Michael To­masky

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael To­masky

Rat­fucked Again

A decade ago, when the Repub­li­can Party was pay­ing the price for the var­i­ous cat­a­clysms brought on by the Ge­orge W. Bush pres­i­dency—the shock­ingly in­ad­e­quate re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, the ill ef­fects of the Iraq War, the great eco­nomic melt­down—the Demo­cratic Party reached its post–Great So­ci­ety zenith. It nom­i­nated and elected the coun­try’s first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent—and he won de­ci­sively, against an ad­mired war hero. It sent sixty sen­a­tors to Wash­ing­ton, which it hadn’t done in forty years (and back then, around a dozen of those were south­ern con­ser­va­tives).1 It also sent 257 rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the House, its high­est num­ber since be­fore the Gin­grich Revo­lu­tion of 1994. Its gover­nors sat in twenty-eight ex­ec­u­tive man­sions, in­clud­ing in such im­prob­a­ble states as Ten­nessee, Kansas, Ok­la­homa, and Wy­oming. Then came the rise of the Tea Party and the calami­tous 2010 elec­tions. The Repub­li­cans’ net gain of sixty-three seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, giv­ing them con­trol over that cham­ber af­ter a four-year hia­tus, swal­lowed most of the head­lines (the party also had a net gain of six Se­nate seats). The Democrats, as Pres­i­dent Obama put it, took a “shel­lack­ing.” But per­haps the more con­se­quen­tial re­sults hap­pened in the states. Democrats lost a net to­tal of four gu­ber­na­to­rial races, tak­ing them down to a mi­nor­ity of twenty-two gov­er­nor­ships. They lost gu­ber­na­to­rial con­tests in some im­por­tant large states: Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio; Michi­gan, where Gov­er­nor Rick Sny­der would make his fate­ful de­ci­sion about the source of wa­ter for the city of Flint; and Wis­con­sin, where Scott Walker would pass anti-union leg­is­la­tion and steer state govern­ment hard to star­board. Florida, gov­erned be­fore that elec­tion by Char­lie Crist, an in­de­pen­dent who had left the GOP and crit­i­cized it as ex­trem­ist, turned to the very con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Rick Scott. And all of those im­prob­a­ble states listed above even­tu­ally re­verted to GOP con­trol.

Democrats like­wise took a pound­ing in state leg­isla­tive races in 2010. Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan, and Ohio had had di­vided leg­is­la­tures be­fore that elec­tion, and Wis­con­sin a Demo­cratic one. All four went Repub­li­can. So did Maine, New Hamp­shire, North Carolina, Al­abama, and Min­nesota. Iowa, Louisiana, Colorado, and Ore­gon moved from Demo­cratic con­trol to hav­ing di­vided leg­is­la­tures. In many of these states, the pen­du­lum has never swung back, or it has swung more ag­gres­sively in the Repub­li­can di­rec­tion,

1Tech­ni­cally, fifty-eight; but two in­de­pen­dents, Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and An­gus King of Maine, cau­cused with the Democrats, giv­ing them the cru­cial sixty votes needed to break a fil­i­buster. so that we now have, for ex­am­ple, thirty-three Repub­li­can gover­nors and just six­teen Demo­cratic ones, while Repub­li­cans main­tain com­plete con­trol of thirty-two state leg­is­la­tures to the Democrats’ mere thir­teen.

It was just one year, 2010, and one elec­tion. But it was a piv­otal one, be­cause it co­in­cided with the de­cen­nial cen­sus and the draw­ing, in time for the 2012 elec­tions, of new leg­isla­tive dis­tricts at the fed­eral and state lev­els. These newly em­pow­ered Repub­li­can gover­nors and leg­is­la­tors found them­selves with enor­mous power to re­shape politics for a decade, and boy did they use it. It can­not be said that what they did with their power stood fla­grantly out­side the tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, about which there is much to be ashamed—or at the very least, much of which fails to match the in­spir­ing story we learned as school­child­ren. But it cer­tainly can be said that these new Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties—and a few Demo­cratic ones, too, for ex­am­ple in Mary­land—took par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing to new lev­els. And they did so im­me­di­ately, so that in the 2012 elec­tions, as the con­gres­sional vot­ing an­a­lyst David Wasser­man of the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port found, Demo­cratic can­di­dates for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives col­lec­tively won 1.37 mil­lion more votes than their Repub­li­can op­po­nents, or 50.6 per­cent of the vote—but only 46 per­cent of the seats.2 As we head into this fall’s elec­tions, the Democrats are ex­pected to make big gains: most ob­servers be­lieve they’ll re­cap­ture the House, which they can do with a net gain of around twenty-four seats. That would ef­fec­tively fore­stall Pres­i­dent Trump’s en­act­ing any sort

