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The Power of Gerrymandering

The Power of Gerrymandering February 7, 2013

With demographic realities making Republican wins at the polls less and less likely, their electoral strategy has been a two-pronged one: 1) voter suppression tactics to keep as many Democratic voters from the polls as possible, and 2) gerrymandering congressional districts to isolate Democratic voters and create safe Republican seats. The first part didn’t work out all that well in 2012, but the gerrymandering has been a huge success, as Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium documents.

Through artful drawing of district boundaries, it is possible to put large groups of voters on the losing side of every election. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based political group dedicated to electing state officeholders, recently issued a progress report on Redmap, its multiyear plan to influence redistricting. The $30 million strategy consists of two steps for tilting the playing field: take over state legislatures before the decennial Census, then redraw state and Congressional districts to lock in partisan advantages. The plan was highly successful…

We can calculate each state’s appropriate seat breakdown — in other words, how a Congressional delegation would be constituted if its districts were not contorted to protect a political party or an incumbent. We do this by randomly picking combinations of districts from around the United States that add up to the same statewide vote total. Like a fantasy baseball team, a delegation put together this way is not constrained by the limits of geography. On a computer, it is possible to create millions of such unbiased delegations in short order. In this way, we can ask what would happen if a state had districts that were typical of the rest of the nation.

In North Carolina, where the two-party House vote was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican, the average simulated delegation was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The actual outcome? Four Democrats, nine Republicans — a split that occurred in less than 1 percent of simulations. If districts were drawn fairly, this lopsided discrepancy would hardly ever occur…

Gerrymandering is not hard. The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as “packing.” Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, “cracking” opposition groups into many districts. Professionals use proprietary software to draw districts, but free software like Dave’s Redistricting App lets you do it from your couch.

So how well does this strategy work to make the outcome of congressional elections not fit with the overall popular vote? Incredibly well.

We can quantify this effect using three different methods. First, Democrats would have had to win the popular vote by 7 percentage points to take control of the House the way that districts are now (assuming that votes shifted by a similar percentage across all districts). That’s an 8-point increase over what they would have had to do in 2010, and a margin that happens in only about one-third of Congressional elections.

Second, if we replace the eight partisan gerrymanders with the mock delegations from my simulations, this would lead to a seat count of 215 Democrats, 220 Republicans, give or take a few.

Third, gerrymandering is a major form of disenfranchisement. In the seven states where Republicans redrew the districts, 16.7 million votes were cast for Republicans and 16.4 million votes were cast for Democrats. This elected 73 Republicans and 34 Democrats. Given the average percentage of the vote it takes to elect representatives elsewhere in the country, that combination would normally require only 14.7 million Democratic votes. Or put another way, 1.7 million votes (16.4 minus 14.7) were effectively packed into Democratic districts and wasted.

Yes, Democrats have done it too, but not nearly as often and not nearly as effectively. This is why the drawing of congressional districts should be out of the hands of elected officials and political parties.

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