How steep is the Democrats' path to regaining political power this fall? What can the 2016 election -- and developments since -- tell us about what it will take to win in 2018's midterm elections?
There have been some positive signs in the news, even this week. Texas held the first congressional and state primary election of 2018. Democratic turnout was double from 2014, the last midterm year. Some progressives did well, but overall, hundreds of thousands more Republicans voted. Many were in races where the GOP drew district lines and took other steps to advantage their side.
In Washington State, legislation heading toward the governor's desk will add it to a growing list of states that automatically register every eligible voter. That should be the case in every state, but it's not. Voting in blue-state America can be a world apart from voting in red-state America. And even though it's easier today to register and vote, especially for young people, getting people to the polls in non-presidential races remains a very big challenge. Since the 1970s, midterm turnout keeps falling; a third of people who vote in presidential years simply skip the midterms.
How steep is the climb for Democrats in 2018 and 2020? Steeper than many people think, especially in the red-run states that determine who has a majority in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. That's because the process of voting, from the starting line of registration to the finish line of having one's ballot counted, is marred by anti-democratic features. Some are hidden; others are visible. They affect who can vote, whether those votes count, and in close elections, who wins.
My new book, Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, describes how these factors came into play in 2016's election -- and why they still matter in 2018 and 2020.
The book has four parts: what the Democratic Party did to Bernie Sanders; what the Republicans have done to Democrats this decade; the flawed recounts of 2016; and everything that's unfolding under Trump.
I'm talking about the way the GOP games the rules of voting to betray the promise of our democracy: one person, one vote; and fair counts, in which the winners are declared and the losers go back to try again. If you're reading this, chances are you receive daily emails from political parties or organizations begging for money, for whatever political crisis needs attention, whether causes or candidates. What none of these emails mention are their chances of winning. Concretely, how big are the barriers? What matters most? What does it really take to win?
What's new in 2018 is that we can name, with precision, the obstacles to free and fair elections. We can say how much of an advantage one side has -- or doesn't have -- to win. We can say the percentage of that party's voters needed to turn out and cast ballots that will count. We can say what the impact of laws over-policing the process are -- how much they discourage participation or undermine turnout. We can say which new partisan proposals under Trump would have the biggest negative impacts. We can also say what Russia did and didn't do in 2016, and what the biggest threats are in 2018 and 2020.
Concretely, the Republicans have a 10 point or more structural advantage in the most politically contested states. That's 10 percent more votes that are likely to be cast and counted in specific races for Congress and state legislature. This didn't come out of nowhere. The GOP built it while the Democrats were asleep in 2011. Then the Democrats were out of power and couldn't stop the GOP. If you want to know how big the blue wave has to be to take back the House, this is it.
Democrats must have more than 10 percent of their reliable voters turn out in November -- 10 percent more of their base than reliable Republican voters -- to stand a chance of winning back state legislatures and the U.S. House. They actually need more than that among their party and its allies, independents say, to get a winning majority of votes when the ballots are counted. That is because the voting process can be filled with errors and mistakes that disqualify ballots. They need a turnout wave this big because the boundaries creating the districts they're voting in do not mirror their state's overall political divisions.
Let me break this down. It starts with what's been in the news lately, but wasn't in 2010 and 2011 -- gerrymandering. That's the once a decade process where legislatures, or in some states like California, commissions, redraw political boundaries for anything that's not a statewide race. The formal term is redistricting. It can be fair or it can be very unfair. It can be a reflection of the state's political profile, or it can be a one-sided extreme power grab.
Gerrymandering has been in the news a lot; most recently in Pennsylvania, over its congressional maps. Why? After Obama and the Democrats won a landslide in 2008, a few smart Republican political operatives saw a way back into power. Gerrymandering gave them control of Congress this decade, and it gave them all those red-state majorities that have sued to block Obamacare, ignore climate change, attack abortion and LGBT rights, and stop gun controls.
What did the GOP do? In 2009, Republicans realized that if they won enough state legislative races and governor races in 2010, they'd monopolize redrawing their political maps. So they ran unprecedented nasty campaigns in 16 states that accounted for 190 House seats. Recall that 218 House seats is a majority. It worked and they won. In 2011, they redrew boundaries for their state legislatures and House districts with a clear goal: create unassailable Republican supermajority delegations. How? They segregated voters. They knew every voter's political history. It's not a secret. They cut and pasted and deleted and added neighborhoods. That's gerrymandering: segregating voters. You've seen all those strange maps, like jigsaw puzzles, not county lines. The Democratic epicenters were cracked apart into multiple districts, or overly packed, to take away the competition from the GOP.