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Short of voters, Republicans gerrymander their way back to power

Republicans have become a devious party that believes if you cannot win by following fair rules, there is nothing wrong with rigging the game. To their constitutionally endorsed advantage in the Senate, they have added a manipulated advantage in the House of Representatives that some Republicans would like to leverage into an advantage in presidential elections.

Let’s take a look at how the political game board is set up: The population of California is significantly greater than the combined population of the 20 smallest states in the union, the majority of which are as red as California is blue. But the 36 million Californians get just two senators, while the 30 million people in those other states get 40. That does not seem fair, but the U.S. Constitution was not created to be perfectly democratic. The idea was that Senate representation would be tilted toward small states so they would not be overwhelmed by the voting power of big states (although the imbalance was not nearly as large between the big and small back in 1789).

The House of Representatives was intended to be the chamber in which seats would be allocated in proportion to the population. But, early on, wily politicians learned that House districts could be configured in ways that gave an advantage to one party or another, a tipping of the scales that came to be called “gerrymandering.” As statistical research has become a more exact science, it has allowed congressional district lines to be rendered very precisely to include certain voters and exclude others. While both parties have engaged in gerrymandering, Republicans have given it a particularly robust effort recently, winning legislative majorities in several key states where partisan legislators, not independent commissions, set district lines.

This push was rewarded in the 2012 election. Sam Wang, an associate professor at Princeton University, has done a thorough analysis of election results that was published in Sunday’s New York Times. Wang found that even though Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in House races, the GOP won 234 seats to the Democrats’ 201. How did this happen?

Wang identified 10 states in which representation has been skewed by gerrymandering. In Illinois and Texas this has created a mild bias toward Democratic candidates; in Indiana there is a mild bias toward Republicans. In Arizona, the distortion in favor of Democrats is bigger. Most significantly, though, in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, Republican candidates have been given a huge advantage by legislative redistricting driven to favor the GOP.

As a result, in those 10 states collectively, the Republican vote in 2012 was just 7% higher than for Democrats, yet Republicans took 76% more House seats. In most games, that would be called cheating. 

And remember that small-state advantage in the Senate? Among the 20 smallest states, a majority leans heavily Republican. The hard fact is that Republicans are represented far beyond their proportion of the electorate in both the Senate and the House.

What’s the next move in the game? In several of those states where congressional districts have been rigged to favor the Republican Party, Republican state legislators are pushing plans that would let the gerrymander crawl into presidential elections. Where their states’ electoral votes are now awarded to the winner of the total statewide vote, they would change the rules to award electoral votes by congressional districts instead. If this plan had been in place in 2012 in states such as Virginia, Florida and Ohio, Mitt Romney would be president today, even though Barack Obama won 5 million more votes nationwide.

You could call all of this the desperate act of a dying political party, but so far it looks more like the brilliant strategy of a powerful minority determined to prevail.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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