2The Cook pa­per it­self is be­hind a pay­wall, but the num­bers can be found at W. Gard­ner Selby, “Repub­li­cans Won More House Seats Than More Pop­u­lar Democrats, Though Not En­tirely Be­cause of How Dis­tricts Were Drawn,” Poli­ti­fact.org, Novem­ber 26, 2013. of leg­isla­tive agenda. Re­tak­ing the Se­nate—con­sid­ered a tougher climb, but now thought pos­si­ble by the ex­perts in a way it was not a few months ago—would mean the Democrats could bot­tle up pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tions and even re­turn the fa­vor of what the Repub­li­cans did to Judge Mer­rick Gar­land in 2016 by block­ing a nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court, should one open up. But as the next cen­sus ap­proaches, state ex­ec­u­tive man­sions and leg­is­la­tures are at least as im­por­tant, as lib­er­als have be­lat­edly come to re­al­ize. The Democrats ac­tu­ally have two elec­tion cy­cles to see how much ground they can re­gain here, as new district lines won’t be drawn un­til af­ter the 2020 elec­tion re­sults are in. The party that wins the right to draw the leg­isla­tive maps of the 2020s will have enor­mous power to shape fu­ture Con­gresses and state leg­is­la­tures—to de­ter­mine, for ex­am­ple, whether dis­tricts are drawn in such a way that Repub­li­cans need only worry about win­ning con­ser­va­tive votes and Democrats lib­eral ones, or in a way that might push can­di­dates to­ward the cen­ter; and whether dis­tricts com­ply with the Vot­ing Rights Act, in a decade when much de­mo­graphic change is ex­pected, enough to per­haps turn the cru­cial state of Texas at least pur­ple, if not blue. Much is at stake.

The story of what the Repub­li­cans ac­com­plished in 2010 is ably told by David Da­ley, the former ed­i­tor of Salon, in his book Ratf**ked: The True Story Be­hind the Se­cret Plan to Steal Amer­ica’s Democ­racy, which El­iz­a­beth Drew re­viewed fa­vor­ably in these pages in 2016.3 In sum, the story starts in the sum­mer of 2009, when Chris Jankowski, who worked for a group called the Repub­li­can State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee, read a story in The New York Times em­pha­siz­ing the im­por­tance of the 2010 elec­tions. Like all Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives, Jankowski was down in the dumps at the time. But read­ing that Times

3“Amer­i­can Democ­racy Be­trayed,” The New York Re­view, Au­gust 18, 2016. ar­ti­cle gave him a sense of pur­pose and mis­sion.

Jankowski grasped the con­nec­tions im­me­di­ately. Map-draw­ing is hugely im­por­tant; state leg­is­la­tures con­trol map-draw­ing; many state leg­is­la­tures are nar­rowly di­vided; many can there­fore be “flipped” from one party to an­other with com­par­a­tively small amounts of money, far less than it would cost to flip a con­gres­sional seat. Jankowski quickly put to­gether a plan named REDMAP (short for “Redis­trict­ing Ma­jor­ity Project”), which would help the Repub­li­can Party dom­i­nate politics for the decade to come. “Win big in 2010 and Repub­li­cans could re­draw the maps and lock in elec­toral and fi­nan­cial ad­van­tages for the next ten years,” Da­ley writes. “Push just 20 [House] dis­tricts from com­pet­i­tive to safely Repub­li­can, and the GOP could save $100 mil­lion or more over the next decade.” So Jankowski got his seed money and started set­ting up of­fices in the state cap­i­tals most im­por­tant to the ef­fort. Wind filled the project’s sails in the form of the crip­pled econ­omy, which gave an­tiObama vot­ers ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion to turn out that fall, and the Jan­uary 2010 Cit­i­zens United Supreme Court de­ci­sion, which opened the door for many mil­lions of dol­lars of “dark money” (un­trace­able back to donors) to fi­nance both in­di­vid­ual cam­paigns and in­de­pen­dent com­mit­tees. REDMAP was off to the races.

