.” In September, a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill to implement the scheme in the biggest swing-state prize in the land, Florida. Had it been in place in each of the states that have introduced the plan – including Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – Mitt Romney would be president, despite receiving 5 million fewer votes than Obama.
In a true democracy, citizens could depend on the courts to overturn partisan schemes to subvert the will of the governed. But here, too, Republicans are winning. In July, a three-judge panel struck down a challenge to North Carolina’s redistricting, and a federal-court challenge of the filibuster was also recently struck down.
In fact, activist judges at the highest level are abetting the GOP’s efforts to disenfranchise millions of Americans of color. Since the 1960s, Southern states with a history of voter suppression have had to submit proposed changes in elections law to a review by the federal government. The 2011 redistricting map drawn by the Republican state legislature in Texas was thrown out by a three-judge federal panel because it had been “enacted with discriminatory purpose.” (Texas had gained four House seats because of population growth that was 90 percent minority. In the legislature’s map, three of the four new districts were gerrymandered to favor Anglo Republicans.) Federal judges also struck down Texas’ voter-ID law, the most restrictive in the nation, for imposing “unforgiving burdens” on “racial minorities . . . disproportionately likely to live in poverty.”
But this summer, the Supreme Court not only vacated these Texas rulings, it gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ending federal “preclearance” of election law in the old Confederacy. Texas lawmakers continue to wrangle over redistricting. But the state’s voter-ID law went into effect this October. Those without state-issued photo ID – gun permits are valid, college IDs are not – can seek out a special voting card, but must first pay a de facto poll tax of $22 to secure a birth certificate and then travel as far as 250 miles to apply at a state motor-vehicle office. As many as 1.4 million Texas voters are currently barred from polls because they lack the required identification. At last count, the state had issued exactly 41 special voter-ID cards.
Such trickery has come to define the GOP’s approach to federal elections where Republicans can no longer prevail in a fair fight. Strict voter-ID laws have now been passed in more than a dozen states, most recently North Carolina. There, a county-level Republican Party Executive Committee member named Don Yelton recently committed a gaffe of truth-telling, admitting on national television that the driving purpose of the state’s voter-ID law is to “kick the Democrats in the butt.” If the law disenfranchises college students without photo IDs or “hurts a bunch of lazy blacks,” Yelton said, “so be it.”
The bad news is that the Republican death grip on our political process could get even worse. The midterm electorate tends to be older and whiter than in presidential years; no one should be shocked to see the GOP expand its advantage in the House in 2014, or even make a run at the Senate. The good news is that the future is more powerful than Republican dirty tricks. The GOP may have postponed its day of reckoning at the hands of a younger, browner, queerer electorate – “They’re holding back the tides,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics – but sooner or later, they’re going to get swamped.
This story is from the November 21st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.