Friday, October 5, 2012

Q Day 2: Gerrymandering

Jacob H. asks:
Are there any alternatives to gerrymandering? Making political geography the domain of elected state legislatures seems like a recipe for trouble...
Are there alternatives? Sure. The big one would be to get away from single-member districts. It's certainly possible for states to elect all Members of the House, for example, at-large, the way that Senators are elected. Sure, that would be goofy in a state the size of California, but you could do it. Or you could have a proportional representation scheme.

But if you stick to single-member districts...if gerrymandering is simply drawing district lines for political reasons, then yes, we're stuck with some sort of gerrymandering. The main point that I'd make (following Bruce Cain) which I think people don't adequately realize is that even neutral-sounding rules generally have very predictable political outcomes, and in a world in which political operatives know that, a fight over whether or not to have neutral rules will almost always be a disguised political fight.

I should explain that, perhaps...we all know that voters are not randomly distributed, correct? It's not only possible, but certain that any particular set of criteria -- say, that districts should be "compact" and that they should respect county lines when possible -- will have a predictable partisan effect. Since both parties have experts, they'll both have run simulations and will know whether those criteria help or hurt them, and then (generally) choose their position based on what will help them.

That said: most gerrymanders are not partisan gerrymanders (which maximize seats for one party), but bipartisan gerrymanders, which protect incumbents from both parties. And most estimates of the total effects of redistricting tend to be relatively low, at least compared to any plausible geography-based districting; claims that gerrymandering drives partisanship are knocked down by partisanship in the White House and the Senate.

On the whole, I'm in favor of more competitive districts than fewer. Partisan gerrymandering tends to be better for that than bipartisan gerrymandering (because incumbent politicians are happy to have 90% districts that "waste" lots of votes for their party. And yes, I know the argument that bipartisan gerrymandering has the benefit of making most voters very happy with their representative -- since everyone lives in very partisan districts -- but I think it's outweighed by voter interest in having at least a fair number of representatives who have to worry about re-election). Still, a large part of the answer is that it's less of a problem than many suppose it is.

(Updated for word-level typos, whatever the word for that is)


  1. Interesting point about how states can do at-large elections for all House members. Why haven't any Tom Delay-like politicos tried to push that in states that lean heavily to one party? The majority party incumbents could all keep their spots in Congress and the party in control would pick up even more seats. Seems win-win for those in power.

    1. Wouldn't there be one-man, one-vote problems? A guy in TX, his vote elects 38 Representatives, but a guy in Montana's only elects 1. (The Senate dodges this because the compromise that gave us the Senate is written into the Constitution).

  2. If most post-2010 redistricting was of the "protect all incumbents" variety, it may have been largely because the Republicans got almost the maximum number of seats they could plausibly get in 2010, and the GOP-controlled state legislatures were mostly more concerned about keeping them than about trying for still higher numbers if that would even slightly endanger any of their incumbents.

    In those states where the Republicans did feel they could do still better in the House, their maps definitely were not "protect all incumbents." (Georgia, North Carolina, Utah.) Likewise, in the few cases where Democrats controlled the legislatures and felt Republicans were vulnerable, the maps did not protect GOP incumbents (Illinois, Maryland).

  3. 2nd to last para: do you mean gerrymander when you say filibuster?

    I'm not sure a proportional representation scheme would pass muster. And courts have shown a significant bias against at-large districts, not just for population deviation, but because the system seems relatively likely to result in penalizing minorities. (In fact, that, and incumbent protection, was the primary reason at-large seats were used over the years, particularly in the 1920s-1960s).

    Where's Buchler to defend his cockamamie scheme?

  4. (Updated for word-level typos, whatever the word for that is)

    Among English profs, it's "sentence-level" corrections or edits. But maybe most readers wouldn't recognize the meaning.

    1. Or just: "Typos fixed." (Everoyne hatess tpyos.)

  5. The reason to avoid outrageous gerrymandering isn't for partisan reasons, but, I think, because of the idea of a community of interest. Certainly other places that have single member districts (the UK being the one I'm most familiar with) manage to divide them up in ways that correspond to traditional borders, while also having them be roughly the same size. This seems preferable, even if it helps one party more than the other.


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