Ratf**ked de­scribes the strik­ing re­sults. In Wis­con­sin, Repub­li­cans went into the 2010 elec­tion with a 50–45 deficit in the state as­sem­bly and an 18–15 dis­ad­van­tage in the Se­nate; they emerged with re­spec­tive ma­jori­ties of 60–38 and 19–14. In Michi­gan, Repub­li­cans al­ready con­trolled the state se­nate. They main­tained that con­trol, and they flipped a twen­tythree-seat deficit in the lower house to a six­teen-seat ad­van­tage. In North Carolina, a Demo­cratic 30–20 ad­van­tage dis­solved into a 31–19 Repub­li­can edge in the state se­nate; in the state house, the Repub­li­cans went from a 68–52 dis­ad­van­tage to a 67–52 edge (with one in­de­pen­dent). And so on, and on.

In ev­ery elec­tion, cor­ners were cut, court prece­dents ig­nored, dirty deeds per­formed. In Penn­syl­va­nia, a thir­teen-term Demo­cratic state rep­re­sen­ta­tive named David Lev­dan­sky was de­feated be­cause he al­legedly voted for a “$600 mil­lion Arlen Specter Li­brary.” Such al­le­ga­tions were made in ads paid for by the state Repub­li­can Party and the Repub­li­can State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee. In fact, $600 mil­lion was the en­tire state bud­get, al­though even that was the ini­tially ap­pro­pri­ated fig­ure; ac­tual out­lays, as Lev­dan­sky ex­plains to Da­ley, typ­i­cally come in lower. As for the amount of that to­tal ac­tu­ally ear­marked for the li­brary in honor of the long­time senator, it was around $2 mil­lion. But by the time Lev­dan­sky got around to ex­plain­ing all that, most vot­ers had stopped lis­ten­ing.

That same fall in North Carolina, a Demo­crat named John Snow found him­self the tar­get of a mail­ing about a black felon named Henry Lee

McCol­lum, who was serv­ing time for the rape and mur­der of an eleven-yearold girl. “Thanks to ar­ro­gant State Senator John Snow,” it read, “McCol­lum could soon be let off of death row.” Snow lost. Four years later, McCol­lum, who has an IQ in the six­ties, and his half brother were cleared of the crime on DNA ev­i­dence; Henry Lee had spent more than thirty years on death row.4

The tools of map-draw­ing be­gan to grow more and more so­phis­ti­cated in the 1980s, with the ad­vent of com­put­ers. In one con­gres­sional district in Hous­ton back then, two neigh­bor­hoods were united into the same district by in­clu­sion of the Hous­ton ship chan­nel, where of course no ac­tual vot­ers lived. By now, dis­tricts can be drawn with such pre­ci­sion—in­clud­ing a spe­cific cen­sus tract, ex­clud­ing the one next door—that party reg­is­tra­tion of in­hab­i­tants can be cal­cu­lated to the sec­ond or third dec­i­mal point. The re­sult is dis­tricts that are so far re­moved from the “com­pact and con­tigu­ous” stan­dard that courts have been known to ap­ply that they be­come the butt of jokes. Penn­syl­va­nia’s cur­rent sev­enth con­gres­sional district, two blobs linked by a lit­tle strip of land that ap­pears to be no more than a few miles wide, re­minded one ob­server of noth­ing so much as “Don­ald Duck kick­ing Goofy.” 4See Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff, “Par­doned Broth­ers’ Pay­out Trig­gers Fight Over Who Gets a Cut,” The Char­lotte Ob­server, May 1, 2017. Through such tech­niques, the ma­jor­ity party can fig­ure out ways to cram the vot­ers of the mi­nor­ity party into as few dis­tricts as pos­si­ble. Repub­li­cans in par­tic­u­lar are as­sisted in this ef­fort by the fact that Democrats and lib­er­als tend to live in higher-den­sity ar­eas more of­ten than Repub­li­cans and con­ser­va­tives do. Hence, mil­lions of Democrats are packed into com­par­a­tively fewer ur­ban dis­tricts and sub­ur­ban dis­tricts close to the city cen­ter, while Repub­li­cans are spread out over more dis­tricts. All this in turn means that Repub­li­cans can rack up im­pres­sive leg­isla­tive ma­jori­ties even as they are win­ning a mi­nor­ity of the vote. This hap­pened, as Da­ley doc­u­ments, in state af­ter state. In Wis­con­sin in 2012, for ex­am­ple, Pres­i­dent Obama won 53 per­cent of the vote, and Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­date Tammy Bald­win won 51.4 per­cent. Democrats also won 50.4 per­cent of the ag­gre­gate vote for can­di­dates for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, but Repub­li­cans took five of the state’s eight seats. In the state as­sem­bly, Demo­cratic can­di­dates over­all re­ceived 174,000 more votes than GOP can­di­dates, but Repub­li­cans won 60 per­cent of the seats.

