Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gerrymandering in Montana

It is of course not news to Montana Republicans, especially those who are familiar with state legislative races, that the last (Democratic-controlled) redistricting committee took an aggressively partisan approach to gerrymandering our state's legislative districts.

Democrats controlled that redistricting commission because they refused to agree with Republicans on a neutral 5th member -- knowing that the highly partisan Montana Supreme Court would give them a member that would be far more to their liking than anyone they would get through compromise and consensus with Republicans.

The first clues to just how carefully Democrats had done their work were not just in the way control of the legislature changed in the first election after redistricting (2004) but also in the gross vote totals in state-wide legislative races.

In both 2004 and 2006, Republicans won a strong, comfortable majority of votes statewide in competitive legislative races, but failed to control the legislature.

And now, in a recent study done by Prof. Craig Wilson at MSU-Billings, we have independent confirmation of just how aggressively partisan the redistricting was.

At the heart of gerrymandering are several techniques. The main technique that Wilson examined was how variations in population were used.

...72 of the 150 new districts have a population variance of more than 4 percent, meaning the population of those districts was 4 percent to 5 percent above or below the norm of about 9,000 people.

Of the 12 Senate seats that had 4 percent fewer people, Democrats have won nine of them. Of the eight Senate seats with 4 percent more people, Republicans won six of them.

This pattern was even more pronounced in the House seats, Wilson discovered.

In the 26 House districts with 4 percent fewer people, Democrats won 22 of those seats in 2004 and 23 of them in 2006. In the 26 House districts that had 4 percent above the population norm, Republicans won 17 of those seats in 2004 and 19 in 2006.

"That says to me that the districts were drawn with pretty close attention to partisanship," Craig Wilson said. "The issue becomes, if by drawing these districts, you have a commission that is putting fewer Democrats in districts to elect more Democrats and more Republicans in districts to elect fewer Republicans, is that fair?"

Most people would answer that question with an emphatic "no." And the people who would say "yes" would only be those whose party was in control of the process, and therefore satisfied with the end result.

It is commonly stated that the redistricting commission in the 1990's was controlled by Republicans and that they did the same thing. Not quite, according to Wilson's analysis:

...the Democrat-controlled commission did a much more thorough job of cramming Republican-leaning voters into fewer districts and spreading Democratic-leaning voters among more districts.

In fact Wilson has this to say:

Undoubtedly in the past, there has been gerrymandering that has occurred... I just don't know if there have been results on this scale, when you look at the numbers.

Specifically addressing the same issue of variance when Republicans were in control in 1900:

The same pattern of spreading your voters across more districts and packing opponents into fewer districts did not appear to occur with the 1990 commission, Wilson concluded.

The 1990 commission created only 29 House seats with a population variance of more than 4 percent, rather than 52.

In those with 4 percent fewer people, Republicans did win seven of the nine seats. But they also won 14 of the 20 that had a plus-4 percent population variance.

In other words, that 1994 election was a landslide for Republicans regardless of how districts were drawn, as it was across the country -- remember that this was the year when Republicans took control of the U.S. Congress for the first time in forever.

The architect of the gerrymandering, Joe Lamsen, offered up some appropriately weak excuses. Consider this one:

...Lamson said the population variances, which are legal, aren't that big of a deal. Even at 4 percent, it's only 350 people above the 9,000-person norm for the district, he said.

First of all, the difference between the large Republican districts that are 4-5% larger and the small Democratic districts that are 4-5% smaller is at least 8-10%. That is a difference of 700-900 people, which over the 52 affected House seats, adds up to a population shift of 36,000 to 46,000 statewide. This is not inconsequential.

Second, if it wasn't "that big of a deal," as Lamson protests (a bit too much, we might add,) then why did Democrats fight tooth and nail against Republican proposals to lower the allowable variance to 1-2%? If it wasn't "that big of a deal," then why not take little bit of extra effort (not that difficult in an age of computerized maps and data-banks) to make the districts as evenly populated as possible?

Lamsen also claims that the main difference between the Democratic districts and the Republican districts is that Republicans grouped in suburban voters with rural areas, whereas Democrats put the suburban voters with urban voters. Right.

Let us be clear -- around Montana Headlines, we are old-fashioned enough that we believe that state Senate districts should be allowed some latitude in the amount of variance in population. As we have pointed out before, the Supreme Court decision that mandated "one-man, one-vote" in all legislative districting (both in the upper and lower chambers of a state's legislature) was wrongly decided.

It is certainly within the spirit of the U.S. Constitution (assuming that the states that created the Constitution would have similar principles in how they order their own legislatures) to have seats in the house of representatives as closely proportioned by population as possible -- but not necessarily in the Senate, which by tradition is meant to follow historical political boundaries and areas of common interest.

But that isn't what the Supreme Court decided. The Warren Court said that there had to be "one-man, one-vote" in every aspect of American electoral life, and that traditional political and historical districts within states had to be erased to make that happen.

It is interesting, in light of that, that the most egregious gerrymandering and variance in population done by this Democratic committee was actually in the Montana state House -- the body where the principle of "one-man, one-vote" should most closely be adhered to. Apparently, when Democrats are concerned about "one-man, one-vote," they are selective about how they choose to apply that principle.

