Democrats Out of Power for Decades? The Supreme Court’s Gerrymandering Case and Examples from Asia

11/10/2017 12:33 pm ET

While Democrats are busy popping champagne to celebrate a small handful of modest victories on November 7th, the Supreme Court is busy deciding a case that could help ensure that they spend the next few decades out of power in most of the country. The decision considers an egregious bit of gerrymandering that Republicans have accomplished in Wisconsin, which allowed the GOP to hold on to 60% of the seats in Wisconsin's State legislature despite Democrats winning 53% of the vote. Unless the Supreme Court upholds the lower court's ruling against it, this type of political gerrymandering is legal and Republicans, its principal practitioners and beneficiaries, can be surprisingly unabashed about its use. When asked why North Carolina's electoral map gives 10 seats to Republicans and 3 Democrats despite a close popular vote a Republican lawmaker replied: “Because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Gerrymandering overwhelmingly benefits Republicans, essentially because they have both a greater will and ability to gerrymander. For details on how this works, check out the work of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and the Princeton Election Consortium. The effect is that in the US House of Representatives and many state legislatures Republicans get more seats for the same number of votes as Democrats would. So, Republicans can lose the popular vote and still maintain a majority. This is what happened in the House in 2012 when they lost by over a million votes, but won 33 more seats than the Democrats (a similar outcome is likely in 2018). Or, Republicans can win by a slim margin and still maintain a comfortable majority for passing legislation, as they did in 2016.

The idea that gerrymandering could keep the Democrats out of power for a significant period of time is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In today's highly-sorted political climate neither party is likely to win more than about 54% of the vote for the House of Representatives (this has not happened since 1986). Yet current gerrymandering in states like Wisconsin and in the House of Representatives means that if Democrats win 54% of the vote that would probably translate into a slim 5-seat or even a comfortable 19-seat majority for House Republicans. It might be decades before Democrats manage to win over 55% of the vote and get a majority in the house and many state legislatures.

What is more, gerrymandering often begets more gerrymandering because the more tightly a party controls state legislatures the better they can gerrymander for the next election, especially in the redistricting that follows a census.

Of course, gerrymandering is just part of the story, the Senate and Electoral College are immune to gerrymandering, but both give unrepresentative structural advantages to Republicans, further boosting the GOP’s advantage.

So far, if you pay attention to US politics, all this is nothing new, so why this hyperbole about Democrats spending decades out in the cold?

As a Political Scientist specializing in Asia, the situation in the US is starting to look distressingly familiar. In recent history, structural advantages in electoral system have often translated into decades of uninterrupted rule for the political party that was able to take advantage of them and subsequently tweak the system to meet their needs. Consider three cases: Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party has managed to hold onto power since 1955, with only two brief gaps totaling about 4 years. Many factors contribute to their success, but chief among them was an electoral system that helped keep the opposition divided and turned popular vote shares of around 45% into around 55% of seats in parliament. Briefly losing their majority in 1993 and forced to reform the electoral system, the LDP, still the most powerful party, was able to shape the new system to its benefit. The result has been another 25 years of LDP dominance reinforced by their dramatic win this year.

In control of Singapore continuously since 1959, the People's Action Party has never lost the popular vote. It has created a unique electoral system (in which candidates must run as ethnically diverse blocks) that converts wins of around 60% into legislative majorities that top 95%. This is similar to what the GOP has done with house seats in solidly Republican states like Kansas, Nebraska, West Virginia and Utah where Democratic vote shares of 30% of the vote or higher generally translate into zero seats for Democrats (in fairness, the Democrats do something similar in Connecticut and New Hampshire).

In Malaysia, the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and its predecessors have managed to win decisive victories in every election since independence in 1957. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the BN tweaked the electoral system to give disproportionate weight to rural voters who overwhelmingly supported it and its allies. In the 1970s and 1980s, the BN used its supermajority in parliament to amend the constitution getting rid of the requirement that districts contain roughly the same population and that they be redrawn every 10 years to reflect population change. The predictable result of such fiddling is that opposition voters are packed into districts that can be 8 or 9 times as populous as some heavily BN leaning rural districts. Such egregious malapportionment (electoral districts with divergent ratios of voters to representatives) is rare in democracies, but present in both the US Senate and Electoral College.

To many, the comparison between the US and these Asian countries might seem inappropriate. Surely the US has more in common with democracies in Europe, Australia, or Canada? Generally, this is true. It should also be noted that Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Singapore lack some vital institutions of liberal democracy, particularly a free media. Yet no developed western democracy has a system that diverges as far from the basic principle of "one person one vote" or allows politicians to tweak their electoral systems to such partisan advantage. So, regrettably, we must look elsewhere to see how damaging the consequences of such a system can be.

What all these Asian cases have in common is that having acquired power through legislative majorities, these dominant parties used their power to shape their electoral system, ensuring that modest election victories (or even losses) translated into substantial legislative majorities.

The case that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional may not be a simple one. Yet, if a democracy is to endure, courts must be able to protect the basic fairness of its processes and institutions. They are the last best chance and if they will not act then both democracy and the Democrats could be in serious trouble.

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