Can the Republicans gerrymander their way into the White House?

Republicans should stop focus on winning more support, not changing the electoral rules.

It's the oldest electoral trick: if you don't like the result, change the rules. To some Republicans, it is central to their strategy for regaining the White House in 2016.

The term "gerrymandering" was coined in 1812, after Governor Gerry of Massachusetts redrew Congressional boundaries so unfairly it was said to resemble the salamander monster. Gerry's idea was simple: concentrate his opponents' support so they piled up a few huge majorities, while spreading his own party's out so they could win more districts, resulting in more Congressmen.

The same tactics have been a feature of US politics ever since - and it's only getting worse. Look at Slate's list of the 21 "most rigged" districts around today. It's certainly not just the Republicans at work: two of the worst examples - Illinois's fourth Congressional district and Maryland's third - are the result of Democrat-controlled state legislatures. But because the Republicans' mid-term win in 2010 coincided with redistricting following the census, their support was very efficiently distributed in 2012. In total, they won 234 House seats to the Democrats' 201 - even though the Democrats won the popular vote by 1.5 million. Imagine the outrage if this had been an African country.

So far the practice hasn't extended to presidential elections. With the exception of Nebraska and Maine (which only control nine of the 538 Electoral College votes between them), states award all their votes to the winner of the state overall. This may throw up anomalous results - like in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote while losing the presidency - but Congress-style gerrymandering is even worse. And that's exactly what Republicans are now proposing be replicated in the White House race.

In five crucial states that Obama won in 2012 - Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin - Republicans in the state legislatures have floated plans to award the state's electoral votes according to the winner of each Congressional district. It sort of makes sense - until you remember that the districts themselves reflect intricate gerrymandering. 

In Virginia, a bill to award electors by districts recently advanced through a subcommittee in the Virginia Senate, under which Mitt Romney would have won nine out of 13 electoral votes - even though Obama won the state by 150,000 votes. However, the Republican Governor of the state is strongly opposed, reasoning that this would dilute the attention - and money - that the swing state receives in presidential elections.

Pennsylvania is where the plans are most likely to transpire. Despite being regarded as a swing state, it hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican candidate since George Bush Sr in 1988. After years of trying, the Republicans look to be making progress towards changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes - ensuring that the party could win a significant amount of Pennsylvania's electoral college votes even without coming close to winning the state itself. While the results wouldn't be as egregious as in Virginia, the motives are equally clear.

Reince Priebus, the newly re-elected chair of the Republican National Committee, recently said he was "pretty intrigued" by the idea of states changing the way they award their electoral college votes and "in some cases they should look at it". It's easy to see the appeal for Republicans, with changing demographics meaning that the party's traditional coalition is no longer sufficient to win the presidency. Yet ultimately voters seldom reward parties so lacking in confidence in their own ideas that they appear more concerned with changing the rules; even Paul Ryan has spoken out against the plans. If Republicans want to win in 2016, they should focus on winning more support, not manipulating the electoral system.

Even Paul Ryan opposes the Republicans' redistricting plans. Photography: Getty Images

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser