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The convenient scapegoat of gerrymandering

Gerrymandering frequently, and wrongly, gets the blame for government dysfunction.

This 1812 political cartoon mocked the “monstrous” shape of a Massachusetts district drawn to help the Democratic-Republicans. Elkanah Tisdale/public domain

Gerrymandering is back in the news and being blamed for all sorts of ills, from distorting representation to creating government dysfunction. Barack Obama is even considering devoting his political talents to addressing the evils of redistricting. But in fact, much of this concern is overstated and misguided.

In a recent PostEverything post, David Daley argued that gerrymandering is responsible for Congress’s intransigent Freedom Caucus, which instigated a government shutdown a few years ago and helped scuttle the American Health Care Act last week:

The 40 members of the Freedom Caucus represent such safe Republican districts that the only threat they fear is a primary challenge from a conservative further to their right. Republican redistricting guaranteed the GOP a near-lock on the House after the 2010 Census — but it also created a nearly ungovernable caucus. They gerrymandered themselves into this predicament.

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In 2016, fewer than three dozen of the 435 House seats were considered competitive. Trump’s tweets might move the stock price of Fortune 500 corporations, but they can’t influence politicians that secure. Nothing can. This is how gerrymandering distorts democracy. When district lines are drawn to elect only members of one party, a different kind of politician gets sent to Washington.

Daley is correct that the Freedom Caucus members emanate from highly Republican districts that are unlikely to elect a Democrat, or even a moderate Republican, for the foreseeable future. Members representing such districts know that compromising with Democrats, even if good for the country, is anathema to their voters and toxic to their careers. This undoubtedly makes governing the country harder.

But to ascribe this situation to gerrymandering is to miss much larger issues about polarization. As several political science studies have shown, polarization is occurring regardless of redistricting. What’s more, even competitive districts are producing pretty polarized legislators.

To take just one example, look at the presidential voting patterns by congressional district between 2012 and 2016. No redistricting occurred between those two elections. Yet the districts polarized. Districts that voted for Obama in 2012 voted about 0.5 percent more for Clinton in 2016, while those that voted for Romney voted about 1.5 percent more for Trump.

The table below divides up congressional districts by their votes for president across the two elections. The number of competitive districts (as determined by those in which the presidential candidates’ two-party votes were within 10 points of each other) dropped from 86 to 74. Meanwhile, the number of severely uncompetitive districts (those in which one party’s presidential candidate won by more than 40 points) grew from 85 to 118.

Presidential Votes by Congressional District, 2012-16

Competitiveness 2012 2016
Competitiveness 2012 2016
Districts won by fewer than 10 points 86 74
Districts won by more than 40 points 85 118

Redistricting had nothing to do with this. This is more a function of districts polarizing by other means, including voters sorting themselves ideologically. In particular, as David Wasserman noted a few years ago, the urban/rural divide is becoming more partisan and more prominent in American politics.

This tends to have a deleterious effect on Democratic representation. The most ideologically lopsided districts are more likely to be Democratic than Republican today. This means that Democratic districts are more likely to have “wasted” votes, defined as votes above a simple majority of the district. Maxine Waters got 76 percent of the vote in her district in 2016, but she really only needed the votes that got her to 50 percent. The rest might have been useful to other Democrats in close House races, but that didn’t happen due to the compression of Democratic voters in urban districts.

To think of another example, here’s Colorado’s first congressional district, represented for the past two decades by Democrat Diana DeGette. That district contains the entirety of Denver plus a few neighboring suburbs. Given its urban character, the district is unsurprisingly heavily Democratic — DeGette won with 68 percent of the vote last year. That’s simply who lives in Denver.

Is this gerrymandering? That depends on your point of view. If gerrymandering means the creation of any noncompetitive district, then sure, that describes Colorado’s First District. (It also describes Wyoming.) But that district also constitutes an identifiable community. You could make it more competitive by excluding some urban voters from it and including some from more distant rural communities, but then you’d be breaking apart the community. Denver would not be picking its own representative in Congress. Is that better? Arguably, that would be the gerrymander — stitching together unrelated communities and breaking apart urban representation for the sake of some other political goal.

As Jonathan Ladd has written, gerrymandering is not a very useful concept in itself. Redistricting is just a process that weighs competing values, including but not limited to compactness, competitiveness, preserving communities of interest, and racial representation. If representing particular communities and geographical areas is important, then the resulting districts will likely include many that aren’t competitive. There’s nothing villainous about this; people are just more likely than they used to be to live near people who vote like they do.

One final point: As suggested above, polarization is occurring more between redistrictings than during them. But beyond that, not every redistricting is designed to increase polarization. When a state draws new plans that make every district safer for its incumbent, that can marginally increase polarization. A state legislature may choose such a plan when it has divided partisan control or when it is controlled by a different party than the governor. It’s easy to pass such a plan because it makes all the politicians happy.

But states under one-party control don’t necessarily choose such a plan. Their approach is often to increase the number of seats held by the majority party. To do that, they’ll often spread out majority party voters among several districts to make those districts more competitive. This undermines polarization. It often makes districts more competitive.

The bottom line is that efforts to substantially change redistricting aren’t likely to do much to either mitigate polarization or improve Democrats’ electoral fortunes. There may be other ways to do both, but focusing on redistricting reform is likely to be a large waste of time and effort.

(Thanks to Christina Wolbrecht and William Adler for some links and ideas.)