After writing my last post, I discovered that Joe the Plumber (real name: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher), is running for Congress. He won the Republican nomination in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District and is running against the Democratic nominee, Marcy Kaptur, in November. How did Joe go from a plumber’s helper to Republican candidate for Congress in 4 years? The answer lies not in the American Dream, but in the reality of American congressional districts.
Republicans have 4 of the 5 seats on the Ohio redistricting commission, the panel that sets the new Congressional boundaries in Ohio every ten years after the new census data comes out. In order to maximize the number of Republicans elected in Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, they have drawn the boundaries so that he maximum number of Democratic voters are packed into the smallest number of districts. This means that a few (4) Democratic representatives will win by overwhelming majorities while 12 Republican representatives will be elected by smaller, but still comfortable, margins. This in a state where Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2008 and the electorate is fairly evenly divided statewide between Dems and Republicans. But you wouldn’t know it by who they send to Washington.
So how does this relate to Joe? Well, sacrifices must be made. In those “Democratic” districts that the Republicans create, they know they can’t win. The Republicans give up on those districts, so they don’t run anyone important. They don’t “draft” a strong candidate or decide in smoky back rooms who will get the nomination. It’s not worth the effort. So they have an open primary with “walk in” candidates. And in the 9th, Joe walked in.
And he won the primary, by a vote of 15,000 to 14,000 or so. A total of 30,000 Republicans voted in the primary in the 9th District. And in the Democratic primary? 75,000 people voted. Like I said, it’s a Democratic district. So what are the chances Joe will win the general election? Just about zero. He’ll be unemployed again. Maybe he should finally get his plumber’s license.
First the Republicans gladly let Joe, the plumber’s helper who had never earned more than $40,000 a year, advocate for tax cuts for the rich. Then they let him spend a year of his life running for an office he can’t possibly win. I hope the book contracts work out for him.
Most voters assume their Congressional District is an area drawn for administrative purposes by some… administrator. A bureaucrat. But in most states, it’s a highly political and partisan process. And as you can see from Joe’s example, it’s not very democratic in its outcome. Most congressional districts are designed to not be competitive. Both Democrats and Republican incumbents get safe districts and challengers, both in primaries and general elections, get frozen out. And the voters don’t get a real choice.
By the way, every state has its own process for redistricting. Ohio has this commission composed of the Governor, State Auditor, the Secretary of State, and one member from each party in the State Legislature. Because the first three are all Republican right now, the commission has 4 Republicans and 1 Democrat. In Virginia, my home state, the legislature itself directly controls redistricting. Which once again leads to a very partisan process. Even worse, because the legislators just get to draw their own boundaries.
So what, right? It’s not illegal. To the victor go the spoils. It’s just sour grapes for me since state governments are more often dominated by Republicans. Except it’s not a good system for anyone because without competition, the politicians aren’t responsible to the people. And the voters don’t choose their representative so much as the representative chooses his or her voters.
In a few states, it’s different. Six states have an independent commission that is bipartisan or non-partisan: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey and Washington. These states tend to have districts that look very different. Instead of salamanders, the districts look like squares and rectangles. And they tend to be much more competitive. And the congressional delegations tend to be proportioned much more like the voting population itself.
The fight for all states to have independent redistricting is one of the most important fights in politics today. But it’s almost an unknown issue. Almost.
For more info, read the wikipedia article on gerrymandering.