Lois Leveen on Writing Historical Fiction

Give a listen to Lois Leveen’s 2013 interview on Live Wire Radio for a great discussion of the perils of writing historical fiction (she reads her article, “Fear of a Red Tractor” on the show and it is posted below); Mary Bowser; and the Civil War.

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PowellsBooks.Blog 
Authors, readers, critics, media − and booksellers.

Fear of a Red Tractor

Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.

Remember the good ol’ days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Okay, maybe those days weren’t so good. But at least back then, the dentist was probably too busy to be a literary critic, too. My dentist, however, is another matter.

Last year, while giving my molars the once over, the dear old DMD told me about a book he’d been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of “a red John Deere tractor” sitting in a field. He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, “everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor.”

Tractor

Only a West Coast dentist can make a New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.

Authors — and our editors — are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that “real” detail wrong, you have blown it big time.

As it happens, one of my New York editors is originally from Virginia, where much of my novel is set. She suggested that the bird’s nest I’d tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that’s the state tree of Virginia — it would sound more specific, less generically Southern.

As it also happens, I’m an obsessed lunatic. I’d already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page one of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.

As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I’d made a reference to a straight razor.

You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any 19th-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and crossed it out.

Why?

Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone’s dad used, before disposables came along). Until then, they were just razors.

who you calling

In writing a novel based on a real person, I focused on crafting a compelling story. Which means sometimes I intentionally deviated from what I knew to be true. I’ve also unearthed new facts about Mary Bowser since drafting the novel (I told you I’m an obsessed lunatic — of course I’m still researching), which means those details aren’t in the book. Sometimes when I was writing, I made something up that I later learned was true, or close to the truth, which gives me goosebumps.

Still, I’m sure there are things I got wrong without realizing, in those devilish details. So if you happen upon a big ol’ red John Deere in the field of my fiction, please forgive me. And don’t tell my dentist.

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Our Politics for the People Conference Call 

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

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Reader’s Forum–Tiani Coleman

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Greg Orman, who almost unseated a deeply entrenched incumbent as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014, and who is now a promising independent candidate for Governor in Kansas, shares some vital insights in his book, A Declaration of Independents:  How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream.  Not only does Orman informatively expose details about the crushing control the two-party Duopoly holds on American politics, but he does so with unique credentials, and with a vision for how we can return power to “we the people.”

As a previous Republican-party insider in Utah, a state where Republicans dominate, I can relate to Orman’s description of politics in Kansas, also a heavily Republican state.  Orman mentions how partisan-controlled politics has forced candidates to take the most extreme views and duke out their chief battles in party primaries (since the general election outcome is usually a forgone conclusion).  I found the following observation by Orman to be particularly revealing and important:

“[I]n our current crisis, moderates are partly the authors of their own misfortune.  I’ve long held the view that moderates in both parties are the victims of the rule rigging and negative campaigning that they themselves have historically supported.  They made the assumption that if it was good for the party, it was good for them as incumbent officeholders. . . .  [They] helped to create an environment that was ironically hostile to them.”  (p. 106)

By definition, “moderates” are supposed to be more reasonable, more rational, less ideologically partisan, more mainstream – thus, less extreme.  They’re supposed to be the types of people who are able to find common ground with the other side.  However, the “moderates” failed America.  They lacked the political courage to “do the right thing.”  They became the entrenched establishment that was ever too happy to rig the rules in their favor, ever too comfortable engaging in cronyism, ever too eager to use their position for permanent career advancement, ever too entitled to not create a permanent class of elites that shut out most of America.

But, “the party people,” rather than blaming lack of ethics (abuse of power), have blamed moderates’ willingness to compromise on complicated issues; they’ve cynically denounced independent rationality itself.  Things have now become so highly polarized and partisan that “moderate” is a bad word for parties, and “moderates” are facing extinction in our party-controlled government.  The saddest part in all of this is that Book Imagedespite moderates’ concerns about the current state of things, very few have stepped forward and admitted their folly; they’re not actively working to right the ship they’re responsible for damaging.  As they lose re-election, they blame the extremists – and then they settle into a lucrative lobbying job.  They certainly can’t fathom working to reform a broken system – that would be too radical.  And nearly none of them will risk reputation and loss of money prospects to run as independents and/or publicly support independent candidates.

So major kudos to Greg Orman, someone who has been willing to put everything on the line and be a real leader.  He understands why our government isn’t working, and he’s willing to do what it takes – despite the naysayers who might call him “a spoiler, dishonest, or just plain crazy.”  Orman understands that the only way to fix things is for competent people of conviction who don’t see everything through a partisan lens, to step up – outside the current partisan system – and offer their independent minds and spirits at the solution table; after all, regardless of which side in our duopoly wins, “[w]e haven’t seen any fundamental changes in the [negative] long-term direction of our country.”  (p. 274).

I was struck by Orman’s example coming from research by the Bipartisan Policy Center, wherein on education reform proposals, “Democrats preferred ‘their party’s’ plan 75 percent to 17 percent.  Yet when the exact same details were called the ‘Republican Plan,’ only 12 percent of Democrats liked it.  The same dichotomy was present among Republicans.  Only independents answered the question irrespective of which party label was put on it.”  (p. 144)  Orman gets it:  “policy positions [are] not driving partisanship, but rather partisanship [is] driving policy positions.”

With attitudes such as George Will’s indicating that it’s less important to upgrade the “intellectual voltage” in the Senate than it is to get one more Republican elected (or Democrat, depending on who is speaking), we know we’ve lost any semblance of putting country first, but are simply trying to help our team win at any cost.  I’m heartened by Orman’s common sense approach of working to understand all points of view around an issue, and looking objectively and creatively to find solutions, embracing diversity of thought and intellectual conflict “as a way to get to the right answer,” calling upon all of us to be willing to change our minds as new information informs us that our prior position was incorrect.  This is what it means to be independent of partisan boxes and think for ourselves.

Orman points out that we would never allow our sports teams to shamelessly rig the rules of competition such that the same two teams always make it to the World Series, and yet we have allowed Republicans and Democrats to do this in U.S. politics.  It’s time for Americans of good faith everywhere to “cast off the heavy collar of partisanship,” (p. 255) be willing to take bold risks for our country – not only when we have nothing to lose, but especially when we have “everything” to lose – and create a better America for future generations.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

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POLITICS for the PEOPLE 

CONFERENCE CALL with Author GREG ORMAN

A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream

SUNDAY, APRIL 15th @ 7 PM EST

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

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Readers’ Forum—Natesha Oliver

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Natesha Oliver with Independent Voting President, Jackie Salit.  Kansas City, MO 2017

 

Reading A Declaration of Independents by Greg Orman hit me in several ways. I laughed at the absurdity of an elected official, a sitting elected official, living in a totally different state than the one he is charged to represent. Then I cried, for the same reason and for the fact that he actually won reelection.

That is profoundly sad to me.

It’s like are Americans that far removed from caring about the people they send to office and their “ability” to RELATE to their, the American People, concerns, especially community concerns.

I mean at this point it seems like the only reason parties succeed is through the detachment of its constituency to even the most basic values for good representation, being part of the “community” even if “community” encompasses the entire state.

Then I cried for myself, when the book pointed out the reality that most of the people born in the bottom 20 percent will more than likely die there.

Talk about scary AND depressing. Because I was born in the bottom 20 percent and has had no success in getting out and trust I have and am striving to in more ways than is necessary to say.

To know that partisan politics really does play a role in that reality is angering yet I say again is it the parties or the detachment of the American People?!

Greg’s telling of the conditions that “governs” our Government is eye-opening in some respects because I am still young enough to not know when government was actually functioning and mind-boggling because REALLY??? Our Government has truly lost a lot of the values that was subtly instilled in my beliefs of “do the right thing and all will work out”. That is simply untrue and that is simply the hardest pill to swallow.

Yet!!!

Greg Orman does leave me with a smidget of hope.  Even if it is from his own determination to fix the duopolistic nature of our governing body.

His call to Independents to run for office and for Americans to consider the Independent path in politics is very sound. He has mapped out a way for Americans to regain some form of power back in such an overtly disregardful and corrupt political environment.

Will his call and the call of other Independent activists be answered?

Time will tell.

Natesha Oliver is the founder and President of Missouri Independents Stand Together (M.I.S.T.). She lives in Kansas City, MO.

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POLITICS for the PEOPLE BOOK CLUB

CONFERENCE CALL with Author GREG ORMAN

Book Image

SUNDAY, APRIL 15th @ 7 PM EST

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

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P4P launches monthly IVN column

Last week I launched a monthly column on IVN, a nonpartisan on line news outlet that provides thoughtful political news and policy analysis. It is my go to read every day for national news on the independent and reform movements.  I am very pleased to bring Politics for the People to IVN readers.  Hope you enjoy my opening column.

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Politics for the People:

A Book Club for the Curious Independent

 

by Cathy Stewart in Campaigns Mar 8, 2018

 Book clubs have been a part of American life since 1634 when Anne Hutchinson started a “literary circle” for women as they crossed the Atlantic en route to the colonies. In 1840, Margaret Fuller founded the first book club sponsored by a book store, and by the mid 1800’s book clubs began to spread across the Midwest.

Today, estimates are that 5 million Americans participate in book clubs.

In 2011, I established the Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club for independents. The book club was an extension of a popular education series that I ran for the New York City Independence Clubs. I wanted to provide a national forum for independents to build a community of curiosity that was exploring politics and history together from a nonpartisan, independent point of view.

A book club seemed the perfect fit.

The Politics for the People Book Club has a unique approach. We’ve created a forum for club members to engage with world-class authors about critical issues and moments in the American experiment at a time when civic discourse is corroded by both partisanship and superficiality.

We read each of our selections over six to eight weeks. Our reading is echoed in an interactive blog that includes videos, literary reviews, background materials and, most importantly, the thoughts, reflections, and commentary from our members.

The P4P blog becomes a crossroads that adds depth to our reading experience and creates a sense of community among our members. And just as we read our authors’ words, they read the words of independent Americans responding to their work.

I wanted to provide a national forum for independents to build a community of curiosity that was exploring politics and history together from a nonpartisan, independent point of view.

Cathy Stewart, Vice President for National Development at Independent Voting

Each selection culminates in a conference call with our author where we explore the book and create a conversation through questions from our members. Authors and book club members alike find the conference calls stimulating and thought-provoking.

Alex Myers, the author of Revolutionary (a historical novel about Deborah Sampson who pretended to be a man to serve in the Revolutionary army) had this to say about our conference call and P4P members, “These were people who had read and thought about my novel on levels far beyond plot and character. It felt like the kind of conversation we need to have as a country.”

Politics for the People authors find the discussions unusual both in the depth of the dialogue and in the diversity of the participants. They often tell me that we ask questions that they have never been asked before and they thank me for the P4P experience.

These were people who had read and thought about my novel on levels far beyond plot and character. It felt like the kind of conversation we need to have as a country.

Alex Myers, author of Revolutionary

Our members (now over 335) are as diverse as the independent movement, from all walks of life, and from all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. P4P members range from avid readers to people who never picked up a book before joining the club. For many of our readers, P4P has introduced them to new genres and insights into history, and current events.

We have created a P4P community that is welcoming of a wide range of views, that is fun, and that supports everyone to read, grow and learn together. Tiani Coleman, the President of New Hampshire Independent Voters has said the book club “motivates me to read, contemplate and write about thought-provoking books that I likely wouldn’t find time for otherwise, helping me grow as a person and as a leader in the independent movement.”

Our selections include fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. We have had several Pulitzer Prize winning authors join us for intimate conversations about their work, including Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns); Eric Foner (Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad); Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City)Hedrick Smith (Who Stole the American Dream? Can We Get It Back?) and Megan Marshall (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life).

Historical fiction selections like Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War and Alex Meyers’ Revolutionary give us a portal to experience and imagine the lives, the challenges and the circumstances of the people–both ordinary and extraordinary–who are the movers of history. P4P is an opportunity to question the notion that there is one truth or a single view of history.

How do I pick selections for Politics for the People? A mixture of recommendations, serendipity, and scouting. I look for selections that challenge conventional ways of thinking, and are written by authors we would enjoy talking with. Perhaps, most importantly, I am always reading…

I will be sharing P4P selections and reviews of other books of interest to independent-minded Americans in the months to come. If you have a book you would like to recommend for P4P, please send me a note.  And please join me in the Politics for the People book club!  Visit the blog and sign up to join our book reading, conversation creating independent community.

Happy Reading.

Cathy Stewart
Cathy L. Stewart has been a political activist in the independent movement since the mid-1980’s. She is the Vice President for National Development at Independent Voting and the founder and host of Politics for the People.

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POLITICS for the PEOPLE BOOK CLUB

CURRENT SELECTION:

A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream

CONFERENCE CALL with Author GREG ORMAN

SUNDAY, APRIL 15th @ 7 PM EST

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New Selection—A Declaration of Independents by Greg Orman

 

Book Image

I am delighted to announce our first selection of 2018.  A Declaration of Independents  by Greg Orman was released in 2016.

In 2014, Greg Orman–a successful business leader and entrepreneur–ran for U.S. Senate in Kansas as an independent.  His landmark campaign attracted national attention as he nearly beat incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts.  The Democrat in the race dropped out, recognizing that Greg had animated record numbers of voters and was in the best position. The race was very close until the very final days.

The book chronicles Greg’s journey to becoming an independent and his experiences in this historic campaign.

In Declaration of Independents, Greg describes the huge price we are paying as a result of the toxic partisan political culture in Washington. Greg spells out how that two-party machine works, the supporting institutions that reinforce the paradigm limiting both competition and accountability to voters. In the final section of the book, Greg lays out his vision for reinventing our political system.

In his Acknowledgements, Greg writes that he had been “…writing this book in my head for over fifteen years….” He goes on to share the impact of his campaign on the book, “What would have been missing [had the book been written before the campaign] is the perspective that comes from having run for office in Kansas and being able to talk to my fellow citizens about issues that matter to the.  Without our campaign, there would be no book. Running for the U.S. Senate was genuinely the honor of a lifetime.”

