US Supreme Court denies ability to intervene in gerrymandering cases

The US Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot decide in cases of alleged partisan gerrymandering. That gives the green light to politicians to draw electoral boundaries in such a way as to favour their party.

Although different rules apply in the different states, in simple terms electoral boundaries in the US, particularly congressional districts, are drawn by state legislators based on the most recent census. The numbers in each district have to be roughly equal but the boundaries are up to local decision making.

Why does it matter how the boundaries are drawn? Because each community is different and people of like mind tend to be more likely to live near each other. So you have areas which are more Republican and areas which are more Democratic. Drawing the boundaries in a different way can skew the results of an election. The Electoral Reform Society has produced a graphic which neatly illustrates this problem.

The US has long had a history of politically partisan boundary delimitation. The term gerrymandering was created there. The team at FiveThirtyEight have come up with a number of different examples of how the extent of gerrymandering could affect the US House of Representatives.

There are five states which have put in place rules to (largely) protect against partisan boundary drawing. But others leave it up to their legislators. Two such are North Carolina and Maryland and these were the cases before the Supreme Court whose decision was made public today.

This is not the end of the matter. First state courts might choose to get involved in the issue and have the right to do so even though the Supreme Court has spoken. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last year that the congressional map drawn by the Republican legislature in 2011 ran foul of the state constitution, saying that the map violated the state’s guarantee of “free and equal” elections. They chose to redraw the map themselves. As many as a dozen other states have similar provisions in their constitution. In addition, states can pass their own laws that would require boundaries to be drawn in a non-partisan manner, either through their own legislature or through a referendum.

But in the short term this (non) decision by the Supreme Court could open the floodgates for more state legislatures to take a radical view of boundary drawing.

Oregon legislators on the run from police in an effort to block climate change bill

A group of state senators in Oregon have gone on the run to try to block climate change legislation in the state. And now the Governor has tasked the police to track them down.

The rules of the Oregon State Senate require that 20 members are present to vote on legislation. The Democrats currently hold a majority – 18 of 30 seats – but are still at risk from a lack of voting quorum. And that is what has happened in the case of legislation aimed at combatting climate change, which the Republicans oppose.

With the annual session due to expire on June 30th and any bill not passed by then automatically falling, the missing legislators have vowed to stay away. Police don’t have the power to follow them to Idaho where they are believed to be staying.

However, there is more to the story than this. There are several other key votes – including funding for key state agencies – which also have to be taken before the session runs out.

So the President of the State Senate – a Democrat – has announced that he believes the climate change bill is dead in the water and has urged Republicans to return to vote on other measures. Some Democrats have also indicated they might not fully support the proposed cap and trade measures and so there may be a chance for Republicans to vote down the bill. Republicans, however, smell a trap and are still in hiding.

Sorry Nick, but there is more that Facebook can and should be doing.

Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme this morning to talk about his job with Facebook and its role in facilitating interference with elections and referendums in the UK and around the world. 

Clegg says there is no evidence that Russia influenced the result of the Brexit vote using Facebook. 

To quote Mandy Rice Davies – Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Clegg appears to blame deep-rooted Euroscepticism for the outcome. He also argues for greater regulation of social media and tech firms saying there should be new rules of the road on privacy, election rules, use of personal data and what constitutes hate speech.

Clearly there is no single reason why the UK voted to leave. Pinning all the blame on Facebook, Russia, Cambridge Analytica or anyone else is misleading. However, there does appear to be significant evidence that the last of these had access to a huge amount of personal data, harvested via Facbook, and sought to use it via campaigns to influence people’s voting. The evidence of Russian involvement is not quite so strong as that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election (where it is undeniable), but it is clear that Facebook was used as a platform for illegal campaigning, even if unwittingly.

And it is also clear that whatever happened in the UK referendum, there have been many cases of outside forces seeking to affect national elections via Facebook and other online activity. The Macedonian name referendum and recent Ukrainian Presidential election are just two examples.

Clegg is right that the should be better regulation that reflects the modern world. But he is wrong to imply that there are no rules in existence at the moment. The UK, as most countries, has a vast amount of electoral law that codifies who can campaign and how much they can spend. That these laws were written before the advent of the public internet doesn’t matter. If the law can apply to paper leaflets then, broadly, it can also apply to internet communications.

Difficult though it may be for Facebook, a company that operates in 150+ countries and therefore with 150+ sets of different election laws, it is the responsibility of everyone to obey the applicable law in the countries in which you operate. Facebook’s reaction until now, however, has been to place itself above the law. It has proposed (and is gradually implementing) two significant changes, requiring election related advertising on its site to be clearly labelled as such and reporting on who is paying for political advertising. Both of these changes are to be welcomed, but they are not yet universally applied. And, crucially, they do not accord with the detail of election law in each country. In seeking to apply its own solution, Facebook is thumbing its nose at elections around the world.

It is not just the main Facebook site that is doing so. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms also have their problems. Some of these will need new legislation to solve, but most simply require the company behind them to read and adapt to local laws.

Why we should be careful about using the word ‘stolen’ about elections

Richard Hasen has written an excellent opinion piece in The Slate about why people should be wary of using the term ‘stolen election’ in reference to contests like the Georgia Governor contest earlier this month.

Hasen’s argument is that over using the word ‘stolen’ risks undermining trust in elections generally and that we don’t know whether the actions of the winner, Brian Kemp, as Secretary of State (the person in charge of the elections) were enough to change the outcome.

Instead of talking about an election being stolen, we should be looking at the suppression efforts and general incompetence that affect the rights of voters. Any suppression and any incompetence is bad and should be campaigned against. -not just if it is sufficient to change the outcome of an election.