REVIEW: In Case You Hadn't Noticed -- Republicans Have Rigged the Congressional Elections

Ratf**cked:  The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy by David Daley, Liveright/W. W. Norton,  245 pp.


By Jim Kaplan

This is a book that contains an analysis intuitively obvious to liberals who follow politics closely and seemingly mystifying incomprehensible to the mainstream media elite, and, therefore, most of the public.  The argument is that since the 1980s, and certainly in the wake of the GOP great good fortune in the bounce-back, mid-term 2010 election, the Republican Party has gamed the Congressional district line-drawing process to such an extent that it is almost impossible at present for the US to elect a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives no matter how much the voters vote Democratic in actual individual House elections. 

If accurate -- and the point is in truth mainly accurate -- this has dire implications for any future attempts by a President and his (or her) allies in Congress to address most important national issues from a progressive perspective.  If true, what David Daley argues is that the GOP far right wing has a veto power over national policy that is fundamentally impervious to being changed by elections in the near future.

How did this occur? As Daley explains, the process of drawing Congressional districts in almost all states (California and Arizona are the notable exceptions) is done by the State legislature and usually, the Governor (North Carolina is another important exception, where only the legislature participates).  Over time, and particularly after 1990 or so, when white Southerners began voting more heavily Republican all the way down the ballot instead of just at the Presidential level (which they had been increasingly doing since the 1950s), the GOP began to take over more and more legislatures and governorships.  Progress in this endeavor was steady but uneven.  The Republican landslide election of 2010 capped off and enhanced at least five decades of erosion of Democratic standing at the state level, and growth of Republicanpower in state government, particularly in the South.

The election of 2010 was epochal, and Daley -- the former editor-in-chief of, now the CEO/President of the Connecticut News Project -- spends a lot of time on it.  The GOP understood that with the decennial Census-driven line-drawing taking place following the 2010 elections, those elections would be critical, and they devoted outside resources to winning as many state legislatures and governorships as possible.  The Democrats -- not so much.  The result is that for the current decade, the lines for more than 50 percent of Congressional districts were drawn by Republicans exclusively, with no Democratic involvement whatsoever.  The Democrats probably had fewer than 10 percent of such districts under their control.  The result was predictable.

What Daley leads us to is that all of this is the product of the U.S.’s long history of racial discrimination, primarily against African-Americans, and particularly with respect to housing.  Housing discrimination means that African Americans (and Hispanics, to a great extent) live in separate and definable, usually contiguous parts of large and small cities, particularly in the North but in the South as well.  African-Americans, and to a more modest extent Hispanics, are overwhelmingly Democrats, and the majority of non-Hispanic whites are Republicans, in large part as a reaction to the reality that the Democratic Party has become such an attractive and hospitable destination for minorities. 

Republican line-drawing efforts have been concentrated on “packing” as many African Americans and Hispanics into as few Congressional districts as possible, and then creating numerous white-majority districts that can be counted on to elect Republicans.  The task is made much easier -- indeed, even possible -- by the legacy effects of housing discrimination, both de jure and de facto.  A lesser technique used by the Republicans is “cracking”, where Democratic areas, often heavy with minorities, are spread out over two or more white Republican districts, in order to render the minority Democratic vote largely irrelevant.

The effect of this strategic line-drawing is most easily seen in the major states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia.  In five of these six states in the last presidential election, 2012, the State’s voters gave Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives a majority of their votes, (in Ohio, it was a near-majority), but in each case the Democrats came away with a tiny percentage of the State’s seats.  In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats won only five of 18 seats (about 28%) although they got more than 50% of the statewide vote.  In Michigan, a majority of the State’s vote only yielded about 36% of the seats ( 5 of 14) forDemocrats.  In Ohio, 48% of the vote yielded only 25% of the seats (4 of 16).  In North Carolina, 51% of the vote yielded only 31% of the seats (4 of 13). 

In the country, as a whole, the Democrats get about 51% of the two-party vote, but only about 46% of the seats.  This phenomenon -- having a national majority of the votes for Congress, but not controlling a majority of the U.S. House -- occurred only one other time in the last 70 or so years -- in 1996, again when a Democratic incumbent President, Bill Clinton, won re-election by a near-landslide margin but the party failed to win a majority of House seats.

The question is what is to be done, aside from winning a national election by such a landslide margin, that even many of the gerrymandered GOP districts fall to Democrats.  One reasonable solutionwould be for Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 Presidential election and then appoint one or more Supreme Court justices, making a solid progressive majority on the Court that can address the obvious Equal Protection clause issues that flow from deliberate attempts to minimize the impact of African American votes made possible by the legacy of widespread racial discrimination, particularly in housing.

Another possible partial solution would be if every state placed the responsibility for drawing legislative districts, including Congressional districts, with a bi-partisan (or better, non-partisan) independent commission.  California and Arizona have done essentially this, and the results seem reasonably fair so far.  But the Republicans have shown no interest in this solution for states they control, supporting such measures only in states that they don’t control.  There appears to be no future for the “non-partisan” commission idea unless the Republican attitude changes.

Daley does an excellent job of showing how we have come to this point, with an enduring majority of Democratic voters in a country and an enduring majority of Republican members of Congress.  He notes again and again a fundamental problem: that the Democrats play softball while the Republicans play hardball.  Short of Supreme Court intervention, a happy solution to this problem seems unlikely, where one side wants to win so badly it will do whatever it takes, while the other side appears not to have the will or ability to do anything about it.

Jim Kaplan is a Chicago-based attorney.