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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear