Census Bureau
Credit: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Let me ask you an honest question. What do you think about this argument? Let’s say I tried to convince you that competitive elections are bad for America. That seems counterintuitive, right? Wouldn’t it be better if politicians had to earn reelection through performance and they could be easily voted out if they became embroiled in scandal? How might I go about convincing you that other factors outweigh these sensible considerations?

In his 2008 book, “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America,” [Prof. Thomas Brunell] 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.

I’m tempted not to take that argument seriously at all since I’m positive it’s made in bad faith. But there is at least something within it that’s defensible, which is the idea that it’s a good thing rather than a bad thing when a larger percentage of the electorate in a given district feels like they’re getting the representation that they want.

Taken in isolation, this is an attractive concept. But it fails to account for two other important concepts: legitimacy and disenfranchisement.

If you’re in the political minority, there’s a big difference between feeling that you’re being poorly represented and feeling that there is zero chance that that will or ever could change. On the district level, it’s just a smaller version of the problem we have in the Electoral College, where people are disincentivized to vote because they know that their votes won’t count or change anything. How much motivation does a Wyoming Democrat or a Rhode Island Republican really have to vote in a presidential election when they know their vote will be tossed out? But at least the Electoral College has some advantages like preventing the potential need for a national recount. Truly uncompetitive congressional districts suppress political engagement and promote apathy and cynicism, with the ultimate effect of undermining the consent of the governed. The simplest way of putting it is that the political process must offer hope, and ideologically packed districts offer none.

What they offer instead is a distinct Republican advantage, which is why Prof. Brunell wrote a book in defense of them.

If you have any doubt about this, read on:

Brunell, a registered Republican, has criticized partisan gerrymandering in his work. But the GOP has repeatedly used his research in redistricting efforts, and he appeared as an expert witness to defend GOP-led states in lawsuits over potential gerrymandering. After the 2010 census, he testified or wrote a report in support of GOP redistricting efforts in Alabama, South Dakota, South Carolina and New Mexico.

In North Carolina, where GOP leaders drew congressional districts that were ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court for unfairly discriminating against black North Carolinians, he wrote a report on behalf of the state analyzing the extent of racially polarized voting in 51 North Carolina districts. In Ohio, he wrote a report in opposition to expanded early voting, which many political scientists believe favors Democrats, arguing that it reduces overall turnout because it “takes away from Election Day as a civic event.”

Brunell’s research has also tackled the Census itself. In the early 2000s, he wrote multiple papers on the political controversy surrounding the 2000 census, which included new statistical adjustments intended to more accurately count minorities and other groups that are relatively less likely to respond to the Census. Republicans argued that the new techniques were a veiled effort to boost the Democrats’ political fortunes; Brunell was sharply critical of them as well, arguing that “a census with an adjustment ultimately leads to a less accurate headcount simply because the post-census adjustment becomes a crutch.”

This guy has been making his living fighting in the trenches to win elections through other means than persuading people to support your party. So, it makes perfect sense that Donald Trump would put him charge of the upcoming 2020 census. First, the administration floated Brunell for the Senate-confirmable job of director of the Census Bureau, but he met opposition from his party. So now he is going to appoint him as deputy director, which is a position that does not require confirmation.

As with many cabinet departments, the deputy actually has more hands-on responsibility than the Secretary or the director. In this case, the deputy is essentially the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Operating Officer.

“This is worse than making him director,” said a former high-ranking Commerce Department official. “There still is going to be hell to pay on the optics. The Democrats and civil rights community will go nuts.”

Moreover, Prof. Brunell does not have the typical statistical background for the position, he doesn’t have the kind of administrative experience you want to see in someone coming into such a high-level and consequential managerial job, and unlike recent deputies he doesn’t have long (or any) experience working in the Census Bureau.

He’s being brought in to help the Republicans use the census to their political benefit, which is bad enough in itself, but also a problem for legitimacy and disenfranchisement. People talk about white privilege all the time, but Americans suffer from a different kind of privilege. Because we’ve had such a stable political system for so long, we don’t think we need to worry about things like legitimacy and the consent of the governed. We can talk about how great it is to have more people getting the representation that they want without taking into account how bad it is to have people disengage from and ultimately revolt against the political system because it’s rigged and pointless and incapable of change or accountability.

It’s a danger when this happens with isolated and powerless minority populations, but it grows into something truly threatening when it happens to one half of the country, in this case the Democratic Party and its supporters. In 2000, Al Gore submitted to the nakedly partisan will of the Supreme Court, but times were different then. There’s no assurance that Democratic partisans will continue to sit still for a political system that is imposed on them specifically to disadvantage and disempower them. At some point, you’d argue they have a moral obligation to take their fight outside of an increasingly unfair civil process and into the streets.


But it looks like this is the direction that Trump wants to go, and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to stop him or reverse his decision. The Senate told him not to do this, but he’s going to do it anyway.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com