Under the Trump administration, the assault on our democracy that Republicans have been waging for the last two decades is actually escalating. The latest prongs of this attack comes from multiple directions.
Today, Politico is reporting that Trump’s rumored choice to run the operational role of the Census Bureau is an “inexperienced professor who wrote that ‘Competitive Elections are Bad for America.’” As with everything with Trump and the GOP these days, the choice would break a long tradition of appointing a non-political government employee with experience in statistics. Trump’s choice, Thomas Brunell, has none of those qualifications.
Brunell’s minimal qualifications are that he worked on a House subcommittee that oversaw the census and that he has written about redistricting and voting rights in his capacity as a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Of course, part of that writing argued that “partisan districts packed with like-minded voters actually lead to better representation than ones more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, because fewer voters in partisan districts cast a vote for a losing candidate. He has also argued that ideologically packed districts should be called ‘fair districts’ and admits that his stance on competitive elections makes him something of an outlier among political scientists, who largely support competitive elections.” Brunell is a registered Republican and has testified on behalf of Republican redistricting efforts in North Carolina, Alabama, South Dakota, South Carolina and New Mexico. In Ohio, Brunell testified against the extension of early voting saying it “takes away from Election Day as a civic event.” He has also criticized the statistical adjustments that the Census Bureau makes in order to more accurately count groups, usually minorities, that are known to under-respond to the census.
The position Brunell is rumored to get is the deputy director of the Census Bureau and he would be responsible for the actual operational effort to run the 2020 census. That census will determine the redistricting that will remain in place for the next decade. As operational director, Brunell could make decisions that would seriously impact the effectiveness of the census. That includes cutting back on advertising, as the Trump administration has already done with Obamacare, or adding a question about citizenship on the long form which would result in fewer minority responses, or even tweaking or eliminating the statistical adjustments. The Trump administration and Republicans have already been accused of underfunding and undermining the 2020 census. Of course, all these efforts are solely directed at limiting the counting of minorities, traditional Democratic voters.
Worse, Brunell was floated as Trump’s choice as Census Director earlier this year but his nomination never occurred because of pushback from Congress. The position of Census Director requires Congressional approval, while the deputy director position is a straight Presidential appointment that does not. So Trump, having been rebuffed by Congress, may decide to simply appoint an originally unacceptable candidate to a position which arguably has even more control of the 2020 census. As one census watchdog says about the potential Brunell appointment, “If true, it signals an effort by the administration to politicize the census.” What a surprise.
Meanwhile, lost in the current Republican effort to enact what they call “tax reform” but what really would be the greatest transfer of wealth to the top 1% in American history is another goodie that will open up even greater opportunities for the governing group of plutocrats like the Mercers and the Kochs to even further dominate our elections.
The House tax bill has an explicit provision that rolls back the so-called Johnson amendment which restricts 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations such as churches and charities from endorsing and politicking for specific candidates. The new House provision would allow these organizations to retain their tax-exempt status as long as their politicking occurred “in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose”, a meaningless and virtually unenforceable restriction. The rollback is something that evangelical Christian groups have been seeking for decades.
As the Post reports, this ruling provides an even greater opportunity for rich donors to now funnel their millions into political contributions with the added benefit of being able to hide the source and even amounts of those donations while receiving a tax break for doing so. “Today, so-called super PACs are a massive force in politics, spending more than $1 billion in the 2016 election cycle. Such super PAC donations must be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission and are not tax-deductible. What if these donors are tempted to give their money to a 501(c)3 organization that beckons with a tax deduction and no disclosure? The givers won’t hold back. Churches and church-affiliated groups generally don’t even have to file IRS returns, so there will be no information about who these contributors are. Other 501(c)3 groups do file, but the donors are not disclosed to the public. The politicized churches, charities and foundations could become the latest vessels for dark-money politics.”
If you want to see the perniciousness of the dark money and non-profits, take a look at what happened to Merrick Garland. One anonymous donor gave over $28 million to the Wellspring Committee, a Virginia-based nonprofit, which in turn donated $23 million to the Judicial Crisis Network, which in turn spent over $7 million to block Merrick Garland from getting his rightful place on the Supreme Court and another $10 million dollars pushing the awful Neil Gorsuch in his place.
Voting rights advocates did, however, get some good news out of the state of Michigan. In that state, an all-volunteer effort has managed to get over 400,000 signatures, 85,000 more than the minimum required, in order to get an initiative on the ballot that would change the state constitution to have the redistricting process controlled by an independent commission, as opposed to being handled by the governor and the legislature as is done today. Under the proposal, the redistricting commission would consist of four Republicans, four Democrats, and five independent members drawn at random. In addition, “The panel would be prohibited from providing a ‘disproportionate advantage’ to a political party, using ‘accepted measures of partisan fairness.’” Of course, getting on the ballot is just the first step. Getting it passed is an entirely separate matter.
Michigan is one of the most gerrymandered states. In the 2016 elections, Democrats won 50% of the vote but only ended up with 43% of the seats in the state House, one of the highest efficiency gaps in the nation. As one supporter noted, the ballot initiative “The idea that voters should choose their politicians instead of the other way around is pretty straightforward.” That may seem straightforward but not to a certain party that relies on extreme gerrymandering to remain in power.
While the Michigan story is certainly heartening, the real short-term answer to extreme gerrymandering must come from the Supreme Court, which is hearing a case out of Wisconsin where gerrymandering creates results that largely replicate the results in Michigan. The longer-term solution is a radical restructuring of our whole electoral system, beyond just restoration of voting rights and elimination of gerrymandering but also attacking the structural problems with the composition of the Senate and the Electoral College. That process will probably take a generation, (or a revolution), but it can only begin when we all realize that our democracy is larger than partisan politics. Based on the current environment, it’s hard to be optimistic about that happening.
Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on November 21, 2017.