Tag Archives: election

Congressional Redistricting: Where the Real Power Lies

By Claude Tate

We hear the names of those who sway influence in America every day. We are familiar with those who lead our federal government. The President and the Executive Branch obviously have a major impact, as do the members of Congress and the Supreme Court. We are also familiar with the leaders of our state and local governments. And of course the CEOs of our major corporations, banks, etc. are also powerful in terms of shaping our future.  We even hear about people who develop new technologies that impact our lives. But there are others who also impact our lives in major ways that are not in the news every day.  In fact, I would say that few of us even know they exist. They are the people who toil behind the scenes to shape the choices we have when we go to the polls. They are, according to an article by Robert Draper in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine, “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers”.

Tom Hofeller

Tom Hofeller

Draper’s article focuses on one of those mapmakers, Tom Hofeller.  As the article states in its opening paragraph, every ten years following just behind the census takers, “Tom Holfeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.”

As allowed by the Constitution, every 10 years following the census, the 435 congressional districts are redrawn (normally by the state legislatures) so they represent population increases, decreases, and shifts. The framers of the Constitution allowed this so as to “keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced”.  But from the beginning; redistricting has been a “blood sport” that has used to keep some in power and others out of power. As Draper notes, in 1788 Patrick Henry engineered the creation of a district in Virginia that he felt would prevent James Madison from winning a seat in Congress by putting him in the same district as James Monroe, who he felt would defeat Madison. Madison won anyway, penned the Bill of Rights, and became President.  And when Madison’s second vice president, Elbridge Gerry, was governor of Massachusetts, he helped create a district shaped like a salamander so as to benefit his party, thus the origin of the term, gerrymander.

Elbridge Gerry

So redistricting has had a long history in America. And it has been practiced by both parties. But today there is a difference. Thanks to people like Tom Holfeller the process has become far more precise. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, I saw a poll that concluded only about 50 or so seats out of 435 were even in contention. I saw other polls which put the number even smaller. In those other approximately 400 districts, they were going to go Democrat or Republican regardless of who was running.  What that means is that the candidates in those ‘safe’ districts do not have to listen to the other side. They do not even have to appeal to ‘the center’. So we are electing representatives who do not have to compromise once they get into office. In fact, in the recent elections, a number of veteran members of Congress lost because they had the gall to listen to the other side and compromise.  I recently saw a statement by a candidate, and I cannot recall off-hand who it was, who proudly stated he would never compromise. Our government cannot function without compromise.  It’s interesting how polls show an extreme dissatisfaction with Congress for this attitude which produces gridlock, yet we continue to elect the people who only represent the extremes. And that is due in large part to folks like Holfeller (he works for Republicans, but Democrats have their ‘Holfellers’ too).

“The Gerry-Mander”

The article caught my attention because it focused on the redrawing of districts in Texas and North Carolina. The new Republican legislature in North Carolina hired Holfeller to redraw our lines while Texas did not. Due to our past, both states must have their districts approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act to show the new districts are not discriminatory.  Texas has run into a number of problems. But in NC, while cases have been brought claiming discrimination, things are far more calm because Holfeller makes it a point to not get too greedy. There are still several ‘safe’ Democratic districts.  Mel Watt’s 12th district is safe, as is G.K. Butterfield’s 1st district.  David Price’s 4th district was also preserved as a safe Democratic district.  (Butterfield, Watt, and Price won re-election). But Price’s district was restructured dramatically so as to remove much of the Democratic base from Brad Miller’s 13th district.  With his prospects for re-election in the new 13th district dim, Brad Miller decided not to run. A Republican, George Holding, now represents the new 13th district.  Moderate (Blue Dog) Democrats such as Mike McIntyre (7th district) and Heath Shuler (11th district) were put in districts less favorable to re-election.  McIntyre chose to run in the new district. (As of this writing, with all precincts reporting, McIntyre was holding a 378 vote lead, but I’m sure there will be a recount.)  Heath Shuler’s district had included the entire southwest mountains.  While the majority of that area votes Republican, Asheville and the Swannanoa valley to Black Mountain normally votes Democratic, and were responsible in large part for Rep. Shuler’s two election victories.  Holfeller and the NC legislature took those Democratic leaning areas out of the mountains and put them into a district with Gastonia, Rutherfordton, Shelby, etc., which is solidly Republican. Asheville may have little in common with the communities in their new district, but that does not matter.  What matters is that a Republican will be guaranteed to represent the new 11th district. (Mark Meadows, a Republican, is the new Representative from the 11th district.)  And with Asheville and the Swannanoa valley now in the 10th district, Asheville’s power to impact congressional elections has been taken away. (Patrick McHenry, a Republican, won re-election in the new 10th.)  Another moderate Democrat, Larry Kissell (8th district), decided to run, but the environment is far less favorable to a Democrat in his new district.  (He was beaten by Republican Richard Hudson.)  Due to the work of Holfeller and the Republican-led legislature, our congressional delegation has shifted dramatically in favor of Republicans.  Before the 2012 election our delegation was composed of 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans. Now there are 4 Democrats (including McIntyre) and 9 Republicans. Holfeller did his job well.