ORman announcement photo from IVN

AP Photo

In January, Greg announced his independent candidacy for Governor of Kansas.  In an interview with Tim Carpenter from the Topeka Capital -Journal, Greg shared how he thinks about being an independent:

For me being politically independent is not about ideology. It’s about 3 things:

  • it’s about putting my state and my country ahead of a political party.
  • it’s about using facts and common sense to solve problems, not just clinging to rigid ideological solutions even when they are not working.
  • and importantly, it’s about being free from obligations to party bosses and special interests.”

Later in the interview Greg shared his view of state government, “At the end of the day we’ve had a government in Topeka that has been very resistant to the involvement of its citizens. And you’ll see when we come out with our transparency plan that we plan to open up the statehouse to the citizens of Kansas. We view them as equal partners in the problem solving process and we’re going to involve them.”

IVN has been regularly covering the campaign. In his latest article about Greg’s campaign launch, Shawn Griffiths writes,

The two parties will do all they can to make this about them — a race between red and blue. They — along with their allies in the media — will tell Kansas voters that any vote outside the two-party duopoly is a wasted vote. Republicans will accuse Orman of being a closet Democrat, while Democrats will say he is really a Republican.”

Sound familiar???

As we head into the 2018 election cycle, I am eagerly diving into A Declaration of Independents, looking forward to reading it with all of you and having the opportunity to talk with Greg.

Happy Reading!

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POLITICS for the PEOPLE BOOK CLUB

CONFERENCE CALL with GREG ORMAN

SUNDAY, APRIL 15th @ 7 PM EST

Reader’s Forum–Brenda Ratliff

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I couldn’t put down Kathy Edin’s compelling discussion of contemporary American poverty, $2 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America. I read the book almost nonstop over two evenings, and as I read I became more enraged with each story and description of the current plight of America’s cashless poor.

This is happening in one of the most successful countries in the world.  No one would question this if it happened in India, Africa or Central America. Our well-meaning liberals would express outrage that these countries could not take care of its citizens.  After all, isn’t America the land of endless opportunity? Unfortunately, it seems that endless opportunity comes with a high price for those living without the same means as those who have the wherewithal that comes from access, opportunity and stability to maintain a higher standard of living.

There is also currently, and for the past 20 or more years, no political will to even acknowledge this kind of poverty in our country where current politicians obsess over the middle class, (i.e. votes). Trump was quoted in today’s news as wanting to do 836ad-2-a-daysomething about the rampant corruption in America’s system of entitlements with no proof whatsoever that this is happening.  Kathy Edin’s book asserts repeatedly, that corruption does not exist in any significant way in our system of benefits for the poor.  However, once again, an opportunity to garner favor with a political base rears its ugly head as a campaign tactic for the next election by blaming the most vulnerable in our society.

I grew up poor in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s amidst a tremendous amount of family instability.   But I never felt that there was nothing that could be done.  We survived on the old system, Aid for Dependent Children, after my father, our sole support, sat down one day in a chair and died of undiagnosed heart disease. My mother was left with four children from 7 to 14 years of age at home. She was semi-literate having never completed high school and her chances of employment were close to non-existent.  Besides, what was she going to do with all of us?  She went on welfare and raised us. Even then, it was a Herculean task to try to keep us safe, healthy and on a good path.  However, I never felt that there wasn’t a place to turn to, even if we were treated like second class citizens in whatever office we landed.  With welfare money we paid the bills, paid the rent with assistance from section 8, we had three meals a day, and I thrived in school.  That is what the old-fashioned welfare system managed to accomplish.  We were not cheats.  Circumstances caused my mother, a poor black woman who was ill-equipped for skilled work, to fall on hard times, and to ask for help to make sure her children were safe, housed and fed.

Today’s America, has almost no safety net for the poor. It took very little money to stabilize my family.  We were fortunate to be able to capitalize on the political will of a very different time during a period of social motion that changed everything.  Now the political establishment does not talk about poverty, except to blame poor people for being poor. They, along with large parts of America, believe that if you’re poor, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. But that American can-do spirit applies to those mired in poverty, as Edin talks about in her book, as much as it applies to the middle class.  The resourcefulness of some of the people described in Edin’s book is remarkable.  To make it though, sometimes people just need a hand up, even if that is also a handout.

If we are ever to address this issue meaningfully, caring Americans must become engaged in the political life of this country. We cannot strip away every entitlement that’s been enacted since the New Deal to deal with poverty.  Edin describes many common-sense solutions in her book. However, these will never become policy unless we hold every person we send to Washington or any local office accountable to our communities.  I would argue that we need to upend the political system altogether.  This is a tougher road.  Most of us just want to live our lives.  However, it is the more humane and ultimately more developmental solution to creating a society that cares for all its citizens.

 Brenda Ratliff is a senior communications consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in developing, executing and managing successful communications and marketing strategies in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.  She is a longtime political activist and philanthropist working to create afterschool programs for inner city youth.

 

Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

We will be discussing:

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

SUNDAY

December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

Reader’s Forum–Lou Hinman

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In Ratf**ked, David Daley tells, in vivid and painful detail, how the Republican Party, planning for the reapportionment that would follow the 2010 census, hatched a plan that would give them a crucial edge in the state legislatures that would carry out the redistricting.  They were so successful that they were able to control the gerrymandering of enough congressional districts to create a very probable Republican congressional majority until the 2020 census.

Gerrymandering was not new.  Almost from the beginning of two-party politics in the United States, gerrymandering has been used by both parties to make particular districts uncompetitive (“safe,” that is, for one of the parties or the other).  What was new was the novel idea of targeting particular state legislatures, and well laid plans to get a very slim party majority in them in advance of redistricting.

It may well be that the Republicans violated the gentlemen’s agreement with the Democrats about how this game was supposed to be played.  However, I feel that Ratf**ked makes too much of the Machiavellian ruthlessness of the Republicans, and is correspondingly too soft on the Democrats.  To me, it defies belief that Democrats were just too innocent to know how bad the Republicans were, or that they simply got caught napping.

Here’s why.

The Democratic Party’s calling card is that they are “the party of the common man.”  But since their main allegiance is to the shared control of the political process, they are careful not to get too strong.  If they were to get too strong, a few embarrassing questions could be asked about why they are not more effective in serving “the common man.”  If those mean and nasty Republicans get too strong – well, what can you do, they just don’t play fair!  (For more on this neglected subject, be sure to read Indispensable Enemies by Walter Karp.)

Not getting too strong demands, above all, not mobilizing their base.  So for example, when the Tea Party was busy organizing “town meetings” to oppose Obamacare, you might have thought the Democratic Party would have organized a few of the 38 million people who had no health insurance into town meetings of their own.  Of course, they did nothing of the kind.  For the Democratic Party, the mobilization of it’s base is to be avoided like the plague, because they may not be able to control it.

Similarly, if the Democratic Party were to get into a brawl with the Republicans over gerrymandering, it would weaken the Democratic machine in at least two ways.  First, they might actually win!  This would put pressure on them to use their increased power on behalf of “the common people” they are supposed to represent.  Second, even if they didn’t win it would turn over the rock under which gerrymandering and other manipulations by the two political machines thrive – about which the less said the better!

