Ending gerrymandering could mean greater large-donor influence in elections

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  1. Heavily gerrymandered districts are largely insulated from the political spending that has come to define U.S. politics.
  2. Money in politics has generated "voter disillusionment" according to a 2016 Brookings Institute report,  
  3. Gerrymandering is only temporarily suspended in Pennsylvania. The state legislature can carve district lines for partisan gain in 2020, the next census year.

Pennsylvania is a “purple” state with a roughly even mix of blue Democratic voters and red Republicans. Yet for the past eight years, Republicans have sent 13 members to the U.S. House of Representatives while the Democrats have only sent five.

This stark imbalance isn’t a coincidence. It’s the result of “gerrymandering,” the practice in which one political party creates irregularly shaped voting districts in order to increase their chances of winning elections. Pennsylvania’s seventh district, which the New York Times said resembled a moose head, was a prime example of how precisely partisan gerrymandering has become.

But Pennsylvania’s era of “moose-and-antler” voting districts is over, for now, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in January that the congressional map unfairly favored Republicans. On March 19, the U.S. Supreme Court refused a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to block the new voting districts (New York Times).

The Pennsylvania court implemented its new map on February 5, with more neutral district lines, giving Democrats a far better chance this fall to win U.S. House seats that previously were all but predetermined for the GOP.

With more competitive elections ahead, however, Pennsylvania voters should expect an uptick in at least one unintended consequence of more balanced voting districts: increased campaign spending.

How gerrymandering saves money

Because there’s little incentive to dump advertising money into lopsided races, heavily gerrymandered districts are largely insulated from the massive sums of campaign contributions and subsequent ad spending that have come to define U.S. politics.

“It’s much more difficult for candidates in uphill or hopeless races to secure funding and the kind of committed support necessary to win elections,” said Brian Remingler of Princeton Election Consortium, a university group that studies gerrymandered districts.

The correlation between competitiveness and campaign spending was evident in 2016. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nine out of the ten most expensive House races that year were designated as “toss-ups” or narrow victories by the New York Times.

These included races in Pennsylvania. A race in the eighth district, one of two competitive House races in the state, was the third most expensive House race in the country in 2016, garnering over $22 million in campaign spending. Republican Brian Fitzpatrick won that contest with 54 percent of the vote.

In contrast, Pennsylvania’s 10th district went to Republican incumbent Tom Marino, who won with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Yet less than $600,000 was spent by both parties in that race.

Pennsylvania’s “moose-and-antlers” seventh district, gerrymandered for Republican control in 2010. Source: Wikipedia

Remingler believes, under the new congressional map, Democrats could win as many as 11 of 18 districts in the 2018 midterm election in November. Such a reversal of Democratic fortunes would also likely be impacted by President Donald J. Trump, whose current 54 percent disapproval rating is the highest among presidents dating to Harry Truman after the same time in office (Five Thirty Eight).

What’s wrong with large political contributions?

Most Americans believe large political contributions have an undesirable influence over elected officials (LINK). Even in cases where large donations might not have a provably pernicious effect – many large donors contribute to both sides of the same campaign and many elected officials deny that contributions sway their decisions – even the appearance of donor and corporate influence can have a negative impact on the electorate.

Pennsylvania provides a recent example. Widely characterized as a “friend of oil and gas companies” that “bankrolled his campaign” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), former Governor Tom Corbett (2011-2015) maintained that Pennsylvania should not institute a natural gas extraction tax, and repealed a policy regulating natural gas drilling (including hydraulic fracturing) in park land, deeming it “unnecessary and redundant.”

“In a remarkable coincidence, 2010 gubernatorial candidate Corbett received a whopping $835,720 from oil-and-natural gas interests,” wrote Philadelphia’s The Inquirer in a typically negative reaction to a governor said to have “fracked (Pennsylvania’s) middle class.”

According to a 2016 Brookings Institution report, the result of “the flood of money that is drowning American democracy” is “voter disillusionment – voters increasingly feeling like their voices are not heard because they cannot make large political contributions.”

Yet competitive candidates struggle to win, or even stay financially afloat, without the help of wealthy backers.

House candidates interested in relying on small donations in 2014 needed to raise $1,800 a day for an entire two-year term in order to survive in a competitive race, according to a study from Demos, a left-leaning think tank.

Competitive congressional races in 2014 midterms. Chart from DEMOS, using FEC data.

