Non-representative Legislatures

Ten days ago in this post, in the aftermath of the Kansas vote supporting protections for abortion, I wondered this:

So what are the justifications of Republican politicians who keep passing or trying to pass restrictions on abortion, when the majority of residents in even a red state like Kansas oppose such restrictions? Who do these politicians think they’re representing? Well, they’re representing those who *elected* them of course. Which… suggests something is wonky with the election system. And it’s not some kind of fraud leading Democrats to win. It’s some kind of malfunction in the election system that is leading Republicans to be elected in disproportionate numbers. What that might be? Hmm, gerrymandering?

This was speculation. Here’s evidence: a detailed report about Ohio in the new issue of The New Yorker

The New Yorker, Jane Mayer, posted 6 Aug 2022: State Legislatures Are Torching Democracy, subtitled “Even in moderate places like Ohio, gerrymandering has let unchecked Republicans pass extremist laws that could never make it through Congress.”

The print title — which I saw before finding the article on the web — is “Goodbye, Columbus: How an extreme minority has upended democracy in Ohio.”

Where the lede about gerrymandering is buried several paragraphs down. The opening:

As the Supreme Court anticipated when it overturned Roe v. Wade, the battle over abortion rights is now being waged state by state. Nowhere is the fight more intense than in Ohio, which has long been considered a national bellwether. The state helped secure the Presidential victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then went for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Its residents tend to be politically moderate, and polls consistently show that a majority of Ohio voters support legal access to abortion, particularly for victims of rape and incest. Yet, as the recent ordeal of a pregnant ten-year-old rape victim has illustrated, Ohio’s state legislature has become radically out of synch with its constituents. In June, the state’s General Assembly instituted an abortion ban so extreme that the girl was forced to travel to Indiana to terminate her pregnancy. In early July, Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana obstetrician who treated the child, told me that she had a message for Ohio’s legislature: “This is your fault!”

Longtime Ohio politicians have been shocked by the state’s transformation into a center of extremist legislation, not just on abortion but on such divisive issues as guns and transgender rights. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who served as governor between 2007 and 2011, told me, “The legislature is as barbaric, primitive, and Neanderthal as any in the country. It’s really troubling.” When he was governor, he recalled, the two parties worked reasonably well together, but politics in Ohio “has changed.” The story is similar in several other states with reputations for being moderate, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: their legislatures have also begun proposing laws so far to the right that they could never be passed in the U.S. Congress.

There follows examples, such an “archconservative Republican” who said the pregnancy of a 13-year-old girl who was raped was an “opportunity,” never mind her age and wasted adolescence, because the baby might grow up to cure cancer! Or maybe not; maybe it’s just a waste of a 13-year-old who otherwise might have led a rich life with children when she chose. But we’re getting off topic. (There’s a reason, a social contract that’s almost universal around the world, that pubescents who could have children are nevertheless discouraged from doing so until the widely considered age of adulthood… And it has to do with the human ambition to build a society better than a pack of animals.)

How did this happen, given that most Ohio voters are not ultra-conservatives? “It’s all about gerrymandering,” Niven told me. The legislative-district maps in Ohio have been deliberately drawn so that many Republicans effectively cannot lose, all but insuring that the Party has a veto-proof super-majority. As a result, the only contests most Republican incumbents need worry about are the primaries—and, because hard-core partisans dominate the vote in those contests, the sole threat most Republican incumbents face is the possibility of being outflanked by a rival even farther to the right. The national press has devoted considerable attention to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, but state legislative districts have received much less scrutiny, even though they are every bit as skewed, and in some states far more so. “Ohio is about the second most gerrymandered statehouse in the country,” Niven told me. “It doesn’t have a voter base to support a total abortion ban, yet that’s a likely outcome.” He concluded, “Ohio has become the Hindenburg of democracy.”

A long article, which I haven’t finished reading, but certain phrases jump out. “The will of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “The Center for Christian Virtue.” Final paragraph:

“There are two sides in America, but they’re fighting different battles. The blue side thinks their views are largely popular and democracy is relatively stable—and that they just need better outcomes in federal elections. The focus is on winning swing states in national elections. The other side, though, knows that our democracy isn’t stable—that it can be subverted through the statehouses. Blue America needs to reshape everything it does for that much deeper battle. It’s not about one cycle. It’s a long game.”

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