Tag Archives: disenfranchisement

Building Better Districts

Things are beginning to heat up not just in the Presidential primaries, but in more local elections around the US as well. While the writing has long been on the wall for some of the most effectively gerrymandered districts of Virginia Republicans, it wasn’t clear who would necessarily be the biggest loser in a similar campaign for better district boundaries in Florida.

It looked like Democrat Corrine Brown might actually be the most threatened sitting representative by the redesign of her district. As a “dump” district designed to absorb Democratic-leaning Black voters making most nearby districts more easily won by Republicans, her individual interest in keeping her familiar district aligned with those of the state’s Republican Party. Worse yet for the Democrats, the idea was floated that Brown’s district might be expanded into a neighboring district held by fellow Democrat Gwen Graham. In short, an effort to redraw Florida’s districts so there wouldn’t be such a marked difference between districts seemed like it might just exacerbate that problem.

The new congressional map has been released and Brown actually appears to have avoided that worst possible outcome. Her prior district contributes nearly forty percent of the population in her new one, but so does the former tenth district. Her personal political charm will be put to the test with a largely new electorate she has to appeal to. Whether it’s Brown herself or one of her primary challengers who becomes the Democratic nominee, the new district won’t have lost much of its Democratic-leaning character. By one estimate it will be at least a D+10 to the former district’s D+16.

There’s some similar shuffling of populations that will happen to other Democrat-held districts further south within the state, but the ultimate results are more or less the same. While this might disrupt individual Democratic office-holder’s local support, it’s unlikely to cost the Democratic Party as a whole any of these seats. In an odd way, the increased jockeying within the Party might create an environment in which better candidates rise to the forefront of the Democratic Party in Florida.

That is not an apt description of how the redistricting is going to affect Republican representative Daniel Webster. His tenth district doesn’t appear to move very far on the map, unlike Brown’s radically reinvented district. Some of the more rural western parts of it are shaved off, however, and the district incorporates parts of Orlando which were previously carved out of it. The subtle changes are in high enough density areas to make a huge difference: not even forty percent of its original population is still in it.

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(Left – the former 10th District, Right – the new 10th District. From here.)

This isn’t the kind of situation that Brown finds herself in either, where her losing the district would almost certainly be to another Democrat. Webster’s district is, by most counts, going to be almost as Democratic-leaning as Brown’s new one, and at the cost of most likely zero current Democratic-leaning districts.

While an extremely moderate Republican might be able to shed their skin in classic Floridan political fashion, Webster is fairly fringe. Recently, he was the Freedom Caucus’ alternative to Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) for Speaker of the House. One of the Webster’s premier political accomplishments dates back to his years within the Florida state government, where in 2008 he pioneered a set of anti-abortion restrictions that would ultimately become the widespread requirement of a transvaginal ultrasound. Walking that back to appeal to a roughly D+10 district seems rather unlikely.

This might be the future of representative reorganization in the US: Democratic complacency getting a bit of a shake-up and Republicans falling by the wayside of an electorate that they don’t reflect.

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One bird with one stone

Trigger warning: racism, electoral discrimination

I have been sick most of this week and sadly stuck inside at home as a result. Probably the only good thing to come out of that, however, was that I was able to directly participate in a twitter conversation held by the organizers for VoterVOX on Tuesday. Hosted on that group’s hashtag, they had a discussion about, as they put it – creating “a polyglot democracy” through community-centered translation services. Part fundraising drive, part introduction of the new foundation, and part overture about the coming struggle to define and structure the 2016 US elections, there were a lot of interesting hints about what to expect to see more of.

One of the most enlightening stories shared in the twitter conversation was one by Sabrina Hersi Issa, who has had VoterVOX widely credited as her brainchild more than anyone else’s. She explained-

An essential and defining part of VoterVOX is that it’s a response to a type of racism built into the structure of US democracy. While there’s linguistic inequalities experienced by basically all people whose first or most comfortable language isn’t English, VoterVOX is designed to increase and improve participation for people who specifically speak languages originally spoken in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. As pointed out in the conversation and on VoterVOX’s fundraising page, people of Asian ancestry are one of the fastest growing demographics in a number of key states – Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. With the looming 2016 elections, VoterVOX is poised to address the shared needs of a diverse set of communities who may have quietly become a hugely important voting bloc.

