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More Redistricting Madness: Preliminary thoughts on the SCOTUS NC Decision

The media are split with regard to what the decision portends. Some key facts: NC’s population is 21% black. The state has 12 congressional districts. So, if it is geographically possible, the state needs to produce two congressional districts that give black voters the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.

This used to be simpler. Construct a district with enough black voters to comprise a majority of the voting population (and maybe a bit more to account for nonvoters) and you would have a majority-minority district. If the black voters acted as a block, they could elect a candidate of their choice. If you put too many black voters in a district, it would be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander that “packed” too many voters into the district. Too few, and it was a district that “cracked” voting power.

Over time, incumbents, lawyers and political consultants have looked to tweak this by asserting that, after a while, racial divisions might heal or melt away and, as a result, white voters might come around to support black candidates. If so, then it theoretically becomes unnecessary to create a “majority-minority” district. Under these “crossover” circumstances, a district with only 40 or 45% black voters might be able to elect a candidate of the black voters’ choice. If so, creating a district with 55% black voters would now be an unconstitutional “packing” gerrymander.

The NC redistricting case boiled down to whether or not it was necessary to create a majority or in influence district. Theoretically, if NC could create two solid influence districts, those extra black voters could be moved into another district where they could wield some solid influence.

Maybe. But, at the end of the day, NC needs to create TWO districts that can elect a candidate of black voters’ choice. So (and theoretically, this is good news), those extra black voters that we no longer need to create majority minority districts are simply “filler people” (as one scholar described long ago) that we use to make sure district populations are equal.

(I admit that the language sounds less than empathetic. But, these are the terms of the trade.)

Problem is, then, the case boiled down, metaphorically, to a dispute about whether those districts should be 47 or 45 or 51% black. At the end of the day, the extra voters would still be pushed into other districts where they would be minority voters. So, no matter what, NC had to create opportunities to elect two black-preferred candidates.

NC did just that. Yet, this case was litigated up to the Supreme Court where the justices sent it back…so that the lines could be redrawn and, no doubt, another round of litigation will take place. This is 2017. Place your bets: will this be resolved before the next census?

One can only imagine the amount of taxpayer dollars going towards this litigation—to fight over a percent or two when the districts must be created anyway. Litigants and consultants are making a lot of money to do essentially nothing to improve the fate of any voters. This is unethical.  We are expending tax dollars at the expense of the voters.  This is endless litigation. The stuff of Dickens’s BLEAK HOUSE.

Fantasy Baseball: Ranking the Top 100 SP for 2017

Here I link to my three columns on MLB SP for 2017.  This anaylsis is based on early predictions data.  But, it offers broad insights and solid draft advice.

The Top 25 SP for 2017  Great talent, but overpriced.

The Middle Children of your 2017 SP rotation.  A.K.A. the “Jan Brady” Memorial Column:  SP #26-50.

Where you find championship SP rosters:  SP #51-76.

The triage ward: SP 76-100.  TJS, unproven rookies and the rest of the$1 bin.

Fantasy Baseball: On God, Satan and the Tampa Bay Rays

My latest from majorleaguefantasysports.com

It’s going to be a long season in Tampa Bay.  The Rays’ fans deserve it.

The Gerrymandering Jackpot!

It’s 2017 and guess what? Virginia is STILL trying to finalize its redistricting plans…based on the 2010 census.  What is going on?

The constitution entrusts the process of drawing state legislative and congressional district lines to the state legislatures.  With few exceptions, this means that the process of drawing those district lines lies in the hands of the party that controls the state legislature.  The result has been and continues to be a rancorous, expensive ritual that was supposed to be decennial but, at least in Virginia, has become a constant preoccupation of our elected officials.  Instead of occurring once every ten years, it seems to take ten years to try to do it correctly.