NC Congressional Districts per S.L. 2011-403

And since the legislature also draws up the districts for the NC House of Representative and NC Senate, barring a major shift in population or a major event, the new districts that were drawn based on the 2010 census will ensure Republicans will maintain power in Raleigh, and in our congressional delegation, probably for the next decade.  And since the legislature is involved in the process in some form in the majority of the other states, the party that gained the majority in 2010 will likely shape their state and its congressional delegations for some time to come also.  And nowhere will they be looking at balancing the districts so both Republicans and Democrats will have an equal shot at winning office.

It is obvious that there are problems with how we handle redistricting. But what is the solution? Some have suggested that bipartisan commissions be created to handle the process. Various models of bipartisan commissions are used in some states now. Five states use an ‘advisory commission’ to draw the state maps, which are then presented to the legislature.  Ohio and Rhode Island use an advisory commission for their congressional districts also.  However, in most cases, the legislature is not bound by their maps.  And some states use backup commissions who will draw the maps if the legislature fails to pass a plan. Seven states use ‘politician commissions’ where certain elected officials separate from the legislature are chosen to devise the maps. And six states use what is called ‘independent commissions’ that minimize the input of elected officials by forbidding both legislators and other elected officials from serving.  An explanation of the various models and how each state determines the legislative districts can be found at http://redistricting.lls.edu/who.php. But partisanship makes its way into each of those processes also. Those who make the decisions have their own political views, and the outside consultants they all utilize, even if they do not work for either a Republican or Democratic organization, also have their personal political views. Maybe we just need to hope that Holfeller is correct when he says the system will correct itself.

NC 12th Congressional District

So while the news may give attention to those traditional power brokers, keep in mind that the real power may indeed lie with those anonymous mapmakers like 69 year old Tom Holfeller who are major forces in shaping who gets elected to our state legislatures, and who in turn, shape who gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

Image

Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

The Clock is Ticking

By Claude Tate

I’ve been thinking lately about the problem of overpopulation.

WARNING:  I cannot verify the following story from my sociology professor is true. However, I can verify it got my attention.

My first encounter with the population problem came early in my college career. I had a sociology professor who told us of an effort in a rural village in India to help women use the rhythm method of contraception. The health workers gave each woman of childbearing age an abacus.  Each day they were to move another bead to one side. They were told how it was safe to have sex once all the beads of a certain color were on one side. The abacus experiment did work exactly as planned. The women did not move one bead a day as intended. They simply moved all the beads that indicated danger over at once, and went on their merry way.  Of course in America we believe in using more reliable methods of birth control…or do we?

Recently, the Obama Administration got into some political hot water in issuing a requirement that birth control pills be covered in the new health reform legislation.  Schools, hospitals, and other institutions supported by the Catholic Church felt the government had overstepped its authority in requiring them to offer birth control through the health insurance policies they offered.  For many Catholics, this was a matter of faith.  But unfortunately for many politicians, it was just an opportunity. President Obama thus sought an accommodation. The accommodation, that the insurance companies that cover the costs of birth control must assume the full cost, took some of the air out of the opposition, but it still may have a political impact.  Only time will tell.