A few rays of hope have re­cently emerged. Ari­zona is one of a hand­ful of states (in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia) that has turned over the draw­ing of leg­isla­tive lines af­ter the 2020 cen­sus to an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion. Such com­mis­sions will not be en­tirely free of politics, but they will surely be an im­prove­ment on leg­is­la­tors’ draw­ing dis­tricts for them­selves and their friends. Sec­ond, the courts have thrown out the egre­gious lines that Repub­li­cans drew in Penn­syl­va­nia, a state where Democrats out­num­ber Repub­li­cans, where un­til 2016 no Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date had won since 1988, where there had been twelve Democrats in the state’s House del­e­ga­tion to seven Repub­li­cans, but where af­ter 2010 the con­gres­sional split went to 13–5 in the Repub­li­cans’ fa­vor. The new map, which was drawn by the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court and will be used this Novem­ber, ac­tu­ally fea­tures dis­tricts that for the most part make some ge­o­graphic sense and that most ex­perts think will pro­duce some­thing more like an even split or a nar­row Demo­cratic ad­van­tage (which would re­flect ac­tual voter reg­is­tra­tion).5

In June, the Supreme Court is ex­pected to rule on two more ger­ry­man­der­ing cases—one com­ing from Wis­con­sin, where Repub­li­cans drew egre­gious lines, and an­other from Mary­land, where Democrats were the cul­prits. At is­sue is whether a Court ma­jor­ity will de­fine dis­cernible stan­dards for what con­sti­tutes par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing. If it does so, a flood of ger­ry­man­der­ing lit­i­ga­tion is likely to en­sue, which re­form­ers hope will lend mo­men­tum to the move­ment to take the process out of politi­cians’ hands once and for all.

In the be­gin­ning, the edict was sim­ple. The fifty-five del­e­gates to the 1787 Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion agreed— un­der the lead­er­ship of a com­mit­tee led, iron­i­cally enough, by El­bridge Gerry, who some years later as gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts would lend his name to the prac­tice un­der dis­cus­sion here—that each mem­ber of the new House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives would rep­re­sent around 40,000 peo­ple. Later—on the last day of the con­ven­tion—they low­ered the num­ber to 30,000. The Con­sti­tu­tion they ap­proved pro­vided that ev­ery ten years, a cen­sus would be taken, and the size of House dis­tricts and num­ber of rep­re­sen­ta­tives ad­justed ac­cord­ingly.

A cen­sus was duly con­ducted ev­ery decade, and the pop­u­la­tions of con­gres­sional dis­tricts in­creased by a few thou­sand each time—37,000 in 1800, 40,000 in 1810, and so on. But the var­i­ous states’ com­mit­ments to draw­ing fair dis­tricts was, shall we say, in­dif­fer­ent. This was a prob­lem that went back to the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment. As bor­oughs were in­cor­po­rated, they de­manded rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and they were given it; but no one had yet thought (say, in the 1600s) about the prob­lem of equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. As such, both towns with only a few peo­ple and fast-grow­ing ci­ties sent two rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Par­lia­ment. Noth­ing was done, and by 1783, writes Rose­marie Za­garri in The Politics of Size, a Com­mons com­mit­tee re­ported that a ma­jor­ity of the body’s mem­bers was elected by just 11,075 vot­ers—a stag­ger­ing 1/170th of the pop­u­la­tion.6

The United King­dom fixed this “rot­ten bor­ough” prob­lem with the Re­form Act of 1832. In the United States, how­ever,

5See Nate Cohn, Matthew Block, and Kevin Quealy, “The New Penn­syl­va­nia Con­gres­sional Map, District by District,” The New York Times, Fe­bru­ary 19, 2018.

