The long and contentious 2016 US presidential election cycle reached its apex and conclusion on November 9. No sooner had Hillary Clinton’s concession speech been delivered to President-elect Donald Trump, then the pundits began their spins. Republicans pointed to an enthusiastic supporter base and tough straight talk as their reason for clinching the win. On the other hand, Democrats pushed a narrative of voter suppression and foreign interference via email hacking. They also emphasized an untimely FBI report about recently discovered Hillary Clinton emails, given to Congress by FBI director James Comey, as reasons for their candidate’s loss.
How the Race was Won
These variables from both parties could be seen as possibly playing a role in influencing the election results. As events they are hard to quantify as the singular cause; and as a group of events they are equally as difficult to assess. The intelligence community of the United States has, with what it deems high certainty, concluded that the Russian government is responsible for the DNC emails hacks which found their way to WikiLeaks. It still isn’t clear, and won’t be for months or maybe longer, whether or not Russia was sophisticated enough to hack individual voting booths; thereby swaying the election in favor of the more Russophile Donald Trump.
One under reported variable which has been a tactic used by both parties for over 250 years in Gerrymandering. We’ve all heard the term and have a gut feeling that it has something to do with shaping elections. But the Republicans have turned this redistricting technique from a crude political tool to laser-point precision. Republican strategists had a name for this instrument of adjusting elections by way of shifting the voting district boundaries. They called it RedMap (Redistricting Majority Project). This was calculated gerrymandering meant to favor their constituents and disfavor their opponents. One thing is crystal clear: gerrymandering has and continues to disproportionately target communities of color.
What is Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering can be likened to the Asian board game, Go. Black and white pebbles are used by two players on a grid lined board. Conceptually it’s simple; just line up your pieces to surround the other. The challenge comes from the execution and strategic forethought. A similar process is involved when state legislators set out to redistrict. Normally, they follow the most current census report and use demographics to carve up the voting districts in the controlling party’s favor. This dissection comes in two flavors: packing and cracking.
Packing denotes redrawing the lines of the voting districts so that they swell with party-friendly voters. Cracking is the antithesis of packing. When voting districts are redrawn they are done so as to alienate and fence out unfriendly party voters. It’s that simple but oh so impactful; especially when it is done with the intention of playing a role in a series of election cycles.
David Daley has written a book, “Ratf**ked: How the Democrats Won the Presidency but Lost America”, explaining how the GOP calculated how they could flip legislatures in key states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida to reconfigure voting districts in order to bolster Republican control in the House of Representatives. Daley states that the influx of money from Super PAC’s (Political Action Committees) into state elections, helped along by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Citizens United, has meant that the grand RedMap plan came to bear fruit.
According to statistician Nate Silver’s website, Five Thirty Eight; “the number of non-Hispanic white Democrats elected to represent Southern states has dropped precipitously…(from 2004 to 2014).” The online article points out that the only outlier to that trend is Florida; which is sent more white non-hispanic Democrats to congress than in 2004. The federal government has already decreed, citing the Voting Rights Act, that neither packing or cracking is legal if a minority population’s representational influence is squelched, through gerrymandering.
The Changed Perception of Gerrymandering
Something changed the perception of gerrymandering disparity in one state via a 2010 popular referendum. Florida voters decided to legally ban redistricting zones that had the bias of favoring one party over the other or to keep an incumbent’s position safe. Florida’s majority Republican Legislature didn’t adhere to the referendum which resulted in a 2014 Circuit Court ruling. Judge Terry Lewis said the Florida Republican legislature willfully acted with “…unconstitutional intent…”; and ordered two congressional districts to be redrawn. But it took an act of the Florida Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision to put the kibosh on the illegal tinkering of voting districts. Utilizing the “Lewis Formula”, named after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, 10 of 27 districts were redrawn and made more competitive. Could this be a road map for nationwide re-do of gerrymandered districts?
One of the winners of the newly redrawn districts in Florida was Congressman-elect Charlie Crist. Crist is a former Republican and Goveneur of Florida, who unseated incumbent David Jolly in state’s 13thcongressional district. The boundaries of the redrawn district no longer “crack” the Democratic leaning African-American population in the southern area, and no longer “pack” the northern area with GOP enclaves. Crist grew up and went to school in the Southside of Saint Petersburg and currently lives in downtown Saint Petersburg. Both of which are now included in Congressional district 13. He credits the grassroots efforts of Florida citizens and the coalition advocacy group, Fair Districts Florida, as the voices that demanded fairness and brought suit against the Florida Legislature.
Charlie Crist is optimistic about the checks and balances set forth in the US Constitution when it comes to protecting the will of the people and removing, what he calls, “roadblocks to freedom.” He said the the Florida template is; “a pretty good model for righting a wrong.” Crist also thinks that other states might take up the charge (fashioning the lines of fairing voting districts based on the Florida blueprint), if they feel the Judicial Branch needs to reign in the wanton discriminating behavior of the Legislative Branch.
Gerrymandering – What’s Next
Until the next midterm election in 2018, gerrymandering lines will be drawn and redrawn; packed and cracked. At some point between now and the 2018 midterm election the Florida blueprint might be dusted off by other states; making the nation’s congressional districts look and act more fair.