This is a heinous conflict of interest: our elected officials condition the process by which they are returned to office.  This is akin to a baseball pitcher altering the strike zone every time he faces a batter or a golfer moving the pin to suit her putting.  These are venal, silly examples of situations in which anyone would cry “foul”.  So why do we sit back and ignore cries of foul about the redistricting process?

In fact, “redistricting” is a misnomer.  Our voting districts are “gerrymandered.” Every line, every twist and turn is designed to create districts that, first and foremost, suit the partisan interests of the legislative majority and legislative incumbents.  The process is constrained by the one person, one vote requirement and the Voting Rights Act’s restrictions on discriminating against minority voters.  But, state legislators can and do work around these constraints to draw contorted voting districts that have served only to ensure that incumbents are essentially unbeatable, challengers don’t have a chance and, in the end, voters really have little choice on Election Day.

This applies to any district, regardless of the race, party or gender of the incumbents.  At the congressional level, Republican Bob Goodlatte has been as unbeatable as Democrat Bobby Scott.  Unless they are surprised in a primary (as Eric Cantor was in 2014), our congressional incumbents leave office only through retirement or natural causes.  As a result, there is almost no reason to vote in a Virginia congressional election.  The typical margin of incumbent victory is so large that voting for the incumbent is as much a waste of time (she is going to win anyway) as voting against one (he is going to win anyway).

One of the terrible ironies of all this is that the Voting Rights Act has been undermined by gerrymandering.  Sure, districts are drawn to embrace majorities of Hispanic, black or other minority voters where possible.  But, in the end, those minority incumbents are as unbeatable as their Anglo colleagues.  The result is that the VRA has become simply an instrument to return racial minority incumbents to office as easily as white incumbents.  Meanwhile, minority voters are given as poor a choice on Election Day as their white counterparts.

Some would say this is progress in the march towards racial equality and fairness:  elections are equally uncompetitive and voters have equally poor choices regardless of their race, creed, gender and so forth.

But, the Voting Rights Act and elections are about the rights of voters—not the interests of elected officials.  Elections should provide voters with real choices among candidates.  Elections should entail meaningful campaigns and appeals to voters every year.  Instead, the product of some 50+ years of redistricting, gerrymandering, litigation and Supreme Court decisions is poor turnout, meaningless Election Day choices, gerrymandered districts and essentially unbeatable incumbents.

What is most appalling and disturbing is that the process in Virginia could be improved so easily. Twenty one states use nonpartisan redistricting commissions.  This removes the conflict of interest from the districting process.  Doing this decreases the likelihood of going to court because neutral districting principles (maintaining equal populations, tending to minority populations, respecting municipal boundaries) take precedence.

Instead, the conflicts of interest that inhere in the process render it appallingly expensive.  As an example: since the legislature did a poor job drawing the congressional district lines last time around, a special master was called in at the cost of more than $80,000.  You read that correctly: the taxpayers forked out $80,000 for someone to draw 11 districts—and there is no guaranty that they will pass constitutional muster.

To put this in perspective: $80,000 would hire one or two teachers for a year in most of our Commonwealth’s public school systems.

That fee does not include litigation costs, court fees, and the opportunity cost of dedicating legislators’ time to tweaking district lines that could be otherwise spent on the budget, health care, road, jobs, etc.  Virginia has 40 Senate districts and 100 house districts.  One can only imagine how much the taxpayers will bleed to pay consultants (instead of a commission) to draw district lines.

In defense of this system, legislators or apologists will argue that redistricting should be in the hands of elected officials because they know best what is in the interests of their constituents.   But, if we end up turning the process over to private consultants and litigants, that connection is clearly broken.  Virginia’s redistricting history over the past several decades indicates that this connection is seldom preserved.

So, redistricting serves the interests of incumbents, political consultants and litigants—all at the fiscal and democratic expense of the voters whose interests the process should be serving.  It’s time to join the other 21 states that use redistricting commissions.  End the gerrymandering of Virginia voters.

