In the New York Times, Sam Wang has an essay under the headline, “The Great Gerrymander of 2012“. In it, he outlines the results of a method aimed at estimating the partisan seat allocation of the US House if there were no gerrymandering.
His method proceeds “by randomly picking combinations of districts from around the United States that add up to the same statewide vote total” to simulate an “unbiased” allocation. He concludes:
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.
Then, rather buried within the middle of the piece is this note about 2012:
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.
In other words, even without gerrymandering, the House would have experienced a plurality reversal, just a less severe one. The actual seat breakdown is currently 201D, 234R. In other words, by Wang’s calculations, gerrymandering cost the Democrats seats equivalent to about 3.2% of the House. Yes, that is a lot, but it is just short of the 3.9% that is the full difference between the party’s actual 201 and the barest of majorities (218). But, actually, the core problem derives from the electoral system itself. Or, more precisely, an electoral system designed to represent geography having to allocate a balance of power among organizations that transcend geography–national political parties.
Normally, with 435 seats and the 49.2%-48.0% breakdown of votes that we had in 2012, we should expect the largest party to have about 230 seats.1 Instead it won 201. That deficit between expectation and reality is equivalent to 6.7% of the House, suggesting that gerrymandering cost the Democrats just over half the seats that a “normally functioning” plurality system would have netted it.
However, the “norm” here refers to two (or more) national parties without too much geographic bias to where those parties’ voters reside. Only if the geographic distribution is relatively unbiased does the plurality system work for its supposed advantage in partisan systems: giving the largest party a clear edge in political power (here, the majority of the House). Add in a little bit of one big party being over-concentated, and you can get situations in which the largest party in votes is under-represented, and sometimes not even the largest party in seats.
As I have noted before, plurality reversals are inherent to the single-seat district, plurality, electoral system, and derive from inefficient geographic vote distributions of the plurality party, among other non-gerrymandering (as well as non-malaportionment) factors. Moreover, they seem to have happened more frequently in the USA than we should expect. While gerrymandering may be part of the reason for bias in US House outcomes, reversals such as occurred in 2012 can happen even with “fair” districting. Wang’s simulations show as much.
The underlying problem is, again, because all the system really does is represent geography: which party’s candidate gets the most votes here, there, and in each district? And herein lies the big transformation in the US electoral and party systems over recent decades, compared to the party system that was in place in the “classic” post-war system: it is no longer as much about local representation as it once was, and is much more about national parties with distinct and polarized positions on issues.
Looking at the relationship between districts and partisanship, John Sides, in the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog, says “Gerrymandering is not what’s wrong with American politics.” Sides turns the focus directly on partisan polarization, showing that almost without regard to district partisanship, members of one party tend to vote alike in recent congresses. The result is that when a district (or, in the Senate, a state) swings from one party to another, the voting of the district’s membership jumps clear past the median voter from one relatively polarized position to the other.
Of course, this is precisely the point Henry Droop made in 1869, and that I am fond of quoting:
As every representative is elected to represent one of these two parties, the nation, as represented in the assembly, appears to consist only of these two parties, each bent on carrying out its own programme. But, in fact, a large proportion of the electors who vote for the candidates of the one party or the other really care much more about the country being honestly and wisely governed than about the particular points at issue between the two parties; and if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.
Both the essays by Wang and by Sides, taken together, show ways in which the single-seat district, plurality, electoral system simply does not work for the USA anymore. It is one thing if we really are representing district interests, as the electoral system is designed to do. But the more partisan a political process is, the more the functioning of democracy would be improved by an electoral system that represents how people actually divide in their partisan preferences. The system does not do that. It does even less well the more one of the major parties finds its votes concentrated in some districts (e.g. Democrats in urban areas). Gerrymandering makes the problem worse still, but the problem is deeper: the uneasy combination of a geography-based electoral system and increasingly distinct national party identities.
- Based on the seat-vote equation. [↩]