Now that the most recent primary elections are over, it is time to assess them. This year saw an unusual number of candidates running, but turnout was not greatly affected. At 24.47% in Benton County, it was higher than turnout during the last off-year primaries (16.85% in August 2015), but lower than the 32.88% turnout in August 2013. One of the questions the Columbia Basin Badgers will seek to address at our upcoming forum of August 24, 2017 is whether these results were affected by our current hyper-partisan political climate.
One of the reasons often given for the state of our politics is gerrymandering – creating oddly-shaped electoral districts to achieve political ends. Drawing districts can be a powerful way to change representation in legislatures and city halls. Sometimes, as in the original gerrymanders by Elbridge Gerry, for whom they were named, and Patrick Henry, they are to achieve electoral victory. This is accomplished by “packing and cracking.” The goal is to waste as many votes of your opponents while maximizing the value of your supporters’ ballots.
Gerrymanders have also been used to create majority minority districts to ensure representation that more closely resembles the population of eligible voters. This was the effect that the ACLU and the City of Pasco were trying to accomplish in Pasco’s most recent elections. The City of Pasco had tried to address the difficulty its growing Latino population had electing representatives, but it was hindered by state law that prohibited district-only based election systems and an unresponsive state government. It was only when the ACLU sued under the Voting Rights Act that the two groups were able to create the new system where there are six district positions and one at-large seat. Primary turnout since 2009 has dropped significantly and this August saw the lowest voter turnout yet at 16.48%. These results seem to confirm the importance of developing an infrastructure necessary to develop talent and encourage voting among a population not used to participating politically. But these are still other questions that our speakers will address.
Political scientists will often point out that gerrymandering is more the symptom of political shifts than their cause. For instance, Democratic voters tend to cluster in urban areas where their votes are more naturally “packed.” Economic changes have encouraged movement to the cities, creating areas, both urban and rural, where there is little diversity of political opinion. The death of locally-owned newspapers compounds the problem because there are fewer local reporters and editors to explain how national or state policy affects their particular readership. As evidence, academics point to the Senate that is also experiencing a partisan divide, despite the fact that when a state is a single district, it can’t be gerrymandered.