Gerrymandering, Again

The New York Times has jumped on the gerrymandering bandwagon.

Totalitarian nations hold elections, but what sets democracies apart is offering real choices in elections. In recent years, contests for the House of Representatives and state legislatures have looked more and more like the Iraqi election in 2002, when Saddam Hussein claimed 100 percent of the vote for his re-election.

In that same year in the United States, 80 of the 435 House races did not even include candidates from both major parties. Congressional races whose outcomes were in real doubt were a rarity: nearly 90 percent had a margin of victory of 10 percentage points or more. It is much the same at the state level, only worse. In New York, more than 98 percent of the state legislators who run for re-election win, usually overwhelmingly. Anyone who knows anything about New York’s state government knows that’s not because the populace is thrilled with the job they’re doing.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have:

…talk about domestic politics, and an unintended consequence of the information revolution – paralyzed legislative bodies, unable to come to grips with the real issues facing the various states and the nation and exempt from punishment by the electorate. That’s right, unless you are meaningfully accused of murder (Gary Condit), incumbency is essentially considered a property right these days.

There are a number of reasons, and I’ll focus here on one…reapportionment …[more]

18 thoughts on “Gerrymandering, Again”

  1. Not sure how to solve the problem, but perhaps some kind of computer program could be used, something to create random districts. I must admit I can’t think of much else.

  2. To compare democratic systems, the German system of proportional representation (half the representitives are directly elected, the rest are filled out from party lists) means that district boundaries don’t matter. Of course, a Bundestag backbencher has considerably less power than even a first-term member of Congress.

    Well, boundaries _almost_ don’t matter. The main reason the ex-communist PDS is no longer in the Bundestag is that one of their safe districts in Berlin was made unsafe by redistricting.

  3. Oh come on, Dave. Stop it, or I won’t open the pod bay doors.

    Gerrymandering has been around since the early 1800’s. Whoever has the majority in each state legislature gets to gerrymander. You don’t think that the California Assembly and Gray Davis didn’t gerrymander the California House delgation to ensure maximum Democratic Party Control of that state? Come on! Bitching about it now while Republicans have majorities does no good when liberals, beginning with the New York Times said not a word about it during the decades of Democratic control of the Hill.


  4. Dear A. L.:

    For any of your readers who are fans of proportional representation, one of the ends to which gerrymandering has been harnassed is proportional representation. In Illinois for example, the 4th district, currently represented by Luis Guitierrez, was at one time two blobs united by a strip one block wide expressly for the purpose of creating a Hispanic congressional district which would otherwise not be possible.

    I, for one, have no problem with gerrymandering. There is a dis-incentive: it can work against your party as surely as it can work for your party. What I do object to is hypocrisy. If you approve of gerrymandering in Illinois, don’t oppose it in Texas. Treat it as an exercise in power politics and don’t be petulant when it works against you.

  5. Dear A. L.:

    I neglected to mention a quotation attributed to the late Mayor Daley: one map drawer is worth a thousand precinct workers.

  6. section9, the California gerrymander is somewhat unusual, in that it protects incumbents of both parties. State law requires redistricting to pass the Legislature with a 2/3 vote.

    Gov. Schwarzenegger promises an anti-gerrymander initiative. My feeling is he should shop it in Texas first, and if they accept it, we should follow.

    My own two cents: ever since the Warren Court required equipopulated districts for the State Senate, it’s just an expensive duplicate of the Assembly. Why not convert the Upper House to P.R. and leave the Lower House as is?

  7. Andrew, that might sound like a good idea at first, but PR is bad because it gives parties too much power. You elect parties, not people, so expect party pandering even worse than the current system. And some parts of the state would be virtually ignored, because those who represent them are a small minority.

  8. I’m a Republican, and I am bitching about gerrymendering. yes, the republic has had it for 200+ years, but that does not change the fact that it is extremely pernicious, and just not healthy. Politicians ARE picking their voters, not the other way around, and computers are giving them the ability to do it much more effectively than ever before. And of course, it is incumbents, not any particular party, that benefit the most from this, thus making it all the more difficult to dislodge.

    As for fixing it, well, I have a great idea, which I would fight for country-wide if I had won that damn Mega-millions ticket, as I deserve to, of course.

    That is, constitutionally (amendment , I suppose) declaring that any congressional district border MUST be a county line. That doesn’t mean one rep for each county of course, as there are thousands of counties, just that whatever the border is, it must be an existing county line. If one county has a huge number of people (Cook, LA, NY), then the state legislature would divide the county. THAT might allow for gerrymandering, but the spirit of the law would be clear in those rare cases, and you have already reduced the problem by 90%, so I can live with it.

    This would…

    1) Reduce the bitter partisanship and polarization, as every candidate would be forced to move at least somewhat toward the middle, and have a much more diverse constituancy.

    2) Make congressional distict borders much more static, and less subject to incumbent whims.

    3) Foster closer relations between local (county) govern-ors and federal legislators, as they would all represent basically the same people.

