Retaking the House in 2018 slows the GOP. Only governors can stop GOP gerrymanders and political monopolies through 2031.
For most of this decade, Democrats have not understood why they keep losing the U.S. House and state legislatures to Republican super-majorities. It's not because American voters have moved to the right. The biggest single reason the GOP has that outsized grip on power is because they outsmarted Democrats when drawing political maps in 2011 for U.S. House races and state legislatures. Those maps last a decade and set the stage for our increasingly extreme politics by segregating reliably blue and red voters into non-competitive districts.
That strategy, called gerrymandering, has typically given the GOP an edge of 6 percent or more of the reliable voters. (In these same states, Democrats are packed into fewer seats but typically win by much bigger margins.) The GOP's voter suppression strategy, like stricter ID rules to get a ballot, builds on this uneven baseline.
Extreme redistricting has become a hot topic. Former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are focusing on it. Democratic Party officials in Washington say the GOP's 2011 gerrymander won't happen again. In 2016, the seminal book on the topic, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Plan to Steal America's Democracy, by David Daley, explains this starting-line advantage, how it came to pass and its effects.
Now a new edition has been published with an epilogue about 2016. AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld talked with Daley about 2016, and what Democrats are facing in 2018 and 2020. Daley's take is sobering. He doesn't think Democrats understand the obstacles to retaking the House, nor do they really appreciate how GOP mapmakers created super-majorities in red states that keep passing far-right legislation. Worst of all, these red state-level super majorities are poised to monopolize the next round of political mapmaking, which will set the national stage for the 2020s.
Steven Rosenfeld: Let's talk about what happened in 2016. A lot of voting rights activists noted we won big cases against GOP vote suppressors, in Wisconsin and North Carolina. But those states and others remain deeply red. They are passing laws that are as extreme as what we see in the Congress around efforts to repeal Obamacare and gut Medicaid. What's going on?
David Daley: You don't get an outcome like this for just one reason. But once you start looking at the world through a redistricting prism, it's hard to stop. One of the things that happened first of all, is that since 2010 especially, Republicans kept making promises to their base, that they either knew they couldn't deliver on or had no intention of delivering upon and the accumulated weight of those promises, made those voters angry. What you saw in the [presidential] primaries in 2016, was a 17-candidate field, that essentially came down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The two folks who were willing to stand on top of this Party and be the loudest, "No." What also happened is that the Republicans built themselves a Congress that they could not lose a majority of.
They built themselves an unbeatable majority caucus, but they also built a caucus that they could not control for two reasons. The first because these districts began electing deeply conservative members from districts that had once been swing districts. You can look at this in Pennsylvania, in Georgia, in North Carolina. Districts that had gone back and forth throughout the 2000s, are now represented by Tea Party Republicans who win with more than 60% of the vote. That changes the tone and tenure of the body. It sends people to Washington who are not interested in compromise. What it also does is, it signals that the true power is within the primary base of the Party and that even if you want to be a compromiser, even if you want to be a bridge builder or a problem solver, working with the other side is the one thing that will guarantee you that kind of primary challenge. A primary challenge, that, in those districts, in this day and age, an incumbent is likely to lose.
So you've seen 50-plus votes on a repeal of Obama Care. The base demanded it. The candidates promised it. They were going to repeal it root and branch, right? Then once you get complete power, it doesn't happen. That breeds I think, even more anger and cynicism within the base. It will be very interesting to see where those voters wind up in 2018.
SR: Yes, angry times, angry voters. But this is not just Washington. It's more extreme in many states.
DD: The other piece of this is, as much as we talk about how gerrymandered the U.S. House is, state legislators have been gerrymandered in an even more extreme manner. We're talking about states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan. If these states keep sounding familiar, they are the states that helped put Donald Trump in the White House with an Electoral College majority, even though he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million.
The first thing that these gerrymandered state legislators have done is go after voting rights. You see it in North Carolina, where there was an entire host of things that they did, as far as voter ID, as far as eliminating early voting hours, as far as cutting back on the number of open precincts. It goes on and on. You see it in Wisconsin on the extraordinarily stringent voter ID laws that were passed there. You saw it in Ohio, where they eliminated the Golden Week, where you could register and vote in the same week. You saw it in Michigan, where they simply changed the rules on requiring an affidavit if you didn't have ID at the poles but they simply didn't make it clear to people that that was what had to be done. An awful lot of the states, states like Wisconsin, which came down to 23,000 votes. A state like Michigan, 11,000 votes. Pennsylvania, 44,000 votes.
In races this close, it is not difficult to suggest that a deciding factor could well have been the kind of voter suppression laws that these gerrymandered legislators put into effect. When people say, you can't gerrymander the Electoral College, I think they're wrong. You quite clearly can. If the next step is that some of these gerrymandered legislators attempt to reapportion their Electoral College votes by congressional districts, that becomes the next piece of how that can go. Some are looking at that.
SR: We'll have to watch that. But let's turn to 2018 and 2020 because there's an expectation that Democrats can take back the House in 2018. You've written that's far harder than people imagine because of gerrymandering. What do you see?