From our earliest days as a nation
We struggled with representation
Should a person equal a vote
Or some other system of note?
Is fairness our highest priority
Or shall we be ruled by minority?
And what will be your reaction
If you are the wrong part of a fraction?
It is time to write about fractions. You probably thought that the three-fifths fraction went away with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and you would be partly correct. Unfortunately, the philosophies that generated the voting blocs that demanded political power through counting slaves as 3/5 persons have not gone away. Other fractions were debated, but the three-fifths rule was a compromise to the plantation economy demanding an edge. The rule was enacted in1787 and provided 47 votes in the House of Representatives in 1793 versus the 33 that the number of voters might have authorized. As the national population expanded, so did the advantage of counting slaves for representation in Congress, although they were denied the right to vote. In 1812, the year of our 2nd war of independence from England, that number jumped to 76 versus 59; in 1833, the number became 98 versus 73. You can only imagine how crestfallen those states became when they lost the Civil War and had to change to voting by counting only citizens in the census. The census every decade also provided an opportunity to periodically enforce the concept. But you need to recognize that any system that has the potential to permit an unfair advantage will likely fall prey to that monster sooner or later. The very term gerrymandering is derived from Governor Gerry of Massachusetts who, in 1812, sculpted the electoral lines for state senate districts so that one appeared to be a salamander. After more than one hundred years of line drawing to gain advantage, the federal government ruled in 1964 that each district should be roughly equal to other districts in population numbers. “Isopopulation” rules might seem difficult to circumnavigate, but people are creative and political people are deviously creative.
In 1964, during the civil rights crisis, the federal government issued guidelines for “one-man equals one vote” changes in our electoral system. About a decade later, I was elected to a district school board in Connecticut based on that revision in district lines. Can you imagine having isopopulation districting and a fair electoral system? It actually happened in a state where Democrats and Republicans were essentially even in numbers. Both sides were motivated to play fair and campaign on issues, at least for a time. Allow me to look back to the sixties for a moment to actually paint a bit more of the picture, however. The “Solid South” was indeed solid and solidly Democratic in the fifties and sixties, but party was less the critical identifier than social conservatism in the South. One only had to see the billboards denouncing John F. Kennedy or Chief Justice Earl Warren to understand that civil rights were seen as an abomination rather than a popular sentiment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to counter the common practice of denying voting rights of minorities, but this did not dispel disenfranchisement. Soon, the Nixon “Southern Strategy” evolved as the leading solution to fighting change, including change protecting civil rights. Democrats merely registered as Republicans and continued doing what they had done for a century. The Solid South remained solid, but the Ds changed to Rs. The Voting Rights Act pushed by President Johnson was later overwhelmingly extended three times (the last time for 25 years) demonstrating a sense of the Congress that safeguarding the right to vote in a Democracy was of the essence. Some states including the Solid South, plus Virginia and Arizona were found to have an historical pattern of infringing voting rights and therefore had to have any voting changes pre-approved by the Justice Department before they could be enacted. Most recently, Shelby County Alabama has filed suit with the Supreme Court to strike section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision requires states like Alabama prove that any new law does not discriminate against minorities in the voting process. By way of disclosure, Alabama had attempted over law 200 changes that had to be amended because they were found to be discriminatory since the last renewal of the law by Congress (2006). Despite that evidence, Justice Scalia made the comment in court that the law has become a “racial entitlement,” and that Congress was unable to act effectively (despite the overwhelming majorities in both House and Senate in each of the four renewals). He claims that the Congress is unable to do the job. Without saying so, it appears that he feels that he is up to the task of saying no to the federal oversight. Although Scalia denounced the Congress for being too intimidated by voters to do the “right thing,” he openly assumed that the Supreme Court could. Judicial legislating? Of course not. Laws are too important to be written by an intimidated Congress. Besides, the efficiency of the Supreme Court is unmatched as in Bush v. Gore and without error as in the Inquisition v. Everybody.
The Supremes notwithstanding, various states have provided creative ways to enhance their odds to eliminate the rising power of minorities. Michigan comes to mind as the place that democracy forgot. What need have we for municipal elections when the governor can appoint an all-powerful Emergency Manager for cities and towns in fiscal trouble? So far, each of the half dozen or so that Governor Rick Snyder has declared has been overwhelmingly black in racial makeup. None have been released from emergency powers. The Emergency Manager in each case has stripped all powers from duly elected city officials including Detroit, most recently. Why gerrymander when you can simply appoint a dictator? Recall that even Mussolini was credited with running the trains on time. Emergency Managers can sell municipal property to friends or hire and pay those friends with impunity. There is no check or balance. The numerator for black municipalities in that Michigan fraction is always zero. Voters repealed PA 4 to stop this heinous practice last November, but the majority Republican legislators created a temporary law (PA436) in lame duck session to circumvent the voters and then made that law take full effect on 28 March. Can you imagine the temerity of the voters to attempt democracy? Shame on the voters. Hail Snyder. Should these fractions be legal? Of course, democracy is messy…so I have heard.
Gerrymandering has made a huge comeback as shown in the last national election. The GOP, despite being outvoted in House elections managed a 55% majority of House seats. They had over 500,000 fewer votes. Oh! those darned fractions. Even Virginia resorted to some questionable tactics by deliberately redistricting DURING the presidential inauguration when a Democrat (Marsh) went to the event and the State Senate went into session unannounced. The state was reapportioned in 2011 and the state constitution calls for reapportionment ONLY every ten years. I presume this will go to the courts since the meeting appeared to be in violation of announcement rules and the reapportionment is only two tenths of the way to ten years. Which way do you think the Supremes would vote? There was lots of gerrymandering to overcome the more than half million plurality won by Democrats and there were other attempts that were unsuccessful, but even this tactic was not the sole card for the minority.
As in Cleveland in 2004, the election in November 2012 was rife with problems of people being disenfranchised through assignment of poll hours in racial minority districts and by elimination of early polling as well as a variety of other tricks that were highlighted in the Florida elections and where it was attempted as in Pennsylvania. The net result is that the fractions that we normally associated with losing an election are quickly becoming false notions. If a state has the power to redistrict when it wants and is run by either party (mostly red, but CA and MA could play a similar blue game), then the danger is that minority party rule as we have witnessed in failed governments could seriously damage our democratic process. The GOP has decried its lack of support from Blacks and Hispanics and yet has done nothing to change its message. It has only sought to re-package the same message. Meanwhile it has a strategy to change the electoral system so that they can win control through a plan they call REDMAP. The RED has the double meaning of redistricting and Red = Republican. Forget 60% in the Senate.
03 March 2013