Janine Jackson interviewed Steven Rosenfeld about gerrymandering and the Supreme Court for the October 6, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: We are definitely in challenging times, but it’s useful to remember that it isn’t that Americans per se are opposed to gun control, human rights for LGBTQ people, or affordable healthcare. At the same time, it’s painful to remember why it appears that we are. It’s because, as a recent piece by Neal Gabler for BillMoyers.com reminds us, we don’t have a working democracy where every voice is heard: A minority of people have outsized power.
One of the reasons for that is being considered right now in the Supreme Court. Recalled by many of us as an old-timey graphic in middle school textbooks, the term “gerrymander” refers to the drawing of political districts in such a way as to benefit a particular party. The case Gill v. Whitford is focused on Wisconsin, where in 2012 Republicans won just 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, but captured 60 out of 99 seats in the state assembly.
Here to help us see what’s going on and what’s at stake is Steven Rosenfeld. He covers national political issues for AlterNet, and he’s author of a number of books, including the forthcoming Inside Job: How American Elections Are Still Rigged Against Voters. He joins us now by phone from San Francisco. Welcome to CounterSpin, Steven Rosenfeld.
Steven Rosenfeld: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.
JJ: Wisconsin is asking the Supreme Court to overturn a decision striking down the 2011 redistricting plan for the lower house of their state assembly. Can you remind us what happened in Wisconsin that led to this being the test case for this issue?
SR: What happened was the Republicans, after they got completely trounced by Obama in 2008, saw a way back from political wilderness, as the cliche goes, and they realized that if they won enough seats in state legislatures in 2010 that they could draw the maps that would last this decade. So Karl Rove wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal, the Democrats from Nancy Pelosi to Obama completely ignored it, and then the Republicans went out with some of the nastiest political ads you could ever imagine at the local level, and they just emptied these legislatures out of long-time citizen legislators. They called women prostitutes, they called guys every kind of crook imaginable.
And then they drew the maps, and what they did was they drew maps segregating the reliable voters, their party’s and the Democrats. They looked at who came out and voted for John McCain in 2008, which was a lousy year, and they made sure that in these districts, they would have at least 56 percent, sometimes not too much more than that, reliable Republican majorities. And they put the Democrats, they packed them into other districts where they would typically win with 65, 70, 75 percent of the vote. So that’s how you end up getting these Republican supermajorities. It’s how they control the US House, it’s how they control all these states that you think should be purple, like Wisconsin or Georgia or North Carolina, but instead they’re firmly, firmly red.
And it turns out that if you draw lines, political districts, using race, it’s illegal under federal law—with one exception, which is sort of affirmative action for minorities. But if you draw these lines using extreme partisanship, which is what the Republicans argue they did in Wisconsin, so far, in the Supreme Court, it’s been legal; it has not been judged to be illegal. But Anthony Kennedy, in an earlier case, sort of hinted at, well, maybe we gotta take a look at this, because it’s so unfair, and if you can come up with a formula for us to prove how unfair it is and how anti-democratic is, we may consider it.
Well, that is what the people in Wisconsin did; they came up with the formula. A lower federal court said, OK, we agree with you. The Republicans in Wisconsin said, uh, we are going to appeal, and that’s what’s brought us to the Supreme Court, where basically they’re going to decide the rules that will either make our national politics fairer and more balanced, or continue being as extreme as they have been through the next decade, the decade of the 2020s, because redistricting is coming right around the corner.
JJ: The way of measuring it, that’s been the sort of missing piece, that’s the social science that Justice Roberts dismisses as “sociological gobbledygook”; he claimed during the arguing of this case that “the intelligent man on the street” would never understand how you could have a formula to figure out which votes were, quote unquote, “wasted.”
SR: Yeah. I should remind you that John Roberts also said, before Donald Trump’s election campaign, that we were in a post-racial society and therefore we no longer needed the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement provisions. And then within 24 hours of that Supreme Court decision in 2013, virtually every red state in the Old South passed voter ID laws, they got rid of same-day registration, they ended early voting. This is completely nuts.
JJ: Yeah. And it seems so disingenuous in the extreme to say, as Roberts also did, that the problem of gerrymandering should be fixed, he said through “democracy,” by which he meant the normal political process. But this is the normal political process!
SR: Yes, this is democracy, and it’s not very democratic.
SR: In fact, this is what people really don’t understand. This is one of the biggest, most influential factors on why Democrats and progressives have not been winning. The Supreme Court had a decision, before Gorsuch was on it, that basically threw out North Carolina’s racially motivated US House districts. And the numbers in it were that Republicans kept winning with 56 percent of the vote, and the Democrats and the few seats they held were like 69 and 70 percent. It’s not democratic when you segregate voters. The language people use is, politicians shouldn’t choose their voters.
But it’s segregating voters, reliable voters, and it gives you a 6 percent head start. And then you have other things that academics have tracked. Strict voter ID peels off another 2 or 3 percent. And then pretty soon Republicans have a starting line advantage, before anybody knows who’s running, of 10 percent. And for you to win elections by more than 10 percent, I mean, maybe we’ll see that in 2018, but, gosh, it’s so, so rare.
JJ: Well, this case, Gill v. Whitford, is talking about the Supreme Court’s ability to shut down extreme cases, which we should note could theoretically be committed by either major party. But that’s not really a system for going forward, it doesn’t sound like.
SR: Well, the Republicans in 2010, after they won political monopoly control in lots of states—they targeted a dozen states, and these are the states that are always among the finalists in presidential elections. We’re talking about Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas. And it’s as if we have two entirely different countries and two entirely different sets of voting rules. We have blue state coastal America, where none of this stuff is happening. People almost don’t understand how could this be happening, they can’t relate to it in their experience. And then you have this red state set of rules.
And the Democrats are no angels; they had plenty of things that they did to stop Bernie Sanders in that presidential nominating contest. I’m not sure he would have won, but they sure made it harder. The Democrats who run California are not exactly angels, either. But they have done nothing on the level of a coordinated nationwide strategy to basically seize the House and seize these states.
And [Republicans] have done it, and it’s held for every race, every election, every two-year cycle this decade. I mean, think of it. After 2010, the House, Republicans have held it. And all those states, all those states that filed those lawsuits against everything—Obamacare, LGBT rights, affirmative action this, climate change that—this is what’s been the result.
And actually, it goes worse than that, because today in the House, things have been segregated to such an extreme amongst who votes, that you have the most extreme Republicans saying that, well, taking healthcare away for 20-something million people is not good enough; and Paul Ryan can’t control them. This has created a downward spiral that’s pulling us to the bottom.
JJ: Finally we’re recording this on October 5. Do you have any thoughts right now about how Gill v. Whitford is likely to play out?
SR: Yeah, I do. I suspect that they’re not going to touch it, which means the status quo will hold. And the reason I say that is because Kennedy, who is the swing vote, said or signed on to a dissent in the North Carolina case that came out and threw out their congressional House seats last spring. It was written by Alito, and it said that, odious as all this extreme partisanship is, it’s part of human nature and part of politics, and it just comes with the turf, and we just can’t and shouldn’t touch it.
And I think that even though he was the one who invited the folks in Wisconsin to come up with a standard, that was several years ago, the most recent real clue we have from him is saying, well, I don’t know, it just seems like it’s just so much a part of human nature, and human nature is reflected in politics, we just got to live with the dark side. And I’m not optimistic.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Steven Rosenfeld, journalist at AlterNet.org and author of the forthcoming Inside Job: How American Elections Are Still Rigged Against Voters. Steven Rosenfeld, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SR: Well, thank you so much.
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