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Columnist David Daley: Wake-up call on dangers of gerrymandering

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Imagine that you live in a larger version of Northampton, roughly double in size, and that it’s the biggest city in your corner of the state, but surrounded by conservative Hilltowns.

Then consider how fairly this city and its people would be represented in Congress if district lines were drawn to crack the city in half, and divide it between two members of Congress, both of them deeply conservative.

That’s how it feels to live in bright blue Asheville, the largest city in western North Carolina, home to countless vegan cafes, independent bookstores and universities — and represented in Congress by two of the most extreme Republicans in the U.S. House.

Asheville is a specific illustration about the dangers of gerrymandering. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue rulings in two crucial partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. Nothing less than the future look of representative democracy is at stake.

Gerrymandering transforms our politics, corrodes fair representation and electoral competition, and dilutes the power of our votes. It has never been worse — but just wait, if the court or citizen initiatives nationwide fail to rein in the most toxic versions before the 2020 census.

Just consider North Carolina’s 11th district. With Asheville as its heart, it had been a truly competitive swing seat. A Republican won in the GOP years of 2000, 2002 and 2004. Then in 2006, when there was a wave of support for Democrats as frustration mounted over the war in Iraq, the district was captured by a conservative Democrat, Heath Shuler.

While the Republicans could not defeat him in 2010, they drew him out of office the following year. As part of a brilliant and effective strategy called REDMAP, Republicans spent more than a million dollars in North Carolina targeting a handful of state legislative races, drowning local races in an ocean of negative, national ad buys, largely with untraceable dark money funded by the state’s version of the Koch Brothers.

It was a brilliant plan that played out nationally, with its roots in the 2008 Democratic wave that swept Barack Obama into the White House. Savvy Republicans understood that the 2010 census provided the party with a path back to power.

REDMAP architects spent $30 million in 2010 targeting control of state legislatures in tightly divided swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina. By flipping those chambers red, Republicans guaranteed themselves unilateral control over redistricting in each of those states the following year.

Karl Rove laid out the plan in a March 2010 column in The Wall Street Journal. Democrats didn’t get the paper. Rove named the down-ballot, small-town races that Republicans would use to retake control of Congress — and hold it for as long as a decade, maybe more. If Republicans could win 107 key state legislative races that fall, Rove wrote, they’d have complete control of drawing some 190 of the 435 congressional districts.

Flash-forward to 2012: Obama is re-elected, Democrats control the Senate and Democratic House candidates garner 1.4 million more votes than Republicans. But in the first election run with these new district lines, the maps hold. They are the Republican firewall. Republicans keep power in the House, with a decisive 234-201 majority.

This is especially dramatic when you look at those once-battleground swing states targeted by REDMAP. In Michigan, Democratic candidates won 240,000 more votes than Republicans — but Republicans won nine of 14 seats. In Ohio, Republicans captured 12 of the 16 congressional seats, 75 percent, with just over 50 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, Democratic congressional candidates win nearly 100,000 more votes — Republicans, however, claimed 13 of 18 seats.

North Carolina, meanwhile, sends 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats to Washington — including Mark Meadows, who won the new 11th district with half of Asheville in 2012 on a platform of sending Obama “back to Kenya or wherever it is that he comes from.” Meadows is a Republican but not just any Republican — he’s now chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, the man who deposed former Speaker John Boehner, drove two government shutdowns, and forced President Donald Trump’s health care and tax bills further to the right.

Meadows owes his seat to redistricting. This is the impact one redrawn district can have on everyone’s politics.

It will not be easy to change. These lines have endured through three very different elections in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Consider, once again, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. These five competitive states, send 48 Republicans and 21 Democrats to the House. In what should be worrying news for those hoping for a “blue wave,” Democrats have not flipped a single seat blue in those states in 2012, 2014 or 2016.

The good news is that the Supreme Court can — and should — install guardrails to protect the integrity of our districts. Meanwhile, citizen efforts to reform the process through ballot initiatives are well underway in Michigan, Ohio, Utah, Missouri, Colorado and Arkansas.

There’s not a moment to spare: If 2012 repeats itself in 2018, and Democrats earn more votes for the U.S. House but fail to win the chamber, the White House and all of Congress will be controlled by the party that won fewer votes.

If gerrymandering made your eyes glaze over before, that’s a pretty powerful wake-up call.

David Daley, of Haydenville, a senior fellow at FairVote, is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” His work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He will speak at the Emily Williston Memorial Library, 9 Park St., Easthampton, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday.