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Voting - Part I
Welcome to Win-Win Democracy
This is the first edition of the Win-Win Democracy newsletter. You can learn what to expect by reading the newsletter’s About page.
Our first topic is voting. We’ve been fighting about voting since America’s founding. Most recently, the big fights are about fraud, voter suppression, and gerrymandering of district maps. State legislatures, the US Congress, and courts at many levels are embroiled in the battle.
Voting is deceptively complex. It will take us several newsletters to work our way to a win-win proposal, starting with the core win-win idea in this newsletter.
A Request for Help: A newsletter like this will work best if we have participants from across the political spectrum holding a variety of opinions on important issues facing America. Most of my friends lean left, so many of the initial subscribers lean left. If you have friends or relatives who lean right, please invite them to subscribe and participate.
We have a win-win when all stakeholders get something important to them.
Broadly speaking, most Republican leaders say that they want to prevent electoral fraud so that people can trust the results of elections, and most Democratic leaders say that they want voting to be easy and district maps to be fair (whatever that means).
Could we have a win-win policy that gives both Democratic and Republican leaders what they say they want? We’ll look at two important issues where it seems like a win-win could be possible.
Voter ID to Prevent Electoral Fraud
Among the myriad kinds of potential electoral fraud1, Republican leaders in legislatures across the country have focused on voter impersonation, in which someone votes more than once or an ineligible person votes using an eligible voter’s name. Their solution is voter id: Show your driver license (or certain other id cards) when you vote in person.
This seems commonsensical and around 80% of Americans support it2, despite no evidence that voter impersonation is a problem. Republicans have therefore been able to pass voter id laws (and constitutional amendments) in many states. Republican leaders have generally ignored other kinds of electoral fraud, despite well-documented instances.
Democrats have opposed voter id requirements, claiming both that voter impersonation fraud is insignificant and that voter id requirements are voter suppression because, for people who don’t otherwise need an id card, getting one is a substantial burden (lost time from work, transportation costs, difficulty and expense of gathering the necessary documentation), especially for poor people.
A 2006 survey3 found that about 7% of US citizens don’t have access to proof-of-citizenship documents and that as many as 11% don’t have government-issued photo identification, both of which are generally needed to obtain voter id. The elderly, the poor, and minority citizens are all much less likely than the overall public to possess the necessary documents to be able to get a voter id. Republican-controlled legislatures have reinforced suspicions that voter id is really about voter suppression by also taking steps to make obtaining ids more difficult.
That said, Democrats have not presented compelling evidence that voter id laws significantly reduce voter turnout4, but, again, since it seems commonsensical that they do reduce turnout, Democrats have been able to have some voter id laws overturned in court.
For example, in North Carolina, where I live, a constitutional amendment requiring voter id was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2017 and ratified by voters in 2018. Several courts have ruled it and subsequent laws that spell out implementation details unconstitutional5. As of this writing, the voter id requirement has not been enforced and litigation remains underway.
Regardless of the facts, our political leaders of both parties have taught us to have strong opinions about voter id. This divisive fight has been raging for decades with high emotions but no end in sight.
Gerrymandering of District Maps
In our system, a representative is elected by voters in a district. For some offices districts are pre-defined — a US Senator or a governor represents all of the state’s residents; for other offices, like US House representatives and state legislatures, districts are defined by a map created by some state-specific process. It has long been known that district maps can be “gerrymandered6” — drawn to give one party or one group (often racial) an advantage.
Gerrymandering is as American as apple pie. But computers and comprehensive voting behavior data have made gerrymandering dramatically more effective than ever before.
Republicans Do It
Here’s an example from North Carolina in the 2018 General Election. At that time, NC had 13 US Congressional Districts. As you can see below on the left7, slightly more than half the votes for US Congress were cast for Republican candidates and slightly less than half for Democratic candidates.
Yet, of the 13 seats at stake, 10 went to Republicans and 3 to Democrats.
Something is fishy here: a state with a near-tie in votes cast for the candidates of the two major parties gets represented by more than 3 times as many Republicans as Democrats.
Republican legislators drew the district maps with exactly this intent, according to Representative David Lewis, the Republican leader of the NC House redistricting committee: 8
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country. … I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
This approach is not limited to North Carolina: Republican operative Thomas Hofeller worked with Republicans nationwide, including North Carolina, to define partisan gerrymanders9. When he died in 2018, his daughter made files from his gerrymandering work available to the public, exposing the systematic nature of the effort.
Democrats Do It
Democrats gerrymander too. In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled state legislature re-drew one of Maryland’s districts that had a Republican incumbent using an elaborate process in 2011 that put 24,000 additional Democrats in the district while at the same time removing 66,000 Republicans, flipping the district to Democratic10.
Last year, Democrats in Illinois changed their districts in a way that will likely deliver them 14 of 17 districts in the 2022 election11.
And just this past Wednesday, Democratic legislators in New York passed a congressional district map that are likely to give Democrats control of 85% of the seats in the next election12, when in the 2020 New York congressional election 58% of votes went to Democratic candidates and 33% to Republican candidates13. And, wouldn’t you know it, New York Republicans are preparing a lawsuit to fight the new maps.
Partisan Gerrymandering is Bad for Everyone But the Politicians Currently in Power
With a heavily gerrymandered map, most districts are “safe” because the districts are drawn to favor candidates of one party or the other, which has important implications:
Representatives worry only about primary challengers, making them less willing to compromise for fear of being punished in the primary.
Since the votes of most constituents don’t matter for re-election, representatives can safely ignore those voter’s wishes.
Citizens, realizing that their votes don’t matter, lose faith in the democratic system.
Traditional political activism has little effect on election results because gerrymandered districts pre-determine the result of most general elections.
For politicians currently in power, gerrymandering is a powerful force to keep them and their party in power; for politicians in the minority, gerrymandering is to be overcome.
For example, in today’s North Carolina, the leaders of both houses of the NC General Assembly, Republicans Tim Moore and Phil Berger, are staunch defenders of the gerrymandered maps Republicans have drawn. But, in 2009, both were co-sponsors of bills to have an independent commission, not politicians, draw district maps14.
What changed? Today, Republicans control the NC General Assembly; in 2009, Democrats controlled the General Assembly and blocked attempts to restrain gerrymandering.
Both parties are to blame for partisan gerrymandering. When they’ve been in power, they’ve both failed to rein in gerrymandering.
We have two highly contentious, longstanding debates that affect the most fundamental aspect of any democracy — voting — the way in which the people choose their leaders and representatives. Indeed, if enough people believe that either they can’t vote, that their vote doesn’t matter, or that elections are not fairly fought, democracy is doomed to be replaced by other forms of government based on imposed power, not the people’s choice.
Republicans advocate using voter id to prevent voter fraud. Democrats oppose voter id as a form of voter suppression because it imposes unnecessary burdens on people who don’t otherwise need a photo id.
A win-win policy seems obvious: Implement a nationwide id that would be easy-to-obtain yet secure, and which would, by law, be acceptable for use in all elections. Republicans would “win” their battle to prevent voter fraud.
If this id also satisfied other universally-needed purposes (e.g., Social Security), obtaining one would not be an additional burden that discourages voting. Democrats would “win” their battle to prevent voter id from being a form of voter suppression.
The win-win for gerrymandering is complex because Democrats and Republicans have at various times and places both supported and opposed gerrymandering. For the 2021 congressional redistricting process, in 20 states Republican legislators had complete control of the process and Democrats had complete control in 11 states15. In eight states, independent commissions draw the district maps. (The remaining states either have only one representative in the US House or have divided governments, in which members of the two parties must reach agreement.)
Republicans have attacked the legality of independent commissions in Arizona and Michigan under various legal theories,16 which argue that redistricting is inherently a political process and that legislators must therefore be involved.
Democrats, too, have been disappointed in redistricting controlled by some commissions, arguing that the commissions don’t adequately reflect changes in population17.
The situation is fraught. Today’s winners in the gerrymandering war can easily be tomorrow’s losers, and independent commissions, while an improvement, are not a panacea. Indeed, Wednesday’s vote in New York came after New York’s independent commission was unable to reach agreement on new maps, punting the redistricting job back to the Democratic-controlled legislature18.
