Gerrymandering Isn’t the (Only) Problem

Redrawing district lines will never eliminate the unfair bias toward Republicans in House elections. Here’s what will.

Rob Richie

Under the winner-take-all system, Republicans are stampeding Democrats in House representation, despite voters' wishes. (DonkeyHotey / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Democrats had a very good 2012 election. In the presidential race, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes and nearly five million popular votes. Republicans won only eight Senate races, the worst performance for a major party in Senate races since the 1950s.

The Republican victory in the 2012 House elections isn't explained by the relatively few seats they gained through gerrymandering.

In House races, Democratic candidates won about a million more votes nationwide than Republicans. After controlling for factors like vote inflation for incumbents and uncontested races, the data suggests voters generally preferred Democrats for Congress by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, underscored by the fact that not a single Democrat lost in the 181 most Democratic districts. And despite widespread popular concern about Congress being too polarized, losing incumbents came heavily from the moderate wings of both parties.

Yet Republicans won a comfortable majority of 234 to 201 seats. That disparity in voter preference compared to seats did not result from ticket-splitting; there were only 24 districts in which one party’s nominee carried the presidential vote and the other party’s nominee won the congressional race. The real problem for Democrats was that in a year in which Barack Obama won a decisive presidential election victory, he apparently carried only 207 of 435 congressional districts.

The results were so incongruous that many commentators have identified structure as the likely explanation. At my organization, FairVote, we welcome attention to structure, given that its centrality is too often overlooked in explaining election outcomes and parties’ policy preferences. In this case, however, the great majority of analysts utterly missed the real story. Again and again, they suggested that the problem was the Republican-controlled redistricting process in 2011-2012. By naming the wrong cause of the distorted election results, they miss what is most in need of reform.

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Among many examples of this line of thinking, the Daily Kos identified redistricting as the reason for the Republican victory pure and simple.” Mother Jones published a much-shared investigative report that suggested Republicans won because they drew the lines.” Think Progress described Republican gerrymandering as a simple explanation for how this happened.” Slate published an article called How Ridiculous Gerrymanders Saved the House Republican Majority.” The Brennan Center touted the use of independent redistricting as the way to ensure ordinary citizens [have] their voices heard.”

All of those claims are, at best, highly misleading. They’re not wrong that partisan gerrymandering is a problemit is, as FairVote has argued for yearsbut in suggesting that gerrymandering is sufficient to explain why the Democrats unjustly lost the House this year, why Congress is so dysfunctional and why most Americans live in no-choice congressional districts.

The distortion between voter intent and outcome and the reduction of centrist legislators has relatively little to do with how redistricting was done in 2011 compared with the very fact of districting itself. One of the people to get that part of the story right was Hendrik Herzberg in a must-read commentary in the New Yorker. Hertzberg wrote:

Gerrymandering routinely gets blamed for such mismatches, but that’s only part of the story. Far more important than redistricting is just plain districting: because so many Democrats are city folk, large numbers of Democratic votes pile up redundantly in overwhelmingly one-sided districts.”

To be sure, Republicans certainly benefitted from redistricting, as FairVote demonstrated in its analysis this summer. They controlled the redistricting process in many large states, and won several more seats this year than they would have otherwise as a result.

But the Republican victory in the 2012 House elections isn’t explained by the relatively few seats they gained through gerrymandering. Although 52 percent of voters at the polls had an underlying preference for Democrats, Democrats won only 46 percent of seats. As a result, Republicans won fully 25 more seats than they would have if the outcome had been reflective of voter preference.

Nor can gerrymandering explain the dramatic collapse of congressional moderates, who typically are mmbers elected in districts leaning toward the other major party. With only 10 members set to represent districts that favor the opposing party by more than 52 percent to 48 percent, the nation’s substantial bloc of centrist voters will be even more woefully underrepresented than Democrats.

There was another factor at play, almost entirely ignored by most pundits. It is the real root of the representation problem in our country and could be changed by a simple federal statute: winner-take-all elections. That fact may seem inconvenient or disruptive to how people think about our democracy, but it can no longer be seriously disputed. It’s time to stop living in a world of delusion about how our elections work.