6The Politics of Size: Rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the United States, 1776–1850 (Cor­nell Univer­sity Press, 1987), p. 37. the bor­oughs just got rot­tener and rot­tener over the course of the nine­teenth cen­tury and well into the twen­ti­eth. As im­mi­grants be­gan to ar­rive, and af­ter the slaves were freed, and then as African-Amer­i­cans left the south­ern fields for the north­ern ci­ties, few states made any ef­fort what­so­ever to draw fair con­gres­sional dis­tricts ev­ery ten years. Most con­tin­ued to con­duct a cen­sus; they then res­o­lutely ig­nored the re­sults, openly thumb­ing their noses at the Con­sti­tu­tion. The mo­ti­va­tion, of course, was to deny ci­ties—with their pop­u­la­tions of im­mi­grants and, later, black peo­ple—their right­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Here are some num­bers, from J. Dou­glas Smith’s eye-open­ing 2014 book On Democ­racy’s Doorstep.7 The in­equities nearly defy be­lief. In Illi­nois af­ter World War II, the pop­u­la­tions of con­gres­sional dis­tricts ranged from 112,000 to 914,000. The larger district was ur­ban, the smaller one ru­ral, and the larger num­ber meant of course that ur­ban ar­eas had fewer rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and that res­i­dents of the larger district had about one eighth the voice in Congress that res­i­dents of the smaller district had. In mid­cen­tury Cal­i­for­nia, the 6,038,771 res­i­dents of Los An­ge­les County had one state senator, the same as the 14,294 in­hab­i­tants of three ru­ral Sierra coun­ties. As you might guess, the num­bers in the South were ap­palling, dis­en­fran­chis­ing what black vot­ers did ex­ist. But of all the states, the worst was Michi­gan, where ru­ral vot­ers and the leg­isla­tive barons of Lans­ing lived in mor­tal fear of Detroi­ters hav­ing their right­ful po­lit­i­cal say in the state’s af­fairs.

So it went, for 170 long years. How did such states get away with this? The courts would not en­force fair dis­tricts. Ag­grieved cit­i­zens filed law­suits, and courts looked at the num­bers and said “you’re right”; but they would go on to aver that this was a po­lit­i­cal mat­ter best set­tled through politics. The story Smith tells is the har­row­ing process by which these wrongs were fi­nally put right in the early 1960s in two land­mark Supreme Court de­ci­sions, Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims. In Baker (1962), which orig­i­nated in Ten­nessee, the Court held that ap­por­tion­ment was a “jus­ti­cia­ble” is­sue, i.e., one on which court in­ter­ven­tion was ap­pro­pri­ate. Two years later in Reynolds, which orig­i­nated in Al­abama, the Court held by 8–1 that all leg­is­la­tures (ex­cept the United States Se­nate) had to meet the “one per­son, one vote” stan­dard of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, so that dis­tricts all had more or less equal num­bers of vot­ers. It’s a riv­et­ing tale, in­volv­ing Archibald Cox, later of Water­gate fame but in the early 1960s Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s solic­i­tor gen­eral, urg­ing cau­tion, and Robert F. Kennedy push­ing for more ag­gres­sive ar­gu­ments be­fore the Court. Earl War­ren was asked nu­mer­ous times to name the tough­est case de­cided while he presided as chief jus­tice. The man who over­saw de­ci­sions like Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion and Mi­randa v. Ari­zona al­ways an­swered “ap­por­tion­ment.”

Two ti­tans squared off as Jus­tice Wil­liam O. Dou­glas emerged as the big­gest 7On Democ­racy’s Doorstep: The In­side Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Per­son, One Vote” to the United States (Hill and Wang, 2014).

cham­pion on the Court of tak­ing on the ap­por­tion­ment is­sue, and Felix Frank­furter its chief op­po­nent (dur­ing Baker de­lib­er­a­tions; by the time of Reynolds, Frank­furter was gone). An­other jus­tice, Charles Evans Whit­taker, was so tor­mented by the Baker de­lib­er­a­tions that he had a ner­vous break­down and left the Court. A move­ment started im­me­di­ately to call a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion to undo this ju­di­cial treach­ery and re­turn to the states the right to treat leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion as they pleased, egged on by Se­nate Repub­li­can leader Everett Dirk­sen. Thir­tythree states said yes—leav­ing the ef­fort one state short of suc­cess.

