Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gerrymandering Future Presidential Elections

Every decade in years ending in zero, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. House of Representatives is reapportioned to account for population shifts within the country. As part of that process, many states choose, and some are forced, to redraw or redistrict the legislative lines of both the state and U.S. congressional districts. If this process proceeds in a state dominated by one party and not subject to a non-partisan commission, it usually results in obvious and exaggerated partisan gerrymandering—lines drawn to benefit one political party at the expense of the other. This process is considered constitutional as long as it does not harm the interests of minority or ethnic groupings.

Such was the case in Ohio, a state carried by Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and a state where 38% of voters in 2012 identified as Democrats (compared to 31% identifying as Republican) according to 2012 exit polls. Because of the gerrymandered congressional redistricting process carried out by the Ohio Republican Party in the Buckeye State in 2011, 12 of Ohio’s 16 (or 75%) U.S. congressional districts are held by Republicans representing relatively safe districts. Ohio voters have little chance to affect the outcome of congressional elections during the general election season. Most observers know, before the election even occurs, which party will win which congressional district. Regardless of which party benefits from gerrymandering, such a situation in a swing state like Ohio is an abomination. Ohio is not alone and a number of states were gerrymandered in an extreme fashion in 2011 (including Illinois which had Democrats drawing the lines).

As harmful to representative democracy as gerrymandering of legislative districts is, a new movement to essentially gerrymander future presidential elections is beginning. In a number of swing states in which the state legislature and gubernatorial office is controlled by the GOP, efforts are beginning to change the way electoral votes would be won and accounted for. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are currently awarded in a winner-take-all format—i.e., whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote in a particular state wins all the electoral votes. However, in a number of battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin there have been rumblings from GOP elected and election officials that perhaps it is time to alter that accounting method. In Virginia, a full-fledged effort is underway. Why? Because these swing states, despite their swing state status, have been trending towards the Democratic Party for a number of years and all were won by Obama in the last two elections. By shifting the awarding of electoral votes from a winner-take-all format to one based on the winner of gerrymandered congressional districts, a state party could alter the outcome of a presidential election in that state and potentially change the outcome of the presidential election in the country.

Using Ohio as an example, had such a congressional district system been in place for 2012, President Obama would have received just six of Ohio’s eighteen total electoral votes—he carried the four Democratic districts and would have received two more electoral votes (representing Ohio’s two senate seats) for carrying the whole state. Add up potential electoral vote losses in other swing states for Obama and it is a matter of basic arithmetic that the 2012 electoral vote total would have been much closer than the 332-206 result. In fact, Huffington Post crunched the numbers for the entire country. In 2012, had all states utilized the congressional district method currently used by Maine and Nebraska, the electoral vote result would have been: Obama 265 - Romney 273. This despite the fact that Obama would have won a clear popular vote victory. 

Will this effort to gerrymander the presidential election succeed? With media attention and increased public awareness, such schemes to game future presidential elections will likely fail. But it is unclear whether this issue will receive the attention it deserves over the next three years to stave off a successful effort.

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