BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A body blow for Democrats, the Republicans win a closely-watched special election in Georgia.
BOB GARFIELD: The most expensive House race in history, one on which Democrats had pinned their hopes and dreams, ended up Thursday.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Republican Karen Handel is celebrating a victory in Georgia’s 6th District. She beat Democrat Jon Ossoff…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, a devastating loss for Democrats. They had invested about $30 million between the campaign and the outside groups supporting the candidate.
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BOB GARFIELD: The race was deluged with money and media attention for two reasons. First, this was last in a line of special elections when Democrats saw a chance to make inroads into a solid GOP Congress, only to be thwarted every time. And second, it was in a district the national Democratic Party thought it could win. Foiled again.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President chimed in on the election results, tweeting, quote, “Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0.”
BOB GARFIELD: Technically, it was 4, unless you’re counting both Georgia’s election and the runoff, but never mind. Of course, the media are already looking to what comes next.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Many anticipated this race would serve as a preview of what’s to come in the 2018 midterm.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And now the question, what does this all mean for what's happening here in Washington and potentially down the road in 2018?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Just another gut-wrenching reminder that taking back control from Republicans is still an uphill battle.
DAVID DALEY: The special elections have been fool’s gold for the Democrats.
BOB GARFIELD: David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote.
DAVID DALEY: In Georgia, both parties poured a record $55 million into this race, essentially to rent a seat for the next 18 months that would bear essentially no consequence. It would cut the Democratic deficit in the House from 24 seats down to 23.
BOB GARFIELD: The real problem, says Daley, is gerrymandering, the art of redrawing legislative districts to make them more favorable for your party. States redraw the districts every 10 years, based on U.S. census data. In theory, this is to ensure that district lines reflect shifting demographics. But, in practice, it's a vehicle for electoral skulduggery, known as –
DAVID DALEY: Packing and cracking. You either try to pack all of the other side’s votes into as few districts as possible so you can claim all of the surrounding ones for yourself or you try to crack them and divide them as unpowerfully as you can across as many districts as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: True, deck stacking district lines every census year is a time-honored tradition that dates back to the nation's birth, but in 2010 Republicans captured massive numbers of statehouses and governorships and set out to rejigger the game so that the winner always took all.
DAVID DALEY: They lined up incredibly sophisticated mapmakers, armed with the kind of software and big data sets that allowed them to draw incredibly precise and surgical lines.
BOB GARFIELD: And so, it came to pass that in 2012 and 2014 and in 2016 –
DAVID DALEY: There was essentially zero swing in the US House. In these key swing states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, states that had been going back and forth, purplish states, bellwethers - exactly one seat has changed over the last three cycles. We do not want our politics reduced to an every-decade arms race that is fought between the two parties over redistricting.
BOB GARFIELD: And you haven't even mentioned those districts that are so lopsided that the Democrats don't even bother putting up a candidate.
DAVID DALEY: It's one of the most depressing aspects of this. In North Carolina and Wisconsin, states where there's a lot of electoral energy, a lot of activism, in 49% of all assembly races in 2016, there simply wasn't a challenger. In Georgia, it was 81%. You cannot have a healthy democracy when you don't have the possibility of voting out the person who represents you.
DAVID DALEY: And yet, all of the coverage of these special elections that were just held amid torrents of publicity kind of ignored this fundamental aspect that subverts democracy.
DAVID DALEY: Our elite political media thinks that gerrymandering is that old thing that put you to sleep in civics class in eighth grade. They are deeply invested in a narrative, in a horse race. If the political media believes that all of the state house and all of the congressional races [LAUGHS] are decided for the next 10 years, what fun is that to write about? As a result, we are not talking about the fundamental structural problems in our democracy that we need to be.
BOB GARFIELD: For those who despair, there is something afoot that may offer some hope.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case involving district voting lines in Wisconsin.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The justices agreed today to hear whether Republicans drew electoral districts that violated the rights of Democrats.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Too much partisanship in the drawing of electoral maps is illegal, but it has never defined how much is too much.
DAVID DALEY: It's a really interesting story. The Supreme Court has never been willing to intervene in partisan gerrymandering and say when it has gone too far. The last time a partisan gerrymandering case reached the Supreme Court is the Vieth case out of Pennsylvania in 2004, in which Democratic citizens in Pennsylvania filed suit saying that their constitutional rights had been abridged by the way that the districts had been gerrymandered after the 2000 census.
It was a deeply divided Court. You had the conservative bloc and you had the liberal bloc, and you had Anthony Kennedy in the middle. The conservative bloc, led by Justice Scalia, said, we've never weighed in on this before, let's close the door. And Kennedy said, no, I don't think we ought to close the door. I also don't see any standard in front of me here that I like. So he sides with the conservatives, but he sets off a search for gerrymandering's holy grail, all of these law professors and political science folks and staff nerds and data geeks trying to craft a standard that would entice the Court into this political thicket.
BOB GARFIELD: And they came up with something called the efficiency gap. What is that?
DAVID DALEY: The efficiency gap attempts to quantify when a gerrymander has gone too far, to create a percentage of people whose votes have been squandered. From 1972 through 2000, the median efficiency gap in all state legislative elections in America is zero. In 2010, it goes off the chart.
BOB GARFIELD: And then came this Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford that is sort of the poster child for how awry things can go.
DAVID DALEY: Gill v. Whitford is based off of the drawing of Wisconsin's State Assembly lines after the 2010 census. The story of how those lines got drawn is something out of a John Grisham political thriller, operatives going to a law firm across the street from the capitol, barricading themselves in something they called “the map room,” claiming attorney-client privilege for the work that they did. There were damaged hard drives. It was an incredible case of subterfuge, such a blatant partisan gerrymander that a three-judge US District Court last year used the efficiency gap, said, this has gone too far, ordered the drawing of new lines, the first time in three decades that any court was willing to call a partisan gerrymander unconstitutional.
BOB GARFIELD: Justice Kennedy left the door open and now in comes this case. And let's just say it does accept a standard for “too far,” what impact would that have on these many other states where this kind of software has been used to do similar mischief?
DAVID DALEY: If they accept the efficiency gap as a standard to measure when a partisan gerrymander has gone too far, there are six or seven other states that would be in immediate violation – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas. This is, in many ways, the most meaningful case impacting the future of our democracy since the courts decided Citizens United.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from this case, where do you think we should be focusing our attention when trying to divine what direction our politics will go in the next two, four or eight years?
DAVID DALEY: Pay no attention to the fool’s gold like Georgia’s 6th. If the Democrats want a road back, there is one right in front of them. It is the governors’ races in these wildly gerrymandered states, the 2017 governor’s race in Virginia, and there are five governors’ races next year in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, all states were governors have veto power over the maps that the legislature draws; 2020 could actually be over for the Democrats before it starts, if they don't wake up and focus on the right races. They need to understand that spending $30 million on Georgia’s 6th squanders an awful lot of time and resources. It is a Band-Aid when the party is bleeding out. Something changed in 2010. It has broken our politics in a very serious way. It has made it dysfunctional and more extreme and not representative in the way that it is supposed to be. And the press is doing us a disservice in the way it's covered.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, David.
DAVID DALEY: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and author of a book on gerrymandering, the title of which I can't tell you because of FCC rules but it rhymes with Ratducked and it will be available in paperback on the 4th of July.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the US Census is on the ropes.