North Carolina’s 12th District was said to be the most gerrymandered in America. Until 2017 it was a long, straggling, narrow strip, at points extremely narrow. One critic quipped that a two hour drive down its length with both car doors open would endanger the lives of most people in the district.
The term Gerrymandering dates from 1812 and refers to the manipulation of electoral boundaries to establish party political advantage. It was coined from the practice of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who had electoral districts drawn up in what looked like the shapes of a salamander. Gerrymandering continues in Republican states more than two hundred years later.
The Republicans have effectively become a whites-only party in a country that is becoming ever more diverse. With their electoral constituency becoming increasingly limited, the only way of holding on to power is to adopt a full range of voter suppression methods. Claims of widespread voter fraud caused by ineligible voters have been proved baseless. Trump scrapped his advisory commission on electoral integrity last year because they failed to come up with a shred of evidence to back his assertions. The real frauds, largely uninvestigated, are those practised by Republican politicians attempting to rig the system to their advantage. These methods are legion.
Voters lists are purged of potential Democrat voters. Voter Registration is made difficult. Polling stations are shut down in areas with large ethnic minority populations. “Felons” are disenfranchised, often for many years after they’ve served their sentences. ID requirements disproportionately discriminate against poorer electors. Such tactics went a long way to help elect Trump in 2016.
It is estimated that over a million votes were lost because eligible voters didn’t have the right ID, encountered long lines at the polling stations or couldn’t register. Trump “won” by a combined total of 78,000 in three swing states. Trump lost the popular vote in the US Presidential Election by the order of three million votes, but made it the White House courtesy of an arcane institution, the Electoral College.
Americans do not directly elect their president. Instead, the winning party in each state secures all Electoral College seats for that state, on a first past the post basis. Trump won a number of key states by a very narrow margin, though he was way behind in others with huge populations.
The Electoral College is a legacy of the 1787 US Constitution, which was drawn up to a large extent by and for the benefit of slaveowners. Ten out of the first 12 US Presidents were slaveowners. George Washington and his ilk were no great fans of “democracy” in what it has come to be regarded in its modern sense.
They feared that electing the nation’s leader via universal direct (male) suffrage carried with it the danger of plebeian rule. Another founding father, Alexander Hamilton, has become something of a historical hero due to the hit musical Hamilton. We’ll never know what he might think of hip hop, but he was certainly no great fan of Vox Pop. He was opposed to an “excess of democracy” and argued that American Presidents should serve for life. According to Hamilton “The people are turbulent and changing. They seldom judge or determine right”.
In his opinion they should be ruled by “landowners, merchants and men of the learned professions.” To deal with the risk of a “populist” demagogue, an extra filter on the popular vote was called for. Thus the Electoral College, a conclave of “the great and the good” – guardians of the propertied classes – who would deny office to any victor who represented a serious challenge to the status quo.
Paradoxically, the Electoral College as originally envisaged by the “founding fathers” was just the sort of body that should have denied a maverick like Trump the keys to the White House. However, with the firm establishment of a two-party system after the American Civil War, the Electoral College effectively became a rubber stamp on the popular vote, only counted state-by-state with winner takes-all in each state. Serious calls are now being made to scrap the Electoral College altogether, with a recent opinion poll showing 55% in favour of its abolition. It is not the only democratic deficit resulting from a seriously flawed constitution.
Representation in the Senate is disproportionately skewed towards the Republican Party. Wyoming, with a population of just over half a million, returns two senators to Congress – both Republican, whilst California, with 40 million people, also gets two senators. A Senate dominated by Republicans from small states can frustrate all kinds of progressive legislation even though it represents a minority of voters nationwide.
An especially pernicious aspect of the way the 1787 Constitution was drawn up was the Three-Fifths Compromise. This proposed that three out of every five slaves be counted as a person when determining a state’s total population for representation in the legislature. That gave slave states more seats in Congress and the Electoral College, without giving slaves themselves a vote, and obviously increased the power of the slavocracy. That Three-Fifths compromise was done away with after the Civil War, when all adult males were in theory given the vote with the ironic exception of First Nation Americans.
But there is a modern day equivalent dubious population count. The “land of the free” has the largest prison population in the world, with over two million people behind bars. Incarcerated people don’t vote, yet their numbers are included in the population counts used to draw electoral districts in the largely conservative rural areas in which the prisons are situated, rather than the urban areas from which most inmates originate.
Black American males were briefly given the vote during the “Reconstruction” period (1865-1877), only to have it taken away from them de facto for nearly a century under the “Jim Crow” regimes, as white supremacy was reestablished in the southern states. Today, in spite of advances made by the civil rights movement, black voting rights continue to be suppressed.
Voter suppression is not the only reason why general elections in the USA have notoriously low turnouts, averaging around 50% of the electorate and heavily skewed towards the wealthier sections of the population. The other reason is traditional lack of choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the two major capitalist parties. As there is a myth that “the working class” voted for Brexit, so also there is the false claim that Trump’s victory was down to large-scale working-class support.
A minority of working-class people, mostly white, did vote for Trump, but the main shift was that overall turnout declined. In nine midwestern states, turnout in absolute terms dropped from 33.2 million in 2012 to 29.9 million in 2016. The decline reflected a sense of despair, lack of choice, and resentment against two unpopular candidates. Socialists can reverse this situation by advancing clear policies in defence of jobs and living standards and calling for universal health and socialised medicine. There must also be campaigns against all laws and ruses to suppress the vote.