This is the larger his­tor­i­cal back­ground against which re­cent Repub­li­can ef­forts need to be un­der­stood. The his­tory of leg­isla­tive sys­tem-rig­ging by ru­ral, con­ser­va­tive in­ter­ests is a long and ig­no­ble one. For most of our his­tory, our democ­racy has been, in Smith’s mem­o­rable phrase, a “de­lib­er­ately mis­shapen en­ter­prise.” Democrats have now, for the first time in mod­ern his­tory, set up the ma­chin­ery to try to do in 2020 what the GOP ac­com­plished in 2010. The Na­tional Demo­cratic Redis­trict­ing Com­mit­tee was es­tab­lished last year and is headed by Eric Holder, the former at­tor­ney gen­eral. “We have to come up with a sys­tem that is more neu­tral, be­cause the re­al­ity now is that we have politi­cians pick­ing their vot­ers as op­posed to cit­i­zens choos­ing who their rep­re­sen­ta­tives are go­ing to be,” Holder said at a Har­vard Kennedy School fo­rum on April 30.

His group raised nearly $11 mil­lion in its first six months and has placed a dozen states on its “tar­get” list and an­other seven on its “watch” list. In most states, the group cov­ets the gov­er­nor’s man­sion, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, and hopes to flip at least one house of the state leg­is­la­ture. In Min­nesota, Wis­con­sin, North Carolina, and Ohio, it’s also eye­ing down-bal­lot races. It ap­pears to be most fo­cused on Ohio, where the of­fices of sec­re­tary of state (which over­sees elec­tions) and state au­di­tor are on its list.

If suc­cess­ful, the Holder group’s ef­forts—he is also con­sid­er­ing run­ning for pres­i­dent, by the way—will bear late fruit. In the mean­time, to cap­ture the two dozen seats they need to con­trol the House, Demo­cratic can­di­dates this fall will need to win con­sid­er­ably more than 51 per­cent of the to­tal vote. Wasser­man of the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port es­ti­mates that Democrats need to beat Repub­li­cans by 7 per­cent over­all, which is in the vicin­ity of the party’s lead in most polls ask­ing re­spon­dents whether they pre­fer that Democrats or Repub­li­cans win this fall. But the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice is­sued a re­port in late March say­ing that the num­ber needed to win is more like 11 per­cent. The re­port as­sumes dif­fer­ent over­all Demo­cratic vote mar­gins and from there projects po­ten­tial Demo­cratic seat gains in the House based on his­tor­i­cal to­tals and on Bren­nan’s own es­ti­mates tak­ing ger­ry­man­der­ing into ac­count.8

Notice that even ac­cord­ing to the more op­ti­mistic (at least in the lower range) his­tor­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tion num­bers, the Democrats would need to win the na­tional vote mar­gin by 6 per­cent to win enough seats to re­take the House. Do­ing that is a tall or­der. Even in 2012, their best year in re­cent times, they won by only about 2 per­cent over­all. Ev­ery other sign for the Democrats has been en­cour­ag­ing. En­thu­si­asm has been far greater among Demo­cratic vot­ers than among Repub­li­can ones. Even when Demo­cratic can­di­dates have lost, they’ve lost en­cour­ag­ingly. In a late April spe­cial con­gres­sional elec­tion in Ari­zona, the Demo­cratic can­di­date came within five points of the Repub­li­can in a district that both Don­ald Trump in 2016 and Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 car­ried by more than twenty points. Af­ter the re­sults came in, Wasser­man tweeted: “If the only data point you had to go on was last night’s #AZ08 re­sult, you’d think a 30–40 seat Dem House gain in Nov. would be way low.” So Democrats have many rea­sons to re­tain their op­ti­mism. But if they fall short, the rea­son may have less to do with Don­ald Trump than with Chris Jankowski and his work in 2010 that stands far less athwart Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory and tra­di­tion than we’d pre­fer to be­lieve.

—May 10, 2018

8Laura Roy­den, Michael Li, and Yurij Ru­den­sky, “Ex­treme Ger­ry­man­der­ing and the 2018 Midterm,” Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, March 23, 2018.

Anti-ger­ry­man­der­ing ac­tivists in cos­tume as Mary­land district 5 (left) and district 1 (right) in front of the Supreme Court, March 2018

El­bridge Gerry, circa 1800: as gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts he be­came known for ma­nip­u­lat­ing vot­ing dis­tricts, a process now called “ger­ry­man­der­ing”

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