President Obama Talks Gerrymandering, Voting Wars, Money in Politics at Student Journalist Press Conference


Q    Hi, Mr. President.  Earlier today, we spoke about —

THE PRESIDENT:  What’s your name?

Q    Patrick Forrest (ph) from the Fresno City College Rampage.

THE PRESIDENT:  From the what?

Q    Fresno City College, the Rampage.

THE PRESIDENT:  Fresno City College.  Fantastic.

Q    Earlier today, one thing we talked about was civic engagement, and a line was used in the State of the Union address of “don’t give into the cynicism of the day.”  A poll released by Reuters yesterday shows that nearly half of Americans feel that the elections are rigged in some way.  Is there any goal or plan of the administration to help revitalize the faith in democracy that seems to be lacking?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, you know what, this is something that I’ve tried to do ever since I got into public office.  As you know, I came into this work as a community organizer and strongly believed that our democracy only works when people participate.

There are a lot of forces that feed cynicism.  And there’s no dispute that our democracy is not working as well as it should.  I can tell you some of the reasons for that.  One of it is that we have set up a system for electing state legislatures and members of Congress that involve the drawing of district lines that are gerrymandered.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the phrase, it basically means that those who are already in power draw the maps in such a way where they can be assured that these are either going to be Democratic seats or Republican seats.  And what that’s done is it’s made very few seats competitive.

So, for example, in the last election, in 2012, Democrats actually cast substantially more votes in congressional elections, but ended up with substantially fewer seats.  And the reason for that is, in 2010, when the census was done and re-districting of congressional and House legislative seats were drawn, Republican governors and Republican majorities were responsible for drawing most of the seats.

Now, I want to be clear, Democrats aren’t blameless on this, either.  But California, for example, has gone to a process of nonpartisan districting.  The advantage there is not only do you make more seats competitive, but it also means that politicians have to compete for everybody’s votes because they’re not in safe seats, they’re not in a safely Republican district or a Democratic district.  And what that does is it means they’ve got to not just appeal to the extremes of their party.

Part of the reason we’ve seen polarization and gridlock here in Washington is because there’s been this great sorting, and Democrats have moved much further — have moved left.  Republicans have just gone way to the right.  And it’s harder, then, to compromise, because members of Congress — and the same thing is true in state legislatures — are always looking over their shoulder seeing if somebody in their own party might challenge them.  And then the system doesn’t work.

So that’s a big chunk of why people are cynical — because they feel like their votes don’t count.  And if you draw districts that are ironclad one party or another, then they’re not entirely wrong.

Another reason that people are cynical is money in politics.  The Supreme Court issued a ruling — Citizens United — that allowed super PACs and very wealthy individuals to just finance all these ads that you guys see on TV all the time.  Half the time nobody knows who’s funding them.  And that makes you cynical partly because most of this money is spent on negative ads.  So you’re just hearing constantly how horrible everybody is.  That will make you feel pretty bad about the political process.

And I’m a strong believer in finding ways in which we can make the financing of campaigns more democratic.  Now, we’ve seen some interesting work being done.  You’ve got to give Bernie Sanders, for example, credit, building off some of the work that I did.  I, in turn, built off the work that Howard Dean did for smaller donations, grassroots donors to be able, in small contributions, to allow candidates to be competitive.

But I think that — we don’t want to leave that to chance.  And that’s much harder to do for members of Congress who are lower profile so they don’t get the sort of viral presence that allows them to raise that kind of money to compete.  So we’re going to have to solve money in politics.

You as journalists are going to have a role to play in reducing cynicism.  It is very hard to get good stories placed.  People will assign you stories about what’s not working.  It’s very hard for you to write a story about, wow, this thing really works good.

And just to take the federal government as an example, every day I’ve got 2 million people who work for the federal government — whether in our military, our law enforcement, our environmental protection, et cetera — and they’re doing great work.  And you rely on it in all kinds of ways, including when you check the weather, because you can thank the National Weather Service for putting satellites up so your smartphones tell you whether to bring an umbrella or not.  But we just take that for granted.

And if, out of those 2 million employees, one person screws up somewhere — which every day you can count on somebody out of 2 million people probably doing something they shouldn’t be doing — that’s what’s going to get reported on.  Now, that helps keeps government on its toes and accountable.  But one of the things we have to think about is how do we tell a story about the things we do together that actually work so that people don’t feel so cynical overall.

But look, here’s the bottom line, is that — let’s take the political process.  As cynical as everybody is, and everybody is always trying to come up with these radical new plans to try to fix our democracy, and we need to do this and we need to do that — the truth is, is that part of the reason why our government doesn’t work as well is because in a good presidential year, slightly more than half the people vote who are eligible, and the other half don’t.  And during an off-year election, when the President is not at the top of the ticket, and people aren’t getting as much attention, 40 percent of the people vote.

Now, this system doesn’t work if people opt out.  And the easiest cure, the simplest cure for what ails our democracy is everybody voting.  Now, it’s true that there are some states that purposely make it hard for people to vote.  We’re the only major democracy in the world that actively makes it hard for people to vote.  And so you should be, particularly in your student newspapers, as you go back to your home states, you should be asking why is it that we have laws that are purposely making it harder for people to vote, purposely making it harder for young people to vote.

And there’s a political agenda there.  The people in power don’t want things to change.  They want cynicism, because obviously the existing system, as frustrating as it is for everybody else, works for them.  Well, if you want to upend that, we’ve got to vote.

But even in those states that purposely make it harder to vote, the truth of the matter is, on your college campuses, half the folks, maybe two-thirds of the folks who don’t vote don’t vote because they’re just not paying attention.  They don’t consider it important.  And they’re not willing to take the 15 minutes or half hour that it takes to make sure that you’re registered and make sure you actually vote.

Well, if you care about climate change, you care about college costs, you care about career opportunities, you care about war and peace and refugees, you can’t just complain.  You’ve got to vote.  And what’s interesting is, is young people as a voting bloc are the least likely to vote, but when you do vote, have the biggest impact on elections.

During a presidential year, young people account for like 19 percent of the total vote.  During an off-year election, when folks aren’t paying as much attention, they account for 12 percent.  And that means that the kinds of candidates that get elected and the priorities that they reflect are entirely different, just based on whether or not you guys are going to the polls.

So don’t let people tell you that what you do doesn’t matter.  It does.  Don’t give away your power.  That should be the main message that you deliver all the time.  And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, Democratic, independent; whether you’re conservative on some issues, liberal on others.  If you participate and you take the time to be informed about the issues, and you actually turn out and your peers turn out, you change the country.  You do.  It may not always happen as fast as you’d like, but you’ll change it.

So I’ll keep on talking about this even after I leave the presidency.  You got me started.  I went on a rant, didn’t I?  (Laughter.)

All right.  So I’m counting on you guys.  Don’t let me down, all right?  Don’t let the country down.  You guys are going to be delivering the message to your peer group that this is the greatest country on Earth, but only because we have great citizens who are willing to invest their time and energy and effort to become informed on the issues, to argue about it in a respectful way, and to try to collectively solve the many challenges that we face.

The good news is, is that there are no challenges, as JFK said, that “man creates that man can’t solve.”  I would add women to that.  (Laughter.)

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