Finally, the Democratic Party is plenty ruthless when it comes to attacking insurgents in their own party (ask Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders) or independents (ask Lenora Fulani).

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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*Reminder*

Conference Call with David Daley

Author of RATF**KED

Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

Call: 641-715-3605
Pass code: 767775#

Political Gerrymandering and the Constitution

 

New York Times

POLITICS

When Does Political Gerrymandering Cross a Constitutional Line?

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By ADAM LIPTAK               MAY 15, 2017

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The Supreme Court building in Washington, seen from the Senate. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.  Credit:Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map on the ground that it was drawn to make sure one political party would win an outsize number of seats. But it has left open the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship in redistricting may be too extreme.

The problem, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 2004 concurrence, is that no one has come up with “a workable standard” to decide when the political gerrymandering has crossed a constitutional line.

Finding such a standard has long been, as one judge put it, “the holy grail of election law jurisprudence.”

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will consider an appeal from a decision in Wisconsin that may have found that holy grail. The case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, arrives at the court in the wake of a wave of Republican victories in state legislatures that allowed lawmakers to draw election maps favoring their party.

The case started when Republicans gained complete control of Wisconsin’s government in 2010 for the first time in more than 40 years. It was a redistricting year, and lawmakers promptly drew a map for the State Assembly that helped Republicans convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities.

In 2012, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats. In 2014, 52 percent of the vote yielded 63 seats.

Last year, a divided three-judge Federal District Court panel ruled that Republicans had gone too far. The map, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the majority, “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.”

The decision was the first from a federal court in more than 30 years to reject a voting map as partisan gerrymandering.

Most cases reach the Supreme Court by way of petitions seeking review, which the justices are free to deny. The Wisconsin case is different. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.

That means the Supreme Court is very likely to weigh in on the fate of political gerrymandering, probably during the court’s next term, which starts in October.

There are two basic ways to inject partisan politics into drawing legislative maps: packing and cracking. Both result in what Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, calls “wasted votes.”

Packing a lot of Democrats into a single district, for instance, wastes every Democratic vote beyond the bare majority needed to elect a Democratic candidate. Cracking Democratic voters across districts in which Republicans have small majorities wastes all of the Democratic votes when the Republican candidate wins.

In an influential article, Professor Stephanopoulos and his colleague Eric McGhee applied a little math to this observation. The difference between the two parties’ wasted votes, divided by the total number of votes cast, yields an efficiency gap, they wrote. In a world of perfect nonpartisanship, there would be no gap.

The gap in Wisconsin was 13.3 percent in 2012 and 9.6 percent in 2014.

The Wisconsin voters who sued to challenge the Assembly map argued that gaps over 7 percent violate the Constitution. That number was meant to capture the likelihood that the gap would endure over a 10-year election cycle, but critics say it is arbitrary.

Adopting it, they say, would transform American elections. A 2015 report from Simon Jackman, then a political scientist at Stanford and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, found that a third of all redistricting plans in 41 states over a 43-year period failed the 7 percent standard. Elections in 2012 and 2014 in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming featured efficiency gaps of more than 10 percent, Professor Jackman found.

Judge Ripple did not ground his opinion on the efficiency gap, relying instead on a more conventional legal test that considered discriminatory intent, the map’s partisan effects and whether they were justified by other reasons. But Judge Ripple did say that the efficiency gap corroborated the majority’s conclusions.

The case seems to be making Republicans nervous.

In a supporting brief, the Republican National Committee urged the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling. The efficiency gap, the brief said, “is a tool that advances the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.”

The gap, the brief said, is a product of geography rather than gerrymandering. Democrats have packed themselves into cities, effectively diluting their voting power, while Republicans are more evenly distributed across most states, the brief said.

Most people acknowledge that the distribution of the population explains at least some part of the gap. “Wisconsin’s political geography, particularly the high concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, affords the Republican Party a natural, but modest, advantage in the districting process,” Judge Ripple wrote, for instance.

Partisan gerrymandering, he wrote, amplified that advantage.

Using computer simulations, Jowei Chen, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has tried to disentangle any natural advantages enjoyed by Wisconsin Republicans from those created by gerrymandering. He found that it was not hard to draw maps favoring neither party.

Justice Kennedy may have been looking for a “workable standard” even simpler and cleaner than one that must take account of natural advantages. But if there is a holy grail in this area, the test identified in the Wisconsin case is almost certainly it.

Follow Adam Liptak on Twitter @adamliptak.

 

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David Daley on NPR’s Fresh Air

POLITICS

Understanding Congressional Gerrymandering: ‘It’s Moneyball Applied To Politics’

June 15, 2016    1:36 PM ET

Ratf**ked author David Daley says that Republicans targeted key state legislative races in 2010 in an effort to control state houses, and, eventually, Congressional redistricting. Radio Show Image

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/482150951/482182856

Below is the full transcript of the show, for those of you who would like to read it.

*Reminder*

Conference Call with David Daley

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Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

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Pass code: 767775#

 

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. Our guest today, Salon’s editor-in-chief David Daley, has a new book that he says began with a simple question. When President Obama won re-election in 2012 and a Democratic tide gave the party a big majority in the Senate, why did the House of Representatives remain firmly in Republican hands? The result was even more striking since voters cast 1.3 million more ballots for Democratic House candidates than Republican ones.

The answer, Daley decided, was effective gerrymandering of House districts following the 2010 census. And it’s state legislatures that draw most of the congressional boundaries across the country. The result of Daley’s research is his new book, which details an effort by Republican strategists to put money and campaign resources into targeted state legislative races in key states in 2010, so Republicans could control the statehouses and control congressional redistricting. Daley’s book has a title I can’t say on the radio. It refers to a crude term for a political dirty deed done cheaply. I’ll approximate the title as “Rat-bleeped: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy” [Actual book title is “Rat-F*****: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy.”]

Well, David Daley, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it’s interesting that Republican control of Congress kind of feels like an ironclad reality of politics these days. But, you know, you remind us that in the election of 2008, when Barack Obama took the White House, the congressional picture was very different. Remind us of that election and where the Republican Party stood not so long ago.

DAVID DALEY: If you go back and watch the tapes from election night, the smartest minds in the Republican Party are despairing on television. They are trying to understand where all the Republican voters went. The Republicans realized that they were staring down a demographic tidal wave, that the nature of the electorate was changing and the Democrats were talking about a coalition of the ascendant and looking at a decade of changing politics. The Democrats took a super majority in the Senate – we forget – and how quickly it all changed.

DAVIES: Right. The Democrats then had a 60-plus-seat majority in the House of Representatives. And you write about a Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski. Tell us about him and what he saw as a way back.

DALEY: Chris Jankowski is one of the brightest strategists in the Republican Party. And what he saw was how the Republicans could make their way back state-by-state. Jankowski runs something called the Republican State Leadership Committee. And he has a eureka moment in 2009 when he realizes that the following year is a year that ends in zero and that elections at the end of a decade reverberate across the course of the next decade because of the redistricting which follows every census.

