Electors, Gerrymandering, the Filibuster and Awkward Positions

November 13, 2012

The Electoral College, the Senate filibuster, and the gerrymandered redistricting all have two things in common: They are hard to defend and generate a lot of partisan hypocrisy.

In each case, these longstanding institutions frustrate the will of the majority. The Electoral College means that once in a while the presidential candidate who gets the most votes in the United States doesn't become President of the United States. The filibuster blocks laws that are supported by the representatives of a majority of the people. And gerrymandering means that the congressional delegations in many states don’t reflect the true balance of opinion among the voters.

Over the years, there have been many bitter complaints about these undemocratic institutions. But often those who complain when these institutions deliver outcomes they don’t like become noticeably quieter when their cause or party benefits from them. When Democrats controlled the House of Representatives before the 1990's, it was common for Republicans to bemoan the redistricting process, which gave their opponents an unfair advantage. It was a legitimate complaint, but one you don’t hear as much now that Republicans did so well at controlling the 2010 redistricting process. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a majority of votes in House races went to Democratic candidates, but because of the way the Republican legislature drew the district lines, 13 of 18 people elected to the House were Republicans. The same was true in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states. It’s a point Democrats like to make, except when you point out how much Democrats benefited from partisan redistricting in Illinois. The unfair tilt certainly benefited Republicans much more, but it didn't used to.

The filibuster is the same way. When President Bush had Republican majorities in the House and Senate, liberal interest groups used the filibuster as the last bulwark to defend important laws and rules. When President Obama was pushing his legislative agenda, particularly health care reform, they decried procedural games of the minority as blocking the will of The People. Republicans did exactly the opposite in both cases -- complaining of unfairness when the procedure hurt their interests, gladly accepting the rules when they got an advantage.

In 2000, many Democrats, including me, were deeply offended that most Americans chose Al Gore to be their president and George W. Bush was awarded the office. The disputed Florida ballots, the Supreme Court decision, and the rest of the drama aside, the election should have gone to the person with the most votes nationally. Less noticed was the fact that before Election Day, when it seemed like Gore might get the electoral votes he needed but not a popular vote victory, he told a TV reporter that it was an acceptable result of our constitutional system. And in 2012, some people thought President Obama would be returned to office without a popular vote win and I never heard a Democrat suggest he should step aside in favor of Governor Romney if that happened.* (I did hear one say it would have been delicious irony.)

There are certainly many people who maintain a consistent position on these issues. They are for or against all of these institutions regardless of their impact on the partisan outcome. Many Democrats, stressing the need for greater democracy, oppose all devices that upend the power of the majority (except, of course, for protecting individual rights). Many Republicans, heavily invested in the longstanding institutions of this Republic, support these time-tested bulwarks of stability. But I suspect those who are willing to give up power in the name of consistency on these issues are in the minority.

* The filibuster and the Electoral College can also be defended on principled grounds. The filibuster enforces the need for broad consensus to make major changes to our government or laws, and the Electoral College encourages broader national support for our chief executives. (I’m not sure there’s a principled argument for drawing congressional districts to distort the will of the People.)

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