    4) Make congresional races a real and living thing across the board.

    Congressmen would hate it. That maybe why it’s a good idea.

  9. Andrew X:

    Nice suggestion but it would accomplish nothing. The problem already is the partisanship of the state legislatures–they’re the ones who do the re-districting.

    Solutions are easy to come by and some wouldn’t even require constitutional amendments. For example, all elections could be at large. This would not require a constitutional amendment cf. Article I sections 2 and 4. Electors don’t have to be within congressional districts.

    My preference would be to reduce the incentives. For example, restore the Congress to the level of “representativeness” (forgive the neologism) it had at the framing. In 1790 every Congressman represented about 38,000 people. As of 2000 every Congressman represents about 680,000 people. If we had about 2,700 congressional districts rather than the current 435, the power of individual Congressmen would be vastly reduced and the difficulty of doing effective gerrymandering would be vastly decreased. This wouldn’t require a Constitutional amendment either.

    All of this is just fantasizing, of course. It is simply inconceivable that incumbents will do anything that would reduce the power of incumbents.

  10. But Dave, I beg to differ.


    I think a 2,700 seat Congress would be just way too unwieldly. You gotta have some kind of cap, and even if it were say, 600, you’d still have the same problem.

    If you did my idea as I wrote, state legislatures would be very dis-empowered EXCEPT in counties that require more than one congressional representative. As for the rest of them, the ONLY gerrymandering they could do would be to move, add, or subtract entire counties from various districts. No more of these Eldebridge Gerry’s salamander shaped districts that gave the process it’s name. yeah, they might move counties around to a certain end, but it would still be an ENOURMOUS dilution of legilslatures abilities to play these games.

    I don’t have number handy, but I’m guessing that if you added up all the congress people from districts that are less than one entire county… well, I’m guessing, but what, ten percent say? Now you’ve reduced the ability of the legislatures to do what we are condemning by 90%. Sounds like progress to me.

    And I’m sure you could formulate some way to deal with that latter 10%, but not off the top of my head. But I’ll take the 90%, no problem.

  11. Andrew X:

    Once again using Illinois as an example, in this state most of the gerrymandered districts are within Cook Country. I suspects this is the rule rather than the exception.

    On the subject of enlarging the House you write:

    I think a 2,700 seat Congress would be just way too unwieldly.

    You’re saying this as though it were a bad thing. The objective of representative democracy is not efficiency. It would be much more efficient if we eliminated that pesky legislature altogether.

    Seriously, though, take a look at the list of problems we have nowadays. Influence of lobbyists. Campaign finance issues. That abomination the “Continuity in Representation Act”. A significantly more representative Congress would solve all of these problems. Use modern technology to overcome some of the burden of the greater number of representatives. Keep the Congressmen in their home districts where they belong.

  12. Whoa.

    While I agree with your overall assessment, I don’t think the quotes from the first source support your contention.

    “80 of 435 House races” — that is a pretty low percentage.

    “nearly 90 percent had a margin of victory of 10 percentange points or more” How much of the 90 percent was 10 percent, and how much was “or more”? 10 percentage points is not that much. I’m confused on this claim. If the margin of victory “was only” 10 percentage points, I’d consider that a “good representation of voters.” To wit, if they are trying to spin that as a negative, I don’t see it.

  13. “Why not convert the Upper House to P.R. and leave the Lower House as is?”

    Why not admit that we screwed up and repeal the Seventeenth Amendment*? I suspect that a Senate controlled by the State legislatures would be much more amenable towards helping to keep the membership of the House more fluid.


    *Hey, everybody’s got a dead horse to beat: this one’s mine.

  14. Moe Lane:

    Why not admit that we screwed up and repeal the Seventeenth Amendment?

    Egads, yet another obscure issue on which we agree.

  15. FH: PR is bad because it gives parties too much power. You elect parties, not people, so expect party pandering even worse than the current system.

    That’s only true for closed-list systems. Open-list means you can vote for candidates, and each vote counts both for that candidate and for that party. The party gets the number of seats proportionally, and the seats go to the top vote-getters in that party.

    Besides, it would weaken the two big parties.

    FH: And some parts of the state would be virtually ignored, because those who represent them are a small minority.

    Less people would actually be ignored. Republicans in, say, District 14 in California have zero representation in Congress right now. Do you think Boxer, Feinstein, or Anna Eshoo actually ever listen to them?

    Under PR, minorities get represented proportionally. Emphasis moves away from geography (and thus, pork projects) and towards ideology. Coalitions need to be formed, but they would be done per-issue instead of per-election, and thus better reflect the views of the populace.

  16. There are solutions to the gerrymandering problem. Proportional representation is one, but there are also lots of single-member district systems that would work similarly to, but better then, our current plurality congressional elections, allowing moderate minor parties to run serious candidates and make gerrymandering much less effective. See my advocacy piece on Instant Runoff Voting at .

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