Thursday, November 11, 2004

Gerrymandering? Chill, Dude.

Instapundit & Prof. Bainbridge are concerned about Gerrymandering:

Glen tells us: "This is a real problem." Professor Bainbridge believes that eliminating gerrymandering is the "single most important electoral reform."

I can certainly understand the opposition to gerrymandering. It can, if done correctly, manufacture a few more seats for one party or the other than they might otherwise have achieved if the district lines were set based on some geographic or just random basis. But true gerrymandering has been dead since Reynolds v. Simms required districts to each have proportionate populations within each state. As such, you can't simply throw all the Democrats into one district and give the rest to Republicans. Nope. Now all you can do is fool around with the percentages of reliable Democrat voters in a particular district. The problem that you run into there is the same problem that pollsters run into: who is a 'likely voter'? Hard to say. Both the partisan composition of a state and the partisan composition of voters in any particular election are variable. Hence you're faced with the infamous vote/seat curve.

Let's assume the following partisan distribution in the state: Republicans 45% Democrats 55%. I can gerrymander more seats for the Republican party, by distributing the number of Democratic voters (using historical data) across the districts such that they, theoretically, do not constitute more than 50% in at least some seats and possibly even a majority of seats. However, given that distribution, I have to create alot of districts where the theoretical difference in the district is a *bare* Republican majority. Well, so what, you say. Our election system is first-past-the-post, hence you only need to win a plurality of the votes. Who cares how much the loser gets? Well, the problem stems from that original assumption. As I said, the partisan distribution of voters in any election is variable. It doesn't swing wildly, but it can easily shift 3-6 points from one election to the next.

So what if the Republicans have a bad turnout election? Well, whereas I *could* have guaranteed the Republicans a couple of seats no matter what happens with whether or not they win *any* seats depends on our turnout model being accurate. If it isn't and the Republicans underperform, even by a percent or two, it could mean they win no seats, despite having 45% support in the state. Which is to say that the *more* seats I attempt to gerrymander for X party, the *more* susceptible the seats are to *small* changes in the electoral turnout. The notion that you can use a computer to create a bunch of seats that your party will win by huge margins, thwarting the will of the state's citizens is simply a myth. You can create fewer seats with larger margins, or more seats with smaller margins, but it is ALL bounded by the partisan distribution of the electorate, and it is very suceptible to the shifts that occur in every election.

Why is all this important? Well, it means that most gerrymandering occurs, as I said, at the margins. I can't make a state with 25% Republican voters into a majority Republican state. The reason that Tom Delay's gerrymandering in Texas was so successfull was that the partisan distribution of the electorate has shifted radically to the Republicans in the last decade or two. In 1980, 21 out of 26 seats belonged to the Democrats in Texas. In 1996, there were 16 out of 30 seats held by Democrats in Texas. That happened even though the Democrats still controlled the Texas state house. Democrats were able to protect a few seats through gerrymandering, but only a few. The Texas Democrats could no more stem the Republican tide in the state through gerrymandering than John Kerry could have won the election by challenging 'fraudulent' election returns. There's only so much juice you can squeeze out of that orange.

So take a step back from all the hyperventilating and look at the partisan distribution of seats from the various states and match it against what we know about the partisan distribution of voters in those states. It is pretty darn close. Republicans got about 52% of the popular Congressional vote. They control 53% of the seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans increasingly dominate the South and Midwest, where Republican voters have grown as a percentage of the voting population. The Democrats dominate the two coasts, for the same reason. City seats tend to be represented by Democrats, while rural seats tend to be represented by Republicans. Where are the massive disparities between the distribution of voters and the distribution of seats? I don't see it out there.

And then comes the question of exactly how do you draw lines without allowing legislators to have an input into the process? Independent commission? Please. Does anyone believe they will be any less partisan than the supposed 'independent' commissions we have now? Judges? Yeah, they're not partisan at all. District lines have to be drawn. Redistricting has to occur after each decinial census. It seems to me you need a better empirical argument than what we've seen to justify taking this out of the hands of the people's representatives: the legislatures of the various states.

As for Broder's concerns, a professional legislature was a must in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Congressional careers have responded to the increasing demands for expertise and experience in legislatures operating in a modern world. The institutionalization of Congress is something to be lauded, not decried. Who would you prefer the distribution of power sit with in Washington? Your career politician, who must stand for re-election and be responsive to his constitutents...or the career bureaucrat who is beholden to no one except the agency in which he resides? Besides, I've heard this whole notion that the partisan distribution of the House was permanent due to gerrymandering before. It was in the 1980's when it was Republicans who were whining about it. And heck, at least they had 40 years of Democratic control to point to. And we all see how that turned out. The Republicans took the House *despite* the fact that Democrats controlled most state legislatures at the time and despite the fact that partisan gerrymandering was as much in play then as it is today.

And by the way, the *biggest* gerrymander in the United States is not found in the House of Representatives. It is in the U.S. Senate, where a state like Rhode Island has just as many senators as California or Texas. Are you also calling to reapportion Senate seats according to population as well? Based on some equi-populous division of the electorate created by some 'independent' commission? No thanks. I'll stick with the old tried and true...even if does mean that a party pulls of a few shannanigans every now and again.


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