Of course, there is a broader context here, as 2016 is likely to be a distinct electoral terrain for people of color. The protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) have come under fire, and the Supreme Court dismantled the standards of pre-clearance (which have long been a barrier to racial electoral discrimination). VoterVOX’s emphasis on specific forms of linguistic disenfranchisement seeks to expand the arsenal against racial inequality at the polls even while a broader protection for marginalized communities has been lost – which was an active force in among other states, Arizona and Georgia. The capacity of indigenous communities to use VoterVOX remains to be seen, as will whether it can create a political environment that reinforces the rights of largely English- or Spanish-speaking Black and Latin@ communities. The origins of VoterVOX are in different communities than those, and it has been shaped by those communities’ needs.

That said, a two-front fight of combating both access being compromised by linguistic discrimination and other attempts to discriminate against communities of color could be quite effective. That could challenge the types of electoral discrimination resurrected by the gutted VRA while also addressing the more subtle and namely linguistic-based forms that flourished even under pre-clearance. In short, there are two different fights for meaningful access to the polls for communities of color in the US as anxieties around the 2016 elections build. VoterVOX is an innovative attempt to tackle one of them, but only one of them. Its specialization means that it will be very effective at what its designed to do, but it also means that it’s only meant to address one of them.

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Full disclosure, I am in the process of donating to VoterVOX myself. If you are similarly interested, here is their IndieGoGo page, which is where the featured image for this article is from.

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The GOP leadership is a fifth column

TW: Bush-era impunity, voter suppression

Having endured eight years under President Bush where most public and heated criticism of the Republican Party’s policies was conflated with sympathy for terrorists if not terrorism itself, Obama’s change of political tone was welcome: he was elected as a bipartisan, to be a bipartisan, among other bipartisan officials. Nowhere was that facet to his governing philosophy more obvious than during last night’s debate, during which he touted his willingness to work with Republicans and independents and incorporate their ideas into his policies (in contrast to Romney who was very insistent on policies being “correct”, not the process producing them being non-partisan). The Republican counter-argument Obama has worked against since early 2009 has seemed pretty patently opposed to shared political rule – just ask Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

Over the past few months, however, it’s become undeniable – this isn’t just an opposition to another political party which is to be expected. This crosses over into rejecting basic, non-partisan, political processes. The Republican Party is opposed to authentically representative governance, because it won’t empower them. We’ve reached the point where they are hoping to actively subvert political norms towards undemocratic ends: in archaic terms, a fifth column.

Perhaps this should have been obvious from the 2000 presidential election onwards – since I might argue that the United States has been in constitutional crisis since then. Not only did another presidential victor lose the popular vote, but careful examination called into question the Supreme Court’s partisan declaration that Bush had won the popular vote in Florida, rather than reorganize the election or actually finishing counting the existing ballots. The electoral system tolerated the highest court declaring the winner, rather than objectively allowing voters to even decide in our poorly-designed Electoral College. That night in 2000 began a lengthy list of major events during the Bush years that suggested his administration tolerated such anti-democratic efforts or perhaps they were even the political goals of the Republican-controlled government.

But now, it’s unambiguous. There’s no conceivable argument against photographic and video evidence where Republican leaders have admitted that they oppose basic democratic rights being protected for all Americans – where there is clear intent and an worrying lack of incompetence. This is a willful strategy of undermining democratic representation in governance to elevate the desires of the Republican Party over the needs of average Americans. This is what a fifth column by definition does.

This began with local governments throughout Michigan being shut down and with their citizenry being unable to undo the emergency process which empowered unelected representatives in communities in fiscal crisis. This has widely been pushed on communities by the Republican controlled state government. Mother Jones has done some solid reporting on this, focusing on how these communities seem unable to reverse the process because of explicit weaseling around the Michigan law’s requirement of state officials to reinstate democratic governance when certain conditions are met. Earlier this year, the White “emergency manager” of a predominantly Black community accepting criticism that he held dictatorial power, calling himself a “tyrant”.

This sort of hostility to basic democratic processes has spread – both in geographic occurrence and political implications.  In the spring of 2012, Michigan refused to reinstate democratic rule, and in the early summer a Pennsylvania State Representative declared that the Voter ID legislation he and his party had pushed on Pennsylvania “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania“. The disenfranchisement he casually and victoriously discussed would not only strip certain portions of the population of local representation but deny them a political voice in the upcoming presidential election – and that was the explicit goal. Thankfully, a judicial review of that law (like many others) has struck down those requirements. But as Rachel Maddow pointed out earlier this week, the law may have already had the effect of discouraging certain demographics from voting.