Joe Lamsen and other Democrats look at the fact that the state is supposedly closely politically divided, see that the legislature is also closely politically divided, and call it a success. Leaving aside the fact that this is a sort of circular reasoning (part of their proof for the close political division is that the legislature is closely divided,) and leaving aside the fact that Republican loss of the legislature due to the redistricting creates a negative political atmosphere for Republicans to run in, there are other factors that make the current gerrymandered districts poorly-functioning political units.

In other words, gerrymandering doesn't just hurt political parties. It first and foremost hurts constituents in many districts where citizens with very different interests and concerns are grouped together and placed in electoral opposition to each other.

Look, for instance, at SD 22, which runs from suburban Billings down the Yellowstone valley, picking up Colstrip and Forsyth, ending on the outskirts of Miles City. Are we to believe that a state Senator's suburban constituents in the Blue Creek area of Billings, the union member in Colstrip, and the rancher in rural Custer county are concerned about the same things? Who will be zealously represented in Helena when those interests conflict?

Or look at the long, narrow districts in Billings, which incorporate both west-end subdivisions and the south side. Whichever party wins the election, it will be owed primarily to residents in one section or the other -- what kind of representation will the other part of town get from the winning candidate?

Or why is Custer County divided up between 3 Senate districts?! Or Richland County divided between two? Whatever happened to traditional political boundaries (which were much more closely adhered to in the 1994 districting) and paying attention to having districts whose residents share some common economic and cultural concerns, as much as possible?

The list could go on. Democrats may well have had reason to believe that the districting in 1994 was not as advantageous to them as it could be -- but why would the logical response be to make them even more egregiously unfair when they had control?

When voters go the polls in Montana this coming year, they should keep in mind that there is a good chance that they are probably casting ballots in a district where the odds have been stacked against Republicans, or where the Republican vote has been diluted.

What has been interesting has been to watch the unexpected rapidity with which Republicans are figuring out how to win in spite of the inherent disadvantages. If this continues, we have every reason to believe that we will see firm Republican control of both houses of the state legislature. The fact that the legislature is tied in spite of the best efforts to stack the deck against Republicans is proof in and of itself that the state is not evenly divided, but rather that Montana by and large remains a state that leans firmly Republican.

Fair-minded Democrats should be ashamed of their party's behavior in doing this kind of extreme gerrymandering. We know that the Democratic party leadership feels no shame about it -- but they should perhaps at least be embarrassed at the fact that they still don't completely control the state government, even after taking measures that, while legal, don't pass the smell test for basic ethics in setting up the process whereby citizens choose who will represent them in Helena.


Anonymous said...

Without a doubt..If the conservatives regain control of the parties required in the next 10 year cycle..they need, need to reverse the gerrymandering and do the same as the dems did last time.
The only thing the lefties understand is power, and if we get it, we should destroy the liberal parties in Montana. They are leaches on the blood stream of Montanans.

Steve said...

The good thing about the Intertubes, is that you can recall stupid things that people have said in the past when they now contradict themselves.
In 2012, the Republicans will have no moral basis for acting fairly, and can instead point out "What goes around, comes around."

I would hate to be a Democrat then, except in certain very safe seats of Missoula, Butte and Great Falls. But they will still be a very lonely group.

Anonymous said...

I would imagine that Democrats will resist ever changing this system. Since the trial lawyers have so much control over who gets elected to the Supreme Court, it is hard to imagine that Democrats will ever be at a disadvantage with it comes time for the court to pick a chairman for the reapportionment commission. The last pick was about as partisan as you could get.

As it would be so difficult to change this system through the legislative process, where a bill could be vetoed by a Democratic governor even if it managed to be passed, is the initiative process the only way it will happen? Didn't Governor Arnold in California push a ballot measure to reform their reapportionment process down there and score some political points doing it?

Nell said...

the dems did a hell of a job last time.

i would only hope that we could return the favor next time...

Montana Headlines said...

To the first two respondents, I would say that we are a better party than that. We should use every bit of influence we have to make the districts as evenly distributed in population as possible, and we should try to follow traditional political boundaries and try to keep areas together that have some common interests.

And then let the partisan chips fall where they may.

That way, it will be a truly representative legislature. It will never be perfect, but we can do much, much better than this.

To the third respondent, you have hit the nail on the head.

The only thing that will change the highly partisan nature of this process is if the Montana Supreme Court ceases to have a majority of members who act like wholly owned subsidiaries of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and the Democratic Party.

We have all of these conservatives in this state, and not one person of influence has risen to challenge Mike McGrath for the Supreme Court seat. Not one.

While we would love to be pleasantly surprised with his performance on the court, we are expecting the partisan worst.

The only thing within our range of influence, if we are unable to come up with Supreme Court candidates who will not use their post to promote the MTLA and the Democratic Party -- is to win the governorship.

Occasionally, the governor gets to appoint someone to finish out a term when there is an opening. And any future Republican governor needs to do better than past Republican governors on that score.

But in the end, you are right that things aren't going to change under the current arrangment. Maybe something could be done legislatively if we have a Republican governor, or maybe something could be done via initiative. (Although in both cases, the Montana Supreme Court would probably just strike down the legislation.)

What we need to do is what we have been doing: figure out how to win elections in spite of the gerrymandering. A little hard work and adversity never hurt anyone.