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Nov 20 2012

The Effects of Gerrymandering

After the Republicans took control of most of the state legislatures in the Tea Party tidal wave of 2010, they had control over the post-census redistricting process and they worked hard to draw those seats to gain maximum political advantage. Adam Serwer points out that it worked brilliantly:

The votes are still being counted, but as of now it looks as if Democrats have a slight edge in the popular vote for House seats, 49 percent-48.2 percent, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Still, as the Post’s Aaron Blake notes, the 233-195 seat majority the GOP will likely end up with represents the GOP’s “second-biggest House majority in 60 years and their third-biggest since the Great Depression.”…

After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three-quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they’ll take only 5 out of the state’s 14 congressional seats.

This isn’t just a Republican thing. Democrats do it too:

Republicans point to Illinois and Maryland as examples of Democrats playing the same game, and it is true that Democrats in those states drew maps favorable to their interests. In Maryland, Democrats got 62 percent of the combined vote in House races and 88 percent of the congressional seats; in Illinois they won 54 percent of the vote and about two-thirds of the congressional seats.

Which is why redistricting should not be done by the legislature at all. It should be done by an independent commission with clear standards for how a district should be drawn. When you see districts like this, it’s patently clear that it’s not based on any criteria other than what is best for the party in control.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Michael Heath

    I agree an independent body needs to draw districts, but I don’t see that solving the bigger problem of our votes not enjoying equal weight. A constitutional amendment that required people’s votes to be equally weighted for a given level of government is becoming increasingly obvious. E.g., popular vote for president, representation in the Senate based on population of the state, and U.S. representative districts requiring very close to the same population.

    It wouldn’t be practical to go to the lowest level of government, say to the township level within county government entities, but it should be optimal policy down to the districts for state legislators.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    A constitutional amendment that required people’s votes to be equally weighted for a given level of government is becoming increasingly obvious.

    I thought we already had that for US House districts. As long as all House districts contain a roughly equal number of people, then the current gerrymandering schemes are perfectly legal. The problem is that a state’s ruling party is still able to redraw district borders at will to arrange for their own supporters to be united within each district, and for their opponents to be divided.

    I agree with Ed that House districts (and state lege districts for that matter) should be determined by an agency roughly as independent as, say, the Fed; with open proceedings and significant opportunities for other groups to challenge their plans and offer alternatives. (Granted, the latter feature could result in challenges that paralyze and degrade the former feature.)

  3. 3
    scienceavenger

    Keep in mind too there is a danger in gerrymandering if the party in charge gets too greedy and makes too many favorable districts with small margins. A slight shift in the vote from expectations can result in catastrophic losses. 2014 can’t come soon enough.

  4. 4
    Michael Heath

    Raging Bee writes:

    I thought we already had that for US House districts. As long as all House districts contain a roughly equal number of people, then the current gerrymandering schemes are perfectly legal.

    Well no, there’s a half-million person difference between the smallest and the largest district where the average is about 646,000 people per district. And I was arguing the districts shouldn’t “roughly equal” but more closely equal the population in other districts. To get a more equal vote that would require increasing the number of U.S. representatives as the population grows so one representative from a small-population state like Wyoming doesn’t enjoy disproportionate advantage like they do now.

  5. 5
    Eric Ressner

    Michael Heath @4:

    the average is about 646,000 people per district

    Actually, it’s a bit worse. According to the population clock at census.gov, the current population of the USA is 314,801,114. With 435 members of the House representing us, that’s an average of 723,680 per member.

    Raging Bee was right, of course: House districts are required by the Constitution to contain “a roughly equal number of people.” But MH objects that what we have now is too rough … not equal enough. So you’d have to decide (arbitrarily, I’d argue) how rough is equal enough and then construct a House that has enough members to guarantee that level of equality.

    As a starting point, note that if the population per member is greater than the population of the least populous state, that state will have disproportionately high representation. The current 50th state by population is Wyoming with 544,270. That would suggest 314,801,114 ÷ 544,270 or 578.4 representatives: 143.4 more than we have now. And that still does not guarantee roughly equal representation using any arbitrary definition of roughly equal. Does anyone believe that having a (much) larger House would improve anyone’s lives? (That’s a sincere question. My answer would be no, but I can’t answer for anyone else.)

    There are other apportionment schemes that have been suggested that would guarantee much more nearly equal representation without expanding the number of Reps. One would be to allow congressional districts to overlap state borders. This plan would make a nice equal H of R, but throw the electoral college into a tizzy. It would pretty much require electoral votes to be cast district-by-district rather than the winner-take-all system most states use now. And that would be a sheer nightmare given the current success of gerrymanders. And that would also require amending the Constitution.

    Another would be to give each member of the H of R a “weighted vote” equal to the number of people s/he represents. So the at-large Rep from Wyoming doesn’t cast one aye or nay, but 544,270. And likewise for all other Reps. Arguably, this would not require amending the Constitution, nor would it necessarily have a confounding effect on the electoral college. Rather, each state would be assigned the exact (in most cases, fractional) number of electors to which it’s entitled. For instance, Wyoming, instead of three electors, would have 2.7521 electors, one for each Sen and 0.7521 for its proportional piece of the nations’s 435 Reps. And as a final salubrious result of this method, Nate Silver wouldn’t have to change the name of his website. It could stay fivethirtyeight dot something.

  6. 6
    Raging Bee

    Heath: okay, if what you say is true (how wide is the gap between largest and smallest districts?), that’s a blatant violation of the “one person, one vote” rule. If the US wants to keep the same number of Reps, then ALL House districts have to be redrawn to include the SAME larger number of people represented per Rep.