How can we craft a win-win in such a situation? Instead of continuing this battle with no end in sight, Congress could define criteria that determines whether a district map is acceptable, and leave it to the states and their politicians to determine how they want to achieve acceptable maps. Some states might continue to have legislators draw maps, some may choose to use independent commissions, and some may adopt hybrid approaches where a commission creates maps, which must then be approved by legislators.
In the past, defining such criteria has proven difficult. But the same advances in computers and data collection that have enabled extreme partisan gerrymandering now make defining precise criteria possible. The criteria could allow some flexibility for politicians to continue to exercise political judgement, without the terrible harm that extreme gerrymandering causes to democracy.
Win-win for both Republican and Democratic politicians over time.
And, if the criteria are defined to leave some flexibility to the political process, it is a win-win for politicians and citizens.
The next several newsletter editions will explore these win-win ideas in more detail.
Public Supports Both Early Voting and Requiring Photo ID to Vote, https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_us_062121/.
Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans’ Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, November 2006, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/d/download_file_39242.pdf
Two overviews of what we know are: (a) A New Study Finds Voter ID Laws Don’t Reduce Voter Fraud — Or Voter Turnout, Vox, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/2/21/18230009/voter-id-laws-fraud-turnout-study-research. (b) What We Know About Voter ID, by Dan Hopkins, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-we-know-about-voter-id-laws/.
The reasoning is complicated, partly being that the legislature that passed the amendment bill was illegally constituted by racially-motivated gerrymandering.
Named after Elbridge Gerry, who, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812, helped create a salamander-shaped district in the Boston area.
The raw data for this graph is available on the web site of the North Carolina State Board of Elections at https://www.ncsbe.gov/results-data/election-results.
Partisan Gerrymandering Returns to a Transformed Supreme Court, New York Times, March 19, 2019; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/us/politics/gerrymandering-supreme-court.html
The Secret Files of the Master of Modern Republican Gerrymandering, by David Daley, The New Yorker, September 6, 2019; https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-secret-files-of-the-master-of-modern-republican-gerrymandering
Rucho v. Common Cause, 133 Harvard Law Review 252, Nov 8, 2019; https://harvardlawreview.org/2019/11/rucho-v-common-cause/
What Redistricting Looks Like In Every State, https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/redistricting-2022-maps/illinois/
A ‘Master Class’ in Gerrymandering, This Time Led by N.Y. Democrats, by Nicholas Fandos, Luis Ferré-Sadurni, and Grace Ashford, The New York Times, Feb 2, 2022; https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/02/nyregion/redistricting-gerrymandering-ny.html
2020 United States House of Representatives elections in New York, Wikipedia, accessed Feb 3, 2022; https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2020_United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections_in_New_York&oldid=1069644010.
10 years ago this month, NC GOP leaders Berger & Moore sponsored bills to end gerrymandering. Now they oppose reform. So, what changed?, by Bob Phillips, February 22, 2019; https://www.commoncause.org/north-carolina/democracy-wire/10-years-ago-this-month/
With fewer state governments divided by party than in years past, GOP has edge in redistricting, by Drew Desilver, Pew Research Center, March 4, 2021; https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/04/with-fewer-state-governments-divided-by-party-than-in-years-past-gop-has-edge-in-redistricting/
Michigan has a smart idea for fixing gerrymandering. Conservatives want to crush it: The legal threat against independent redistricting commissions, explained, by Richard L. Hansen, Vox, September 10, 2019; https://www.vox.com/2019/9/9/20850936/gerrymandering-michigan-commission-republican-legal-argument
Bipartisan Commissions Cause Redistricting Pain for Democrats, by Tim Henderson, PEW Stateline, November 2, 2021; https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/11/02/bipartisan-commissions-cause-redistricting-pain-for-democrats
Odds of Gerrymandering Grow in New York as Redistricting Panel Falters, by Nicholas Fandos, The New York Times, Jan 3, 2022; https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/nyregion/new-york-redistricting-gerrymandering.html