 

From Tom Brady to the Red Sox: Baseball column #1 of 2017

Hi friends.  I post here a link to my first piece for Major League Fantasy Sports for 2017.  This is not my day job.  But, it’s a great thing when one can join a good bunch of folks and write about something like baseball.  Serendipitously, I ran the analysis and wrote the piece just before the Super Bowl and before I left with a group of Washington and Lee alumni to  visit and discuss Cuba.  More to come.  Comments welcome.

The Mad Professor’s Re-Entry.  Ranking the Top 100 Starting Pitchers for 2017, Part Uno.

A Thanksgiving Wish/Prayer/Hope

 

This was published in the Roanoke Times on Thanksgiving, 24 November 2016. It is available at this link: http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/rush-a-thanksgiving-prayer/article_e8cd4298-e6ef-5ba0-9eb0-e21711b8c600.html

I served as dean of a college in the Middle East for three years.  It was impressive to see and hear the United States discussed so frequently in critical terms by denizens of a part of the world in which anti-western sentiment is common.

Questions about the USA frequently focused on our politics.  Over there, it didn’t matter if the president were a Democrat or a Republican.  American military presence in the region had endured under both parties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bore the imprimatur of Democrats and Republicans.  From this perspective, it was never difficult for an observer to identify the contradictions in our political rhetoric, to find reason to cast aspersions on the performance of our political system or, simply, to be angry with the United States.

This same sort of visceral anger has rendered this election year perhaps the most regrettable, divisive, dangerous, ominous… (the list of adjectives goes on) in our history.  The tenor of presidential debates was debased as the candidates spent as much time trading insults as they did addressing the pressing economic problems and growing economic inequality that generate fear and anger among voters of all races and walks of life.

In retrospect, it is horrifying to see that our political system is now as adept at generating anti-Americanism at home as it has been abroad.

It was, at first, a great challenge to try to explain the beauty of the USA to people whose views of our politics and culture are shaped by the same media that has taken sides in this election.  As long as an observer focused on our contemporary politics, it was difficult to convince him or her to look further or more deeply.

As an antidote to this outlook (or perhaps, as a distraction), I would encourage angry observers to look to another American tradition that transcends and predates our politics:  Thanksgiving.  No, not Christmas or the 4th of July…no presents, fireworks, flag waving or gifts that had to be returned.  Instead, I encouraged folks to look at the holiday on which Americans put aside politics, join hands in thanks and share a meal that symbolizes the celebration of the harvest.

This is, I would argue, American culture at its best.  It was not an exaggeration, I would tell them, that even mortal enemies’ hearts would soften if they knew that someone was spending Thanksgiving alone.  Better to share a meal and fall asleep watching football than to expend energy on divisive politics.  Life is better if enemies pause occasionally to find common ground (and acknowledge that it exists).  It was amazing and heartwarming to see that even the most visceral critics of our politics would soften at the thought of our Thanksgiving tradition.

It is serendipitous that Thanksgiving comes just a couple of weeks after Election Day.  This year, more than ever, the country needs to rediscover its common ground in the wake of an election that has exposed and rubbed salt in virtually every political wound imaginable.  Despite occasional acknowledgments of accord (Kaine and Pence agreed that our communities and police need to heal wounds and work together) and respect (by God, Donald Trump is a good father and Hillary Clinton is a tenacious fighter) our presidential candidates have done little to suggest that the country can move forward together to solve the economic problems that divide it.

Despite the damage done to the electorate by the septic rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the fallout of the election, Thanksgiving looms once again as a chance to demonstrate to ourselves that there is more that unites the nation than divides it.  In ancient Greece, city-states would pause wars and put down their weapons to celebrate the Olympics. Maybe the country can put this election behind us in a spirit of Thanksgiving…Amen.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln. FDR. Reagan…Trump??? The 2016 election in historical perspective.

In this column in the Richmond Times, I note that 2016 marks the point at which scholars would have predicted a major shift in the American Electoral Landscape.  Trump and Clinton are merely symptoms of a predictable shift in US politics.