And Jankowski has got connections in statehouses across the country. And he realizes that if they can raise enough money that they can go in state-by-state and do battle – not on the presidential level but in specific statehouse and state Senate districts around the country – redo the maps in the following year if they’re able to win, and they’ve built themselves a firewall for the next 10 years.

DAVIES: And the critical link here, of course, is that in most states, it’s the state legislature that draws the congressional boundaries. They do the redistricting after each census. So he’s getting at Congress by going to statehouse and state Senate seats often little-known to voters. This was called Operation RedMap. Explain the idea.

DALEY: The idea was that you could take a state like Ohio, for example. In 2008, the Democrats held a majority in the statehouse of 53-46. What RedMap does is they identify and target six specific statehouse seats. They spend $1 million on these races, which is an unheard of amount of money coming into a statehouse race. Republicans win five of these. They take control of the Statehouse in Ohio – also, the state Senate that year. And it gives them, essentially, a veto-proof run of the entire re-districting in the state.

So in 2012, when Barack Obama wins again and he wins Ohio again, and Sherrod Brown is re-elected to the Senate by 325,000 votes, the Democrats get more votes in statehouse races than the Republicans. But the lines were drawn so perfectly that the Republicans held a 60-39 supermajority in the House of Representatives, despite having fewer votes.

DAVIES: That’s a 60-39 majority in the Ohio Statehouse.

DALEY: In the Ohio Statehouse that is drawing these lines. And the congressional delegation – Ohio has a 16-seat congressional delegation – 12-4 Republicans. So I began to unravel how this had happened – how the House stays in Republican hands after 2012 because all of these blue and purple states are sending delegations to Congress that are 12-4 Republican or in the case of Pennsylvania, 13-5 Republican, even though these are blue states that voted for Barack Obama and that often voted for more Democratic candidates in the aggregate than Republicans.

DAVIES: All right. Well, let’s talk about the efforts in statehouse races. Now, the idea of representative democracy and state legislatures is that state representatives and state senators are chosen by local voters to represent their interest and generally funded by local interests or, in some cases, state party interests. This is a little different, isn’t it, in bringing lots of national money to statehouse races? Describe the impact of national money coming into a statehouse race.

DALEY: It is more money than these races usually see. It can be a hundred percent of the budget that these candidates thought they were going to have to spend or imagined that they would face from an opponent. What Jankowski and his team did is they spent almost two thirds of this money in the last six weeks of the 2010 campaign. So these candidates not only never saw it coming, they didn’t have time to respond. Suddenly, every day in these small races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Ohio, national Republican dollars are targeting state legislators. And they are pulling out four, six, eight-page, full-color mailers out of their mailboxes every day for the last three weeks of this campaign, and they couldn’t believe what hit them and they had no means of responding to it.

DAVIES: Right, and these are mailers from a national Republican organization, and they’re not making the case that, hey, we need to have a Republican legislature so we can have a Republican Congress. They are very localized attacks on the Democrats. And you write about – I think the first specific case you write about is a guy in Pennsylvania, 20-year Democratic legislator named Dave Levdansky. Tell us his story.

DALEY: He represents a district out of Elizabeth, Pa., which is a steel-working community not far outside of Pittsburgh, very small town. He grew up there. His family had been there for years. He’d been re-elected every year since 1984. Had risen to a pretty authoritative position in Harrisburg, the state capital on finance issues. And I went to meet him, and he pulled out his folder of all of these mailers. And he just looked at me and said, I wouldn’t have voted for myself either if I was getting all of this stuff. And they were brutal attacks and misleading attacks. And they were deeply poll-tested and focus grouped in order to try to find the silver bullet that would take out these small-town guys.

What people don’t understand is that control of the Pennsylvania House was very, very tight that year. The Democrats had it by a nose. So if you could go in and spend just enough money to take out four or five guys, which was the goal, you could flip this for a song. This isn’t just brilliant politics. It’s Moneyball applied to politics because they got a bargain here.

DAVIES: Do you recall some of the mailings that were aimed at Dave Levdansky and, you know, what they said about him?

DALEY: The silver bullet that they found – and when I sat down with Jankowski, he remembered it really well – was something called the Arlen Specter Library. Arlen Specter was a senator of Pennsylvania, a longtime senator who had been a Republican and in recent years had just – I believe right after the 2008 election, he switches parties, becomes a Democrat. He was not the most popular politician in the state of Pennsylvania at that point in time, especially in the western part of the state, as he was from the Philadelphia area.

So there was a capital budget of about $600 million that the Pennsylvania House passes. What Jankowski and the RSLC did – and they – focus grouped and looked and looked trying to find the exact issue that would take out Levdansky. And when they told people that he had spent $600 million on a library for Arlen Specter, it outraged voters. And this was a difficult economic year. The recovery had still not come back around entirely. The small towns around Pittsburgh were hard hit, and they didn’t like the idea that their state legislator had authorized $600 million for an Arlen Specter Library.

And these mailers made it out to be this big marble monstrosity. And in reality, about $2 million of that entire capital budget was actually allocated for a Specter Library. And it was, you know, on a college campus to house his papers. And this was a significant, you know, player in the state’s political history. This was an educational institution grant, but it was turned into something that when Levdansky would walk into homes, people who he had known for years would say, I’m sorry, Dave, but I can’t vote for you this year because of the Arlen Specter Library.

DAVIES: So this was a legislator’s routine vote on a budget that included many, many, many, many things, and they pick out this one. Have to say, you see this a lot in political campaigns. But was…

DALEY: You do.

DAVIES: Yeah, but very effective in this case.

DALEY: Very effective.

DAVIES: So Dave Levdan – the – this national Republican group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spends a couple-hundred thousand dollars, a dozen mailers or so and Levdansky loses by how much to a relatively unknown Republican?

DALEY: He loses by about 140 votes. It’s that close. And those mailers and that money made the difference. The Republicans take control of the Pennsylvania House. They take control of the Senate. They elect a Republican governor in Corbett that year and they own all three legs of the redistricting process. So as a result, you come back in 2012 and Obama wins the state by 310,000. There are a hundred-thousand more votes for Democratic House candidates than there are for Republicans.

DAVIES: That’s Congressional House candidates, yeah.

DALEY: Yes. Republicans take the delegation 13-5. And that means 51 percent of the vote turns out to 28 percent of the seats. That’s a real problem for a participatory democracy.

DAVIES: Chris Jankowski did not dodge your phone calls. He was proud to talk about this, wasn’t he?

DALEY: It’s the greatest political achievement in modern times. It’s the greatest political bargain, I think, that they are very proud of what they managed to do. I think if you’re a Republican, you look at this and say, boy, this was effective, it was efficient and we won. We played by the rules. We changed the rules, but we still played by the law and the game. And if the Democrats weren’t smart enough to figure this out themselves, well, see you in 2020, boys.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with David Daley. He is editor-in-chief of Salon. He has a new book about Republican efforts in the 2010 election to target state legislative seats, giving the party an advantage in Congressional redistricting. We’ll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with David Daley. He is editor-in-chief of Salon. He has a new book about Republican efforts in the 2010 election to target state legislative seats and thereby gain a huge advantage in congressional redistricting, which he says made a big difference in Republican representation in Congress. So we’ve been talking about this effort by this group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, to put not huge amounts of money, but enough money to make a difference in a few dozen state legislative races, hoping that Republicans could then control statehouses, and after the 2010 census draw the new congressional lines. OK, so take us inside this. Pick a state and talk about the redistricting process and how this made a difference.

DALEY: There are two prongs of this effort. The first prong, of course, is winning these races in 2010. Then in 2011, you have to be ready to redraw the maps. And what the Republicans were able to do in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and Michigan and Florida and Wisconsin was move the redistricting process deep behind closed doors and use redistricting as a blunt force partisan weapon in a way that it had not been all the way back to the first gerrymander in 1790.

So in Wisconsin, the operatives working on redistricting barricaded themselves into a law firm across the street from the Capitol and tried to claim attorney-client privilege for all of the negotiations and mapmaking that were going on. And they even made Republican members of the legislature there sign a nondisclosure agreement if they wanted access to the room. In North Carolina, they bring in a master mapmaker named Tom Hofeller, who is probably better at jiggering and rejiggering district lines than anybody. And they draw maps in North Carolina that give Republicans a 10-3 advantage on the congressional side.

And Hofeller has a presentation that he gives when he goes to talk to state legislatures, and it is all about secrecy and privacy. You do not fire the staff until you are completely sure that redistricting is done. You do not walk away from your computer and leave anything showing on it ever. You remember exactly what kind of legal hell one false email can put you in. It is as if he is training master spies in espionage and not, you know, drawing the lines that make up the fundamental building blocks of our democracy.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, we want to remind people the reason people are drawing congressional boundaries in hotel rooms and in secret is because typically, the lines are done by acts of state legislatures. And a lot of state legislation is drafted privately before it’s voted on. So in the end, you know, lawmakers do cast a vote, the votes are recorded, it’s signed by the governor. It’s a bill that conforms to rules of legislative procedure. But the real stuff gets done privately?

DALEY: Exactly.

DAVIES: Now, you know, gerrymandering isn’t new. And I don’t think politicians before 2010 were, like, totally benign in their use of…

DALEY: They certainly were not.

DAVIES: …Of this subject. So why was it so much more effective or aggressive in 2010? Is part of it technology?

DALEY: I think technology is almost all of it. Citizens United and the money that comes into the system is a piece of it. The really ingenious plan that Jankowski devises is part of it. But it’s the technology that makes these lines so precise and impregnable right now.

There’s a program called Maptitude that is used by lawmakers and operatives in just about every state who are working on redistricting. And I had someone who was involved in the redistricting in Arizona show me how it works. And there is more information available through Maptitude that – when you look at a congressional map and you say, boy, the shape of that is very strange. There is a reason behind each and every one of those curves. Every little jut and turn that on a map you say, I don’t know why that could possibly be there, a mapmaker knows why it’s there.

With Maptitude, it is fully loaded with just about every census information, with economic information, with every precinct-by-precinct results of elections all the way down ballot going back for years. And you can draw these lines with complete knowledge of how they will respond now. And the difference, frankly, between 2000 and 2010 – I mean, think of the way we texted in 2000. We didn’t have a keyboard on our phones. We used a number pad essentially to, you know, find a letter. Redistricting in 1990 and 2000, it was still horse and buggy. It becomes a rocket ship in 2010, thanks to computing power.

DAVIES: When this is done, when you look at some of these districts on a map, what do the shapes look like?

DALEY: They are incredibly strange. There’s a district in Michigan that I went out and drove every turn of between Detroit and Pontiac. It’s Michigan’s 14th. And it goes about 135 miles, and it takes you all day to, you know, go turn by turn. What you see first is that this is a district designed to connect the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit with the poorest neighborhoods in Pontiac so that you can put as many African-American voters into one district, make it a district that elects a Democrat with about 75 or 80 percent of the vote. And then all of the neighboring suburban districts as a result are more Republican. And as you take these turns, time and again over the course of the day, I would look at the map and say boy, there’s an interesting turn right here. There’s an interesting notch here. And every single time, there was a reason.

DAVIES: And the reason was to pack all the Democrats in that district so they wouldn’t weaken Republicans in surrounding districts.

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: David Daley has a new book about the 2010 elections and redistricting. After a break, he’ll assess the Democrats’ efforts in that election. Also, Maureen Corrigan will tell us about Susan Faludi’s new memoir. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews drummer Matt Wilson’s new album. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. We are speaking with Salon’s editor-in-chief David Daley. His new book focuses on Republican efforts to win key state legislative races in the 2010 elections so they could control statehouses that would redraw congressional boundaries. The result, Daley argues, was gerrymandering, which kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

Now, Democrats aren’t stupid, and they’ve been involved in redistricting for a long, long time. Where were the Democrats when all this was happening, when the Republicans were targeting these state legislative seats? Did they – were they just…

DALEY: They fell asleep at the wheel. This was a catastrophic strategic failure by the Democratic Party. Chris Jankowski tells me that throughout the fall of 2010, he’s out in the field and he can’t believe that the Democrats aren’t out there spending any money. The Democrats never saw this coming, and it’s political malpractice because the Republican Party announced their plans in big bright flashing neon lights.

In an op-ed piece in March 2010 in The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove says we are going to use redistricting this year to take back the Congress. It was announced. It was not hidden. I don’t know if the Democratic leadership simply doesn’t read The Wall Street Journal, but it was right there. Steve Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the debacle of 2010 for Democratic Party, tells me that the Democratic National Committee simply whistled past the graveyard.

DAVIES: And in states where Democrats did control the statehouse – Maryland, Illinois – when redistricting occurred, did they do the same things? Did they gerrymander the lines so as to benefit their party?

DALEY: There are two examples of where Democrats did effectively gerrymander after 2010, and it is in Maryland and it’s in Illinois. And what the Republicans were able to do which is a little bit different is they were able to take states that were blue or purple and make them bright red. And that to me seems to be the difference. You can look at Maryland and say that there’s probably one or maybe two more seats that the Democrats control that they wouldn’t have had if you apportion seats based on the popular vote. But it’s certainly not as egregious as a state like Pennsylvania, where you have a majority of voters ending up with, you know, fewer than 30 percent of the seats.

DAVIES: You go around the country and look at what’s happening on this issue, and it seems you find some encouraging developments, people taking another look at redistricting methods. What do you see?

DALEY: I think that members of both parties want our votes to counts, and we want the system to work. And we’re aware that things aren’t quite working. And when you look at the kind of referendums that have passed on redistricting in red states and in blue states – in Florida, in Arizona, in California, in Ohio – it’s a sign that people understand that our democracy isn’t working. When you put a referendum about nonpartisan redistricting on the ballot, it wins. People fundamentally understand questions of fairness.

DAVIES: And in those states where they have passed, how have things changed?

DALEY: Well, commissions sometimes work and sometimes don’t work.

DAVIES: That is to say taking redistricting out of the legislature and putting it in the hands of an appointed commission, is that what that means?

DALEY: That’s exactly right. You can look at Arizona, which is a case that went to the Supreme Court. And that commission was upheld, its constitutionality. But it’s basic functioning – there’s a lot of questions about whether the partisanship simply seeped back in a secret, hidden way and whether the politicians simply found another way to game that system. Once it was taken out of the legislators’ hands, it stayed in the hands of the operatives.

In Florida, certainly, what you saw was an effort by Republican strategists in the state to conduct a shadow redistricting process in violation of the fair districts referendum. But the beauty of that was that because the referendum had been passed, good government groups in Florida were able to file a lawsuit, and in the discovery process unearthed a trove of emails showing exactly what had happened. And a number of those districts have had to be redrawn.

DAVIES: You know, the Supreme Court has pretty much ruled out interveening to reverse cases of partisan gerrymandering, where it’s simply about benefiting a political party. It’s been different for racial gerrymandering, and there are active cases. And I wonder if in effect the Voting Rights Act and other statutes that affect racial gerrymandering are the real arena for these fights. There are several active cases now, some in Virginia, I think, that deal with racial gerrymandering. What are we looking at?

DALEY: Well, I think that again is exactly right. Most of these cases really have their roots in what was called the unholy alliance between African-Americans in the South, Democrats who wanted to increase their representation and Republicans who wanted to turn the South into the solid South. And these efforts began in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. And that was the redistricting battle in those days. It was about a deal between African-Americans to increase their ranks in Congress and Republicans who wanted to increase their numbers as well. And it worked very well for both sides in that you grew the largest Congressional Black Caucus since the days of Reconstruction. But at the same time, Republicans took over all the rest of those states.

DAVIES: And the reason that alliance benefited both sides was that they drew the boundaries so that black voters were packed into a small number of districts, almost certain to elect black representatives.

DALEY: They could elect their own leaders. And if you are an African-American leader in the South, then you have been a key part of the Democratic constituency. But the constituency in Congress is all essentially white Democrats. It makes an awful lot of sense to try to find a way to increase representation. That came at a cost to the party.

DAVIES: And why would that be? Why would creating largely black districts cost the party congressional seats?

DALEY: Because it packed all of the Democrats into a handful of majority-minority districts. So what you see in North Carolina, for example, is after these new districts went into play in the early 1990s, the delegation suddenly shifts from 8-4 Democrats to 8-4 Republicans. And that happened across the South, and it essentially led to the extinction of the white Democratic Congressman in the South. There’s only a handful left these days.

DAVIES: And so then lawsuits now are aimed at re-crafting those boundaries.

DALEY: Exactly.

DAVIES: Let me play devil’s advocate on the Operation RedMap argument here. This was about the 2010 elections. And you note that while Operation RedMap targeted, you know, a few dozen congressional seats in efforts to flip statehouses, it was a big Republican tide that year in that they gained almost 700 state legislative seats nationwide. And if you look specifically at Pennsylvania, for example, going into that election, the Democrats had a narrow majority in the statehouse – five or six seats – and that Operation RedMap, this national Republican effort, targeted three, put money in, won all three. And that would’ve been enough to flip the statehouse from Democrat to Republican.

But there was such a Republican tide that after that election, the Republicans ended up with a 21-seat majority in the Pennsylvania Statehouse. If those three seats targeted by the national Republican effort had stayed Democrat, it would still have been a 15-seat Republican majority. I guess what I’m wondering is however smart and effective Chris Jankowski and these national Republicans were, there was a Republican tide here, and a lot of this would’ve happened anyway, wouldn’t it?

DALEY: There was a huge Republican wave election in 2010, and that is an important piece of this. But the other important piece of Redmap is what they did to lock in those lines the following year. And it’s the mapping efforts that were made and the precise strategies that were launched in 2011 to sustain those gains, even in Democratic years, which is what makes RedMap so effective and successful.

DAVIES: You know, when I looked at the book, it struck me that what Chris Jankowski and these national Republican strategists was sort of staring us in the face, right? I mean, everybody knew that congressional redistricting mattered. Everybody knew that they were largely done by state legislatures. It wasn’t a big leap to figure out that it might be worth some national effort to win state legislative seats. Are the Democrats more focused on this now than they were before?

DALEY: The Democrats have finally realized that they need a plan. They are doing what seems to me to be all the wrong things. They’re fighting the last war, and they’re trying to replicate the plan that the Republicans had in 2010. The problem is they’re going to have to win on Republican maps with less money and no elements of surprise. Seems to…

DAVIES: When you say Republican maps, you’re talking about Republican state legislative maps, not congressional maps.

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: Right, right.

DALEY: This is what we need to understand – there are so many different locks on the system right now that undoing this is going to take years and really concentrated efforts state by state, chamber by chamber. There is no one simple solution to this. And it’s going to take the Democratic Party a lot of time, possibly even a generation to undo what happened in 2010 and 2011.

DAVIES: What’s interesting to me about that is in 2010 – you focus on how after the Republicans took control of statehouses, they redo congressional maps so as to enormously strengthen the Republican’s hold on Congress. But the state legislative maps, were they also gerrymandered so that they…

DALEY: They were, so that’s what matters.

DAVIES: So in…

DALEY: Yes.

DAVIES: …2020 when you’re electing the legislatures that will do the next congressional redistricting, those races will occur in districts redone in 2010?

DALEY: There could be – there could be a huge Democratic wave nationally in 2020 that elects or reelects a Democratic president that year. However, if the Democrats can’t make a difference and some headway in changing control of the Ohio House or the Michigan Senate or the Wisconsin House or the Florida House, they will still have Republicans drawing these lines in 2021. And they will be locked in for another decade.

DAVIES: Unless there are movements to take redistricting out of the hands of legislatures.

DALEY: That will take some time.

DAVIES: You don’t think that’s going to happen in a lot of places anytime soon.

DALEY: I do not think that this is a problem that can be solved quickly or easily. And it seems to me that we are going to have Republican control at this level for a long time.

DAVIES: David Daley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DALEY: Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Dave Daley is editor-in-chief of Salon. His book about the 2010 election and redistricting has a title we can’t say on the radio. I’ll approximate it as “Rat(Bleeped): The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy.” Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Susan Faludi’s new memoir. This is FRESH AIR.

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Gerrymandering heads to the Supreme Court

As we begin our reading of RATF**KED: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy,  you will also want to read the The New York Times  piece on April 21st outlining the current status of the legal fights around gerrymandering.

 The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. A panel of judges agreed that the State Assembly’s electoral districts had been gerrymandered before the 2012 election, favoring Republicans.CreditMichael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal, via Associated Press

The hand-to-hand political combat in House elections on Tuesday in Georgia and last week in Kansas had the feel of the first rounds of an epic battle next year for control of the House of Representatives and the direction of national politics as the Trump presidency unfolds.

But for all the zeal on the ground, none of it may matter as much as a case heading to the Supreme Court, one that could transform political maps from City Hall to Congress — often to Democrats’ benefit.

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

Now the Wisconsin case is headed to a Supreme Court that has repeatedly said that extreme partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional, but has never found a way to decide which ones cross the line.