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    Does anyone believe that having a (much) larger House would improve anyone’s lives?

    One could argue that less-populous House districts (as in, more Reps because each Rep would represent fewer people than they do now) would mean that candidates for House seats would have an easier time connecting to the people, and would need to spend considerably less money getting their messages out to far-flung electoral districts.

  8. 8
    Jordan Genso

    Eric Ressner (emphasis mine)

    Does anyone believe that having a (much) larger House would improve anyone’s lives?

    It’s obvious to the point that it need not be pointed out, but of course the new members of Congress (and their staffs/family/friends) would move up in life as a result.

    And with more and more money being spent on elections (arguably acting as economic stimulus), those receiving that money from even more elections would stand to have their lives improved.

    In no way is this an argument in favor of increasing the size of the House, but just a response to your question. I agree it would not benefit the political and/or governing processes within our country.

    In regards to the OP, I support the idea of first switching to a non-partisan redistricting process that minimizes human decisions to more objective measures (such as how many broken counties/townships/cities should be allowed) and then let a computer determine the optimal districts to achieve that goal.

    And since I now have this video loaded onto YouTube, I’ll once again post to it to show my experience in redistricting and trying to stop Gerrymandering at the local level:
    http://youtu.be/Bi9v2Bs3v4g
    (I’m the bearded one)

  9. 9
    aluchko

    “In Maryland, Democrats got 62 percent of the combined vote in House races and 88 percent of the congressional seats”

    This isn’t evidence of gerrymandering, in a first past the post system it’s expected that a small advantage in the vote should be greatly exaggerated in the number of seats held. In Canada with our multi-party system it’s common that a party with less than 40% of the vote will receive well over half of the seats.

  10. 10
    lpetrich

    Why not have multimember districts and proportional representation? That would solve this problem nicely.

  11. 11
    Michael Heath

    Eric Ressner asks (I think rhetorically):

    Does anyone believe that having a (much) larger House would improve anyone’s lives?

    Uh yeah, that was exactly what I proposed. I want my Congress-person’s vote to be equal and I want less people served per district. A lot of what a U.S. Representative’s office does is direct service to his districts’ constituents.

    Re my being slightly off on the numbers, I was using a Wikipedia site on apportionment and gerrymandering, which was using 2000 census data. I didn’t realize this was dated until I read your post, so thanks for the skepticism. However, my premises using 2000 data vs. 2010 data doesn’t change my conclusions because the numbers merely get a little larger, the differences between districts and the disproportionate votes a state like Wyoming gets remains effectively the same.

    I should also mention that another lightly populated state, like Montana, can get screwed while another small state like Wyoming enjoys the best level of representation. That’s if they have only enough for 1 representative and not enough for two. After the 2000 census they had the biggest ratio of population per their one representative.

  12. 12
    Peter B

    How about lose districts entirely?

    1) Ballot with many more names than congressional seats.
    2) Let b be the number of ballots cast and s be the number of seats.
    3) To get a seat one must have b/s votes.
    4) Votes may be transferred between candidates.

    Political parties will line up their candidates in order of votes received. Then push all the votes forward and spread them back as far as they will go. Thus political parties get representation based on the percentage of votes cast.

    Let’s pay attention to the needs of some geographic district or demographic. Force political parties to allow vote transferring between party members prior to the final vote spreading. Thus 3 candidates attempting to represent a mountain community have a chance to get one of their number seated.

    This gets messy when 50 candidates can not agree on how the transfer the remaining votes for the last one or two seats. My approach is to seat candidates with b/(s-0.5). This will result in about half a seat worth of votes being ignored. (The current system often ignores more than 30% of the votes.) If there is still no final resolution the 0.5 is gradually increased until all seats are filled.

    Gerrymandering should be a strange footnote for future students to ponder. I fear this approach is so reasonable that every politician will hate it.

  13. 13
    tacitus

    It’s all very well talking about new electoral schemes but it’s nothing more than an academic exercise given that the required constitutional changes are not going to happen under the current system.

    It’s far better to focus on the only two practical ways gerrymandering will end:

    1) Getting it declared unconstitutional by the SCOTUS.

    2) State-by-state efforts using ballot initiatives to get a ban on political gerrymandering into state constitutions.

    Both of these are uphill battles, but at least there is a chance of them succeeding one day.

  14. 14
    dsmccoy

    RagingBee #2

    The problem is that a state’s ruling party is still able to redraw district borders at will to arrange for their own supporters to be united within each district, and for their opponents to be divided.

    Actually, the math of Gerrymandering goes the other way. The majority party “unites” the minority party, packing them into as few districts as possible, which the minority then win with over 90% of the vote. Then they “divide” the parties in the rest of the districts so that the majority party candidates win their districts with a comfortable, but not excessive 65% of the vote. That way a state with a near even split of voters can end up with 80% of the seats going to one party.

  15. 15
    dsmccoy

    I agree with Tacitus that a major switch in electoral schemes is highly unlikely.

    And I wouldn’t put any money on the current SCOTUS ruling against gerrymandering, or highly invested state legislatures like Texas doing anything about it.

    I live in California and I mostly hate the ballot initiative process, but this is one case where the ballot initiative process actually worked.

    David Brin has an excellent post on the results of ending the gerrymander in California.
    He makes some excellent points, in particular how current gerrymandered districts and partisan primaries contribute to the high level of political polarization in the country.

    http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2012/11/gerrymandering-as-it-declines.html

  16. 16
    Ace of Sevens

    @Michael heath: Article V of the Constitution forbids amending it to give states weighted Senate representation without the consent of the states, which I take to mean such an amendment would need to be approved by all 50 states to be legal. This isn’t going to happen.

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