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DICKERSON: Nation can't survive system that distorts the majority's will

• Nov 30, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Among the election results overlooked in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential triumph, the most significant may be the continued erosion of Democratic clout at the state level.

Even before the Nov. 8 election, Democrats had already lost more than 800 state legislative seats during Barack Obama’s presidency — a hemorrhage greater than any experienced by either major party since the 1950s, when Republicans saw a comparable reversal of their own legislative fortunes during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure.

The latest election results provide little evidence that the tide is turning. When the new year begins, Republicans will control more than two-thirds of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is non-partisan), while Democrats will maintain majorities in just 30.

But that’s just the beginning of Democrats’ woes.

In 2009, the year Obama began his first term, a single party controlled the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers in just 22 of the 50 states. (Democrats held 15 such so-called trifectas, Republicans seven.)

By Jan. 1, Republicans will control both the executive and legislative branches in at least 24 states, while Democrats maintain trifectas in seven others. Meanwhile, the number of states whose legislative chambers are split between the two parties will dwindle from seven to just three.

The immediate impact on state policy is likely to be enormous. In arenas as diverse as abortion, public education, environmental regulation and health care, Republicans are poised to repeal many of the initiatives Democrats put in place over the last half century,

But the long-term consequences for representative government may be even greater, especially if the trend toward single-party control continues through 2020.

That’s because even as Republicans strengthen their grip on the legislative process, America’s electoral majority continues moving steadily to the left.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump won in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than a million votes. But although his feat is rare, it’s hardly unprecedented; Trump is the fourth nominee to win the presidency with fewer votes than his opponent.

In fact, losing the popular vote has become the rule, rather than the exception, for Republican presidential nominees. In the 28 years since the elder George Bush beat Mike Dukakis in 1988, only one other GOP standard bearer — the younger George Bush, in his 2004 contest against John Kerry — has carried the popular vote in the general election. Democratic nominees won the popular vote in the other six elections.

Americans understand that the Electoral College system countenances, from time to time, this disconnect between the popular vote and the end result of a presidential election. The whole point of the arrangement is to keep populous states like California and Florida from permanently marginalizing the smaller ones.

But what if the same anomaly becomes commonplace, not just in presidential balloting, but in congressional and state legislative elections? How will voters react if their druthers for one party’s candidates are routinely expressed as electoral victories for the opposing party?

Michigan has already witnessed the normalization of this disconnect between the voters’ electoral preferences and those of their elected representatives.

In each of the last two election cycles, more Michigan voters cast their ballots for Democratic congressional and legislative candidates than for their Republican opponents. Yet Republicans continue to maintain a comfortable 9-5 advantage over Democrats in the U.S. House, and a 63-47 majority in the Michigan House.

And this gap between voter preference and legislative representation is likely to grow even wider if Republicans continue to dominate the reapportionment process, in which Michigan and other states reconfigure themselves every 10 years into new legislative and congressional districts.

At its best, reapportionment is a way of reaffirming the nation’s commitment to fair, democratic elections. If you believe in equal representation, you have to adjust political boundaries from time to time as states and their constituent communities gain or lose population at one another’s expense.

But increasingly sophisticated software that allows mapmakers to identify voters’ partisan sympathies by neighborhood, by street and even by household has given those who draw the maps unprecedented opportunity to shape districts to their own political advantage.

Michigan is an object lesson in what happens when one party monopolizes the mapmaking process, as Republicans did after the 2010 Census. By lassoing the majority of Democratic voters into just five congressional districts and spreading their own party’s voters strategically among the other nine, Michigan Republicans locked in a congressional advantage that could withstand even a significant disadvantage in Michigan’s popular vote.

The same recipe has yielded bulletproof majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

If you care about fair representation and effective collaboration between lawmakers in both parties, the consequences of either party getting free rein to draw the legislative maps are equally dismal. The result, in either instance, is a political landscape in which the vast majority of seats are no longer competitive.

Incumbents are vulnerable only to rivals from their own parties. Republican incumbents inoculate themselves against such intramural challengers by moving to the right, Democratic incumbents by moving to the left. By the time the general election rolls around, the majority of the voters in the middle are appalled at their choices; each cycle, more and more of them simply drop out.

America has proven remarkably resilient when it comes to withstanding the excesses of either party. But no democracy can survive for long with an electoral system that distorts the majority’s will at every level of representative government.

We can endure the occasional disconnect between the popular vote and a particular election result, but we are in uncharted territory if that divergence becomes the norm. A few states have found ways to restrain the parties’ manipulation of the reapportionment process, and the rest must follow their lead.

A blue nation permanently divided into red states is a recipe for disunion, dysfunction and the disillusionment of the voters both parties need most.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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