And at the time of this writing, a bill is moving through the Arizona legislature that would require employers to ask women who take birth control pills if they are using it for birth control or a medical condition. It will allow an employer to refuse to cover a prescription used for contraception. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the law would make it easier to fire a woman if the employer found out she took birth control medication for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. In other words, the beliefs of the employer would take priority over the beliefs and needs of female employees. It has already been approved by the House, and as of this writing, is in the Senate Rules Committee. If approved there, it will be considered by the full Senate.  Whether it will pass or not or what the specifics of the final bill will be is still up in the air, but the fact that it is actually being considered by a state legislature is disturbing. I wonder if those opposed to medicine to prevent unwanted pregnancies would allow insurance companies to buy abacuses. Who knows, maybe they will work this time.

They call the time leading up to elections the silly season. But for this election cycle, we may need some new descriptors. I can see the arguments of the opponents of abortion.  But I find it difficult to believe that insurance coverage for medication to prevent pregnancy be denied, especially in a world whose human population has just passed 7 billion people and counting.

Our world is facing many problems.  In fact, their number is so daunting it’s simply hard to wrap one’s mind around them.  I may deal with some of the others in future contributions, but for this blog I thought I would focus on one problem, that of overpopulation. But as I thought about it, I realized it was simply too broad to deal with in such a limited format as overpopulation is a factor in one way or another in so many of the problems we face today. So, I decided to limit my discussion to only one aspect of the problem, the impact of our increasing population on the future of the biosphere. We are going forth and multiplying at an alarming rate.  And for the earth, that means we are running through its resources at exponential rates.  Mineral resources are growing more and more scarce, the problem of what to do with waste products is growing worse on land and on sea (there’s a major floating trash dump in the Pacific that we do not know how to deal with), fresh water is being depleted and is already running low in many areas, the demand for food is leading to deforestation on a massive scale, and plant and animal species are disappearing daily as natural habitats are destroyed or altered. And of course, regardless of what some still say, we are changing our climate.  If something is not done to rein that growth in, and rein it in soon, we will reach the point where the planet’s biosphere simply will not be able to support any more humans.  We will reach its “carrying capacity”.  And the entire biosphere will be impacted.  Life is tenacious. It will continue. Human life will even probably continue. But it will be different.

As you can see, even introducing the impact of overpopulation of the biosphere is simply too complex to adequately deal with within this space. So I searched for some websites that would introduce this issue to anyone who may be interested in the impact of overpopulation and the environment.  So I typed in ‘population growth and the environment’ and received 5,480,000 results. After closely reading 5,479, 999 websites, I settled on an essay from the website, 123helpme, called “The Population Explosion” .  It provides a nice, brief overview of some of the major environmental problems associated with the growing human population.

Note:  I was just kidding about reading ALL of those sites. I really read only a few hundred thousand or so before deciding on including “The Population Explosion”.

Obviously, we need to bring our population growth under control, but how to do that is still very much open to question. Any solution will involve among other things, something we deal with in the last unit of my BLS class, “Visions of Creation”; how we understand what it means to be human.  However, as with any problem, the ‘devil is in the details’.  And the details here will have implications for every human on the planet.  So any discussions of solutions must wait for another time and another place.

But I do know this… the clock is ticking.

Constitutional Amendments, Moral Gridlock, and the Unique Case of Same-Sex Marriage

By Wade Maki

Change is a slow process… until it isn’t. These two “truthy” nuggets help explain American moral progress. Reflect upon the state of American moral issues such as the death penalty, abortion, physician assisted suicide, and drug use in 2011. Now compare the state of these issues today to attitudes in 1981, just three decades ago. While a few state laws and minor policy modifications have occurred, the change over 30 years is evolutionary not revolutionary. None of these issues have resulted in widespread constitutional amendments.

To further underscore the lack of major moral change, just look at other changes from 1981-2011. A brief list should include the internet, cell phones, women in positions of power, and of course an African American President. A time traveller going back to ‘81 would find none of these things and would be locked in a padded cell for predicting them.