In that context, it was pointed out earlier today that just across the road from a  public housing project in Ohio, this billboard was put up:

Clear Channel sign reading:

The billboard is in the neighborhood of a few other public housing projects as well as a community college. This is a state, where a Republican official explained his opposition to early voting practices which were used in 2008, by saying, “I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine”. In that phrase alone, that official admitted that this isn’t fraud of any sort that he’s opposing – it’s turnout, and of a specific ethnic, socio-economic, and consequently political groups. He isn’t concerned about the right of all Americans to vote – he’s trying to ensure that the “right” Americans have the power to determine electoral results.

This is the development of the American conservative movement into not only an organization hostile to the benefits of a substantive democratic system being applied equally to all social groups, but one that actively and blatantly opposes basic political activity by those same demographics. This is a reject of the modern assumption of universal suffrage and democratic inclusion in American politics. This is a betrayal of the central tenets of the American political system. This is what a fifth column does.

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The Electoral College should scare you

TW: Bush-era impunity

The 2012 US elections are now well underway, what with Obama and Romney’s first debate only a few days away, so that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite only-once-every-four-years event: the Olympics! debates about the Electoral College! Although the original video is almost a year old, one relatively informative explanation of the terribleness of the Electoral College has been circulating on Upworthy for the past week. It forgets that Nebraska and Maine aren’t necessarily winner take-all, but otherwise it reasonably points out the huge capacity for failure that the system has:

The winning system that relies on only receiving about 22% of the vote looks like this-

Map of states lacking California, Washington, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York

If that looks familiar, just get rid of the states with significant numbers of urban voters who would rather chew on broken glass than vote Republican and add larger states with Republican machines, and ta-da, you get George W. Bush’s base in 2000 and 2004:

Map of states won by Bush in 2004, except Florida and Ohio

In both years, Bush was also awarded the swing states of Ohio and Florida (and a few of the red states here he only carried in one of those years), but thanks to which states he won, his possibly fraudulent51% mandate” translated into a difference of 35 electoral votes (a somewhat more impressive 6.5% of the Electoral College counts). In other words, the Electoral College, even when it doesn’t produce a “winner” with a minority of the popular vote (as it did for Bush in 2000), can distort the outcome and create an impression of broader political support than may actually exist.

There’s further failures to be pointed out, though, with the obvious issue that the citizenry, as counted in the scenario in the video, is not synonymous with the electorate, that is, the actual voting public. There’s minors, naturally, who couldn’t (and frankly shouldn’t) vote, but there’s also disenfranchised groups, including currently imprisoned people and former convicts in certain states. As the recent electoral shenanigans in Colorado and Florida also remind us, there’s other available ways for state governments to disenfranchise voters, often on the grounds of challenging them to prove their citizenship.

But what’s more, even in presidential elections national turnout has failed to reach more than sixty percent of eligible voters since the late 1960s. The Electoral College fails to incorporate that information into its overall point system, as votes only matter within the context of winning electoral counts from a given state. So, while this outcome is basically ludicrous, if only a single vote were cast in each of the 39 states and the District of Columbia included in the video’s scenario, turnout in the remaining 11 states (which are the most populous) would be irrelevant. By the Electoral College’s standards, those 40 votes would trump the full and unanimous turnout of even 74.2 million votes (that figure’s from Census data on voter registration by state from 2010).

That’s an electoral win with only 0.0000005 percent of votes cast. That’s a successful election requiring only 0.0000003 percent of registered voters to participate to win. The reason those two numbers are so similar is because a large majority of registered voters still voted – just in concentrated locations where their votes are disproportionately devalued. In such a strange election, in spite of a tiny percentage of either the overall population or the vote-casting public determining the outcome, the overall electoral turnout would be approximately 54 percent. That would be a higher participation rate than in the 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections. It’s well within the range of typical electoral turnouts in the past couple of decades.

The point in this elaborate scenario isn’t to create paranoia that it could happen – it requires patently bizarre initial events to be possible. What it suggests though are the values that the Electoral College considers and the values it doesn’t. Wide geographic distribution is key, yes, but at the cost of ignoring the nuances of differing degrees of support across regions, differing turnout between states, and (as initially pointed out) the equal voice of any given voter. In effect, it sacrifices all of those concerns to make certain that a party’s plurality is dispersed across a large number of states. The specifics of that plurality aren’t factored into the overall impact, because that would reduce the emphasis on its wide geographic distribution. The priorities of such a system are not only outdated but horrifyingly unethical.

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