In reality, competitive congressional races in the 2014 midterms were overwhelmingly funded by donations of $200 or more, which Demos considers to be made by “large donors.” Only two candidates out of 50 were able to compete while raising less than 70 percent of their contributions from large donors (DEMOS).  This doesn’t factor “outside spending” from Super PACs, entities that can contribute unlimited sums of money to campaign-related advertisements. Super PACs also tend to gravitate toward competitive races, according to 2016 data from the Campaign Finance Institute.

Gerrymandering makes elections cheaper

While gerrymandering doesn’t eliminate the concept of a competitive race, it greatly minimizes their number. GOP strategist Karl Rove pointed out the financial benefits of partisan redistricting in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Rove saw the cost-saving potential of controlling redistricting instead of bankrolling tight House elections in every district.

“Moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more over the course of a decade,” wrote Rove, months before the 2010 midterms.

The initiative Rove was referring to was known as the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), a program funded by the Republican Senate Leadership Committee.

David Daley, co-founder of Fair Vote and a fierce critic of partisan redistricting, says Republican strategists convinced their donors that winning these state legislature seats could avoid funding “very expensive battles every two years.” Daley is also the author of Ratf***ed: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, a book on the science of gerrymandering.

Unlike parliamentary democracies, such as UK, voting districts in the United States are established by elected officials in state legislatures. California and Arizona are two exceptions – they have independent commissions in place to avoid partisan gerrymandering. Otherwise, whichever party controls a state legislature has the power to redistrict once the U.S. Census is conducted every ten years.

After the last census was conducted in 2010, Republican donors through REDMAP invested over $30 million state legislative seats in swing states, including Pennsylvania (REDMAP). The investment paid off. Daley says Republicans won 107 state legislative seats in 16 states, giving them unilateral control to re-draw districts that elected 193 of the 435 U.S. House seats.

Map of Pennsylvania state’s legislature after 2010 redistricting. Republicans control 119 seats to the Democrats 80 as of March 2018. Four seats are vacant.

“You think about that for a moment. It’s pretty amazing that a handful of these local races would have that kind of national power,” Daley told WikiTribune.

Pennsylvania saw roughly $1 million in total spending on state legislature seats. While a million dollars is insignificant by federal standards, it can be highly influential in smaller “down-ballot races” where name-recognition of candidates is lower (Guardian). 

Homepage of REDMAP, which says its funded by the RSLC. Need verification that this site is indeed financed by GOP. www.redistrictingmajorityproject.com

Influencing courts, funding negative ads

Contributions heavily fund political advertisements, many negative in tone. Daley points to David Levandsky, former state representative from Pennsylvania’s 39th district, as a symbol for local politicians caught in partisan crosshairs during census years.

An ad campaign, funded by the Republican Senate Leadership Committee, falsely linked Rep. Levandsky, a 25-year Democratic incumbent, to a $600,000 library dedicated to controversial former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (WHYY). Levandsky lost his seat to his Republican opponent.

“It’s not a good thing for democracy to have all of that money and negative campaigning seep all the way into our local races,” Daley said.

Another unintended consequence of the focus on state legislatures is the counter-play made by Democrats on the state’s judicial system. In Pennsylvania, many state judges are elected officials. This includes the state’s supreme court, which overturned the gerrymandered map. When three state supreme court seats were vacant in 2015, Democrats invested in Democratic candidates.

Over $21 million was spent on Pennsylvania’s state supreme court races in 2015, a record-breaking amount for elections of that kind in U.S. history.(TIME). Democrats won all three open supreme court seats, which come with ten-year terms, and hold 5-2 majority on the bench. In 2018, the court ruled in a 5-2 decision to re-draw the electoral map.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Suzanna Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. “We think [the Supreme Court decision] is based on the law and the facts, but we also want our judges to be appointed through a process that focuses on qualifications rather than their qualities as a campaigner.”

Gerrymandering not over

Pennsylvania’s new and more neutral congressional map will likely stand for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Republican lawsuit that opposes the current court-drawn version (Slate).

But partisan redistricting is only temporarily suspended in Pennsylvania. The state legislature will again have the ability to carve district lines for partisan gain in 2020, the next census year.

Organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania are pushing for legislation that strips the state legislature of redistricting power before the expected flood of national dollars arrive for 2020 campaigns. Almeida sees independent commissions, similar to California’s model, as the “gold standard” in the national fight over gerrymandering.

Two bills in the state government propose independent redistricting commissions. But in a congress notorious for gerrymandering, neither bill has received a floor vote. Almeida told WikiTribune that “connecting the dots” between redistricting and national political issues is how reform can come to fruition.

“When folks are worried about taxes, guns in school, or being paid a living wage, connecting those issues to the redistricting can be complicated … but I think people are starting to understand why it’s important.”

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