Some legal scholars believe this could be the year that changes that. If that happens, they say, an emphatic ruling against partisan gerrymanders would rank with another redistricting decision: Baker v. Carr, the historic 1962 case that led to the principle of one person, one vote.

 “My feeling is that there is increasing concern within the court about the extent of partisan gerrymandering over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at the New York University School of Law. “I do think this is a pivotal moment — a big, big moment.”

Gerrymandering has always been contentious. But the extraordinary success of a Republican strategy to control redistricting by capturing majorities in state legislatures in the 2010 elections has lent urgency to the debate.

Today, at a time of hyperpartisan politics and computer technology that can measure political leanings almost house by house, Republicans control legislatures in 33 states, 25 with Republican governors. They have unfettered command over the boundaries of at least 204 congressional districts — amounting to nearly half the 435-seat House.

In contrast, Democrats’ share of state legislature seats has shrunk to a level not seen since Warren G. Harding was president, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in recent years, their numbers in the House of Representatives have hovered near levels last seen during the Truman administration.

Partly because of the Voting Rights Act, gerrymanders based on race are flatly illegal, but ones based on partisan intent remain in limbo.

The Wisconsin case heads four legal actions on partisan gerrymanders that the Supreme Court could consider and, perhaps, consolidate. In Maryland, another three-judge panel will hear arguments over whether a Democratic legislature gerrymandered House districts in 2011 to oust a 10-term Republican congressman.

In North Carolina, a June hearing is scheduled in a suit over the unabashedly partisan carving of the state into 10 Republican and three Democratic House seats — this in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The state representative who drew that map said he had engineered 10 safely Republican seats only “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Experts disagree over how much gerrymandering has hurt Democrats. One prominent 2013 study mostly blamed geography, not partisanship, because Democrats tend to cluster in cities. But the most recent study, by a Princeton professor, Samuel S. H. Wang, concluded that gerrymanders had cost Democrats as many as 22 House seats in the 2012 election — nearly enough to flip the chamber’s control.

Politicians, on the other hand, appear certain of their electoral potency. Former President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., are spearheading an initiative to undo Republicans’ redistricting triumphs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and the former governor of California, is leading a movement to outlaw gerrymanders of any political stripe.

Wisconsin Republican leaders say they dominate the Legislature because they have both a better strategy and vision of governing, not because of illegal gerrymandering.

“In a year when people want change, even in a district that favors one party over another, a good candidate with a good message wins,” said Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s Assembly speaker.

But the court said in November that the redistricting clearly aimed to entrench Republican control of the Assembly. The party took 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats in 2012 despite losing the popular vote, and has since added three more.

As in all gerrymanders, Wisconsin’s mapmakers hobbled their opponents in two ways. One was to pack as many Democrats as possible into a few districts, leaving fewer Democrats for potentially competitive ones. In 2012, 21 of the 39 Assembly districts that Democrats won were so lopsided that Republicans did not even field candidates. In two more, Democrats captured at least 94 percent of the vote.

The other method was to fracture unwinnable Democratic districts, salting their Democrats among Republican-majority districts so that races there became closer yet remained out of Democrats’ reach.

“They just busted my district and put it into four or five others,” said Mark Radcliffe, a 45-year-old Democrat and former state representative, whose district encompassed Alma Center, in rural western Wisconsin. Mr. Radcliffe, who wound up in the district of another Democrat, chose to resign rather than run against a popular member of his own party.

John Steinbrink at his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Mr. Steinbrink, a Democrat, had represented a district in far southeastern Wisconsin since 1996, but after redistricting, lost to a Republican who won 55 percent of the vote in 2012. Credit Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

John Steinbrink, another Democrat, had represented southeastern Wisconsin in the Assembly since 1996, supported by a Democratic base in Kenosha, six miles from where he farms corn and soybeans. After redistricting, Kenosha became a safe Democratic district, and Mr. Steinbrink was exiled to an adjoining district populated by rural conservatives. In 2012, his Republican opponent won with 55 percent of the vote.

“I could have moved to Kenosha” and sought re-election there, Mr. Steinbrink said. “But I don’t know how you farm in the city.”

The legal argument against such maps is akin to the one used for decades to outlaw ethnic and racial gerrymanders. Gerrymanders dilute a minority group’s votes, muffling its voice in the political process. The Wisconsin plaintiffs argue that whether the minority group is African-Americans or members of a political party makes no difference.

“When you’re talking about the opportunity to turn your vote into a policy or change, the 14th Amendment says you should have an equal chance, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said Ruth Greenwood, the deputy director for redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing plaintiffs in Wisconsin and North Carolina. “But if you’re a Republican in Wisconsin, you get an outsized say with your vote. And if you’re a Democrat in Rhode Island, you get an outsized say.’’

But while racial or ethnic gerrymanders can be statistically measured — a Latino remains a Latino from election to election — judges have struggled to identify overly partisan districts, knowing voter sentiments can quickly change.

In Supreme Court cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, justices variously called partisan gerrymanders illegitimate, seriously harmful, incompatible with democratic principles and “manipulation of the electorate.” But they have never struck one down. And in 2004, they came within a single vote of ruling them impossible to judge, because nobody could draw the line between unavoidable political influence in redistricting and an unconstitutional rigging of the vote.

The Maryland lawsuit proposes a solution that some justices have pondered: an argument that gerrymanders violate the First Amendment, not the 14th, by retaliating against opponents who express contrary views. Under that standard, any partisanship-inspired district would be unconstitutional if it hobbled a minority party.

The Wisconsin plaintiffs’ attempt to break the logjam is a new standard, the efficiency gap. It is a numerical rating of parties’ “wasted” votes: those above the 50-percent-plus-1 needed to win a seat, and all votes cast in a loss. When the gap between the parties’ ratings exceeds a limit based on ratings from hundreds of past elections, the plaintiffs argue, the majority party should have to justify the boundaries it drew. Even then, plaintiffs would have to prove the party aimed to weaken the opposition.

 Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said four of the five most partisan state legislature maps in the last 45 years were drawn after 2010. CreditTaylor Glascock for The New York Times

The Wisconsin case underscores how modern gerrymanders, using computers and political and behavioral data, have become increasingly effective. Measured by the efficiency gap, four of the five most partisan state legislature maps in the last 45 years were drawn after 2010, said Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor and lawyer for the plaintiffs.

In the House of Representatives, eight of the 10 most partisan maps were created after 2010, including Wisconsin’s and two in North Carolina.

One participant in the 2004 decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, may prove the fulcrum in the court’s deliberations. In that case, he held out hope that the court could find a solution to extreme gerrymanders that political leaders were unable or unwilling to address.

“The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself,” he wrote then.

At a time of soaring concern over hyperpartisanship, those words could resonate. That sentence “is the most important line” in the court’s decision, said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

If the Wisconsin statistical standards do not persuade the justices, other proposals are waiting in the wings. But some worry that the debate may be close to hitting the brick wall it avoided in 2004.

“If the court doesn’t endorse some version of what the three-judge panel decided” in Wisconsin, said Ellen D. Katz, a University of Michigan scholar of election law, “then it may be they’re never going to find a standard they’re comfortable applying.”

***

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