There’s an old saying, attributed to Josef Stalin: “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”
It’s an important lesson when dealing with politics. When honesty is no longer taken for granted, then those who control the system truly make the decisions.
But there’s another meta level even beyond that one that comes into play when it comes to manipulating elections: who decides who gets to vote?
In any system, whoever sets the rules has a tremendous power to rig the system in their favor. And we’re coming up on another opportunity to redefine those fundamental rules.
It’s 2010. That means we had our decennial census, and the results of that will have a tremendous effect on our political system.
The Constitution dictates that membership in the House of Representatives shall be based upon the population of the several states. That means that every ten years, the distribution of the seats in the House has to be re-jiggered. The Census hasn’t released any numbers as yet, but the predictions are significant: Texas is expected to pick up four House seats;
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington, one each; Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania will lose one; and Ohio will lose two.
That’s a major shift — eleven seats will move.
But those numbers aren’t graven in stone. The Census could surprise us, and those predictions could be off.
It was never said explicitly, but I believe that was a factor in the early days of the Obama administration. Initially, they reached out to Senator Judd Gregg (
D-NH R-NH, my homey) and asked him to serve as Secretary of Commerce. Gregg initially accepted the nomination, but angrily (well, as angrily as he gets — he’s a former tax lawyer, and rather bloodless by nature) withdrew after the Obama administration announced that it was taking the oversight of the census away from the Secretary of Commerce and instead directly running it from the White House.
Why would the Obama administration first agree to have such a staunch Republican like Gregg in such a key position, then change their minds? I suspect that they initially didn’t realize the Census fell under his purview. Then, when it all fell together, they pushed and pushed him until he withdrew.
But all that is just context for the thesis here. This isn’t about whta has happened so far, but what is coming next.
Redistricting has two phases. What I’ve described above is the machinations that cover the first one. The effects won’t be felt until the 2012 election cycle. And what will happen between the Census final numbers are released and that election cycle is what is the focus here.
After every census, in every state, even if the total number of Representatives doesn’t change, the Congressional district lines are redrawn. The borders shift, and sitting representatives can sometimes find themselves facing each other as two (or sometimes even more) living within the same district.
Drawing those lines is a very important process. And it’s not the Census that draws those lines. Nor is it the House, or any part of the federal government. Nope, it’s the state legislatures that set the districts.
Which is why NPR ran such a sob piece on Sunday, talking about how awful it might be if the Republicans get to set those boundaries. The tone is clear: if the Republicans get control of state legislatures, it could corrupt the process terribly. The presumption, of course, is that if the Democrats control it, it’ll be much fairer and more respectable.
And, I suspect, it might be why Steven L. Taylor of Outside The Beltway also brought up redistricting as well.
There are no real rules for redistricting; the courts have ruled that the districts have to be roughly equal in population and make some sort of contiguous sense (demographically or geographically), but other than that, “gerrymandering” is pretty much the rule rather than the exception.
My favorite example was the plan Massachusetts Republicans put forth back in 1990. They had to deal with going from 11 to 10 seats, and the plan the Republicans put forth not only had each district within five people of each other, but made sure that each sitting Democrat representative would have to compete with a a fellow incumbent — not one was left alone in their district. It was a work of art, and would have caused the Democrats no end of trouble. So, naturally, it went nowhere.
It’s an odd thing, that so much power at the federal level will be decided this fall in literally thousands of individual races all around the country. This November, when we go to the polls to elect our state representatives, we will — in a way — be deciding the shape of the future on a national level.
Odd, as in I don’t think it has a parallel anywhere in the world.
But certainly not odd, as in disturbing. That’s what NPR and others are trying to sell — that the thought that if one party prevails here, it will be a terrible catastrophe and the corruption of a hitherto-pristine process. That letting the matter be resolved in what is possibly the most small-d democratic fashion possible is incredibly dangerous.
I personally find it quite comforting to know that I, as an individual, a nobody in the middle of nowhere, can help shape the next ten years of our government.
Only in America, my friends. Only in America.