The real problem at the root of the Democratic demographic disadvantage is the statutory decision to elect House Members exclusively through single-seat, winner-take-all elections. Democratic candidates win by huge margins in many urban and suburban districts, while Republicans win by smaller but still very safe margins in many more districts. The differences are stark. Democrats represent 47 districts with a partisanship of more than 70-30 percent in their favor, while Republicans represent only 23 such districts. Of the 16 districts with a partisan split of at least 80-20 percent, Democrats represent 15.

The best way to remove the structural unfairness inherent in the current House of Representatives is to get rid of winner-take-all elections. FairVote has a plan to do just that, grounded in our Constitution and American electoral traditions. The first requirement is an act of Congress. The more ambitious plan would be for Congress to prohibit winner-take-all elections in all states that elect more than one House Member. A more modest step would be to repeal the congressional mandate for states to use single-member districts that was established in a 1967 law.

These voting methods have already proven their effectiveness in our local elections and, in their one sustained use, in state legislative elections in Illinois. Choice voting, our preferred system, has been used in more than two dozen American cities and is currently used for at least one local or national election in Australia, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Switching to fair voting would balance congressional elections between the parties. Under the current system, there are 195 seats that favor Republicans by at least 54% to 46%, but only 166 seats that favor Democrats at that level of safety. Under the fair voting plans for the U.S. House, there would be 195 Republican-leaning seats, 192 Democratic-leaning seats and 42 seats that would regularly swing between the parties. And while the major parties would usually win the seats leaning their way, voters would have credible general election options within their party of preference as well as among third parties and independents.

As a result, fair voting plans for the U.S. Congress would make every super district” competitive, with all voters able to participate in congressional elections that would not be predetermined by district partisanship. Both Democrats in Republican districts and Republicans in Democratic districts who are now essentially disenfranchised by winner-take-all elections would have real chances to help elect a representative. In fact, every single super district would likely elect at least one Republican and one Democrat in our plan, with a more representative mix of voices elected within the parties as well as between them.

Representation would broaden in other ways as well. Independents and third parties would have a real chance to hold the major parties accountable, better reflecting the rising number of voters who choose to register to vote as independents or outside the two party structure. As we explain in our new Representation 2020 campaign, representation of women would likely soar because of greater incentives for more women running and winning - of the 11 states that use at least some multi-seat districts for electing their state legislatures, 6 are in the top 10 in representation of women. Racial minorities would almost certainly win in far more areas of the nationour analysis of the six southern states running from North Carolina to Mississippi, for example, shows that the number of African American voters in a position to elect a candidate of choice would more than double in every one of those states under fair voting, and more candidates preferred by African American voters would win seats.

Although congressional Republicans earn a partisan advantage under current rules, it’s not necessarily good for their party. Unlike what would be possible in a fair voting system, Republicans can only win in certain areas of the country. As they become more and more reliant on these strongholds, their presidential candidates become less successful in being able to build support in Democratic areas where more voters live.

As a result, the identity of the Republican party at the national level has become more closely associated with positions that today seem to be a minority view among Americans in presidential elections. Since 1988, Republicans have only won the popular vote in a single presidential election, when George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004. It may be no accident that Republicans took over the House in 1994 with an approach that represented a turn to the right for the party’s national image. For the party to evolve with the times, it would help them to have the opportunity to contest and win seats everywhere in the country. But that broadening of their tent won’t happen easily if we continue to elect Congress with a single-member district, winner-take-all electoral system.

Fair voting and multi-member districts are fully constitutional. For the first half-century of congressional elections, at least one stateand usually many moreelected House members in statewide elections. The movement to single-member districts was ironically driven by the goal of partisan fairness, avoiding distortions from the use of statewide winner-take-all elections. We know today from the experiences of fair voting systems at a local level, in Illinois state legislative elections and in most democracies around the world that fair voting methods provide a far more reliable means of accomplishing that goal.

Excerpted from FairVote with permission. Read the rest here.

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Rob Richie is the president of FairVote and a frequent contributor to many leading newspapers and television news programs. He is co-author of Every Vote Equal and Whose Votes Count.
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