The pace of change in technology and society contrasts strikingly with how little change occurs on moral issues, making same-sex or gay marriage truly extraordinary.  Gay marriage was not even on the radar in 1981. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that sodomy could be criminalized. That ruling was not overturned until 2003 (Lawrence & Gardner v. Texas).

Only in the latter 1990’s did the question of gay marriage garner serious attention and even then it was more of a political rallying cry in opposition to it, which made it an issue. To this day few major politicians have supported same-sex marriage yet a majority of states have amended their constitutions to outlaw something which wasn’t legal or even seriously considered by the political class. We have never seen other moral issues rise to the level of amending constitutions across the country in this way.

So, in less than 20 years a non-issue has become a major moral issue for America. I first included this topic in my Vice Crime and American Law course in 2006. Already, most everything I wrote about has become ancient history. From a single state with a civil union law we now see full gay marriage (GM) rights in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington D.C.

In California alone, we’ve seen chaos around the issue where the Mayor of San Francisco decided to grant GM license on his own authority only to be stopped by the courts only to be reversed statewide by other courts. Then in 2008 an anti GM referendum reinstated the ban but that referendum is now tied up in even more court proceedings.

These changes are uncharacteristically fast for a controversial moral issue in American law. Perhaps this is best explained by demographics where most issues might split near 60%-40% across all age groups (like abortion or the death penalty) gay marriage support varies widely based upon age. A large majority of those over 65 oppose gay marriage whereas the vast majority of the under 35 group support it. Given this trend the future expansion of gay marriage rights over time is to be expected.

This is why the North Carolina Legislature’s action to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage this primary election is so out of touch. It bans something our law already prohibits, enshrines a form of discrimination into our constitution, and sets us up for a harsh judgment from history. Unless today’s young people or their children suddenly change their mind about gay marriage it is only a matter of time before these constitutional bans fall away just like those bans on interracial marriage or sodomy.

Many authors make a strong moral and legal case for gay marriage. Rather than replicate the good work of others I suggest we avoid the harsh judgment of history by actively opposing this amendment this coming primary election. North Carolina voters should envision those whites who stood in the way of integrated schools, or men who opposed the rise of women, or the states that held fast to interracial marriage and sodomy statutes. In each case the future was clear and those who stood in the way are not judged kindly.

Opposing this amendment is the right thing to do for reasons I’ve offered and many I haven’t. The fact that it comes up in a primary election makes your vote all the more important. Turnout is generally low and with a contested Republican presidential primary, the electorate will be older and more conservative thus more likely to vote for the amendment.

I’m proud to live in North Carolina and also proud that we are the only state in the south east not to amend our constitution to ban gay marriage. We can remain proud tomorrow by defeating this amendment today.

The Things We Don’t Know

By Marc Williams

According to a recent Marist poll, only 58% of Americans know that the United States declared its independence in 1776.  Respondents were slightly better at identifying England as the country from which the United States sought independence; 76% responded correctly.

Revolutionary War Reenactment, Photo by Michael Warner

Similar polls are conducted year-round, demonstrating an often surprising lack of awareness of seemingly important issues.  For example, in November 2010, following the mid-term elections, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans knew that Republicans gained power in Congress but didn’t realize that Democrats maintained control of the Senate.

Far fewer are familiar with the specifics relating to the GOP’s victories. Fewer than half (46%) know that the Republicans will have a majority only in the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January, while 38% can identify John Boehner as the incoming House speaker (Pew Research Center).

Polls like the one above from Pew Research Center are always surprising on some level.  This is perhaps because media outlets enjoy summarizing the results, highlighting only the most troubling findings. This particular poll examined American awareness on a variety of current events and the respondents did pretty well when asked about the BP oil spill and their general sense of federal budget deficit was accurate.  With that in mind, I wonder if the results really are so troubling after all.

Is this just sensationalism or should we really be concerned?    In the BLS program at UNCG, we examine big ideas about the human experience.  But what about names, dates, and other factoids acquired by rote?  Who is responsible for this information?  Is it really important in the first place?  What, exactly, should we all be expected to know?