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On Gerrymandering and Its Effects

Original cartoon of "The Gerry-Mander&quo...

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Gerrymandering—the drawing of electoral districts to advantage some groups over others—is a dirty word in American politics. In this post, I want to explore some of what we know about gerrymandering and its implications for California and American politics.

Why gerrymander? The Constitution requires that representation in the House of Representatives be apportioned to states on the basis of population. As such, every ten years we count the number of people living in each state and, after making sure that each state gets one House member, divvy up the rest. Big population states like California get more House seats and smaller states get just the one. A variety of Supreme Court cases, however, have applied the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to the process of drawing legislative districts (at all levels of government) resulting in a requirement that each district have roughly the same population. So after each Census, states and localities have to redraw their district lines to ensure that the districts are roughly equal. Given that success in a legislature depends on the number of friendly faces there, political parties and interest groups will necessarily be interested in how the lines are drawn.

How are the lines drawn? Until recently in California, the state legislature (i.e., the Assembly and the Senate) was responsible for drawing the lines defining its members’ districts and those for the House of Representatives. If the legislature couldn’t agree on a set of maps, or it couldn’t get the governor to sign off on the maps it created, then responsibility for drawing the lines went to a set of retired judges called Special Masters. At different points in time, the legislature pursued different strategies for this process. Beginning in the 1960’s, the legislature pursued a partisan gerrymander—Democrats tried to maximize the number of Democratic districts. To some extent, these efforts were thwarted by Republican governors, but the process became especially nasty following the 1990 Census.

Following the 2000 Census, everyone agreed to an incumbency protection gerrymander—regardless of an incumbent’s party, the incumbent would be made safe. Republicans would be assured of essentially the same number of seats that they currently held, as would Democrats. As a result, very few seats in the California legislature and in the California House delegation changed hands between 2002 and 2010.

So what? This process—redrawing of district lines—has been blamed for almost every problem in American and California politics. Ideologically polarized legislators? Gerrymandering did it. Budget crises? Gerrymandering did it. Overly combative parties? Gerrymandering did it. Inability pass important legislation? Gerrymandering did it. Unequal influence in the legislature? Gerrymandering did it.

The redistricting process therefore became a target for political reformers. Want to fix politics? Fix the way district lines are drawn. So in 2008, Californians enacted Prop. 11 and created the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC). No longer would state legislators be able to pick their own constituents. Instead, an independent commission would draw the lines for the Assembly and Senate (and Board of Equalization, though no one really cares about them). In 2010, the CRC’s mandate was expanded to include House districts as well.

Thus, over the past summer, the CRC worked to redraw California’s 177 legislative districts: 80 Assembly districts, 40 Senate districts, 53 House districts, and four Board of Equalization districts. The process, as described by Michelle DiGuilio in her recent visit to Pacific, was intensive. The CRC travelled all over the state listening to people describe their ideal districts (though notably not the legislators themselves), and then used that information to draw districts that met a variety of legal requirements (e.g., equal size, Voting Rights Act, and respecting communities of interest).

Okay, that’s a lot of information. Again, so what? So, all of this hand wringing and reform may be for naught. There is very little evidence that gerrymandering contributes at all to the problems people think it does. For example, as illustrated below, the U.S. Senate became just as polarized as the House (and at roughly the same time), even though its districts are not subject to redistricting like House districts are.

[Ed. The above image comes from Voteview.com, which presents work on measuring ideology in Congress and other legislatures.]

Similarly, within California, counties, whose lines don’t change, have become much more polarized over time. Moreover, redistricting, instead of insulating legislators from their constituents, actually increases legislative turnover and responsiveness.

So gerrymandering isn’t important? Not at all. Gerrymandering is very important, just not in the ways people tend to think about. Effective gerrymanders can have significant policy implications. In California, for example, it makes a difference whether there are 23 or 24 Republicans in the Senate. If there are 23, Republicans can’t stop Democratic efforts to raise taxes. If there are 24, Republicans can. Republican opposition to Democratic efforts to raise taxes, though, is not a result of gerrymandering. Too many people have made the latter argument.

[Ed. (11/2): Hey! It’s a redistricting song: http://www.propublica.org/article/video-the-redistricting-song.]

  1. November 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    California is almost too big to function in a proper capacity. It is too diverse. There are too many interests competing. More power and resources have to given to local municipalities.

  2. daniel kemether
    November 3, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I think it is kind of obvious gerrymandering would cause problems, obviously both parties want the majority in their states so they will do whatever they can to get ahead of the other, but gerrymandering is a necessary problem and we will just have to find a way to find solutions to the problems it poses.

    • Keith Smith
      November 3, 2011 at 9:35 am

      What are the problems you are thinking about?

  3. Yesenia Gutierrez
    November 3, 2011 at 9:27 am

    I agree that it is not gerrymandering that have caused all the things listed above . What we really need to start looking to is the polarization in congress and what can be done, if anything, to fix it so legislation can pass.

    • Keith Smith
      November 3, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Why is polarization necessarily a problem? For a long time people complained that the two major parties did not offer voters a real choice. Now they do. Just because we aren’t used to it doesn’t mean it is necessarily a bad thing.

  4. Hannah Perkins
    November 3, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Obviously no matter what laws that the government will pass, gerrymandering is going to exist. Political parties are going to find ways to redistrict things no matter what. I do think that it is a problem and it’s unfair, but either way it’s going to continue to happen

    • Keith Smith
      November 3, 2011 at 9:40 am

      What’s the problem? Why is it unfair? What would make it fair?

      Here’s something interesting: Some political scientists (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2009) have discovered that we could use a random process to generate districts and still be in basically the same place we are now in terms of polarization and conflict.

  5. Sarah B.
    November 3, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Gerrymandering is a problem, but it is something that is going to keep happening as long as political parties strive to gain political power, which they do and always will want. I don’t know how it could be solved, but hopefully there is a way to reduce the effect and amount of gerrymandering.

    • Keith Smith
      November 3, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Again, what is the problem? We want parties to compete for power. We want them to organize political life.

  6. Hillary
    November 3, 2011 at 10:12 am

    The biggest thing that stands out to me here is the list of problems gerrymandering causes but at the same time knowing that gerrymandering isn’t going to go away. it’s like congress not doing their job by passing laws to help people, but this just hurts us by drawing lines so badly that they cause a list of problems.

  7. bklunk
    November 3, 2011 at 11:29 am

    A couple points: 1. drawing district lines requires compromises among a large number of desired values–they should be about the same size, they should be contiguous, they should represent communities, they should not make it too hard for minorities to be elected, and so on. It is extremely difficult to draw lines so that you get the best outcome for every possible value. If you think things are unfair, you need to say what value you think is being sacrificed.

    The bigger problem in California government is not that parties might use redistricting to gain an advantage, but that the voters in California have used the ballot to create perhaps the most dysfunctional constitution in the country.

  8. Jocelyn
    November 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Gerrymandering is a problem because the parties are using redistricting to gain advantage, which is unfair. Another effective way for parties to gain advantage with the people in a particular state needs to be considered because this process causes too much upheaval.

  9. Irain
    November 3, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Redistricting has always been an issue among political parties. There are usually claims that insinuate gerrymandering on behalf of the winning party . Even with those new precausions theris still room for speculation and doubt

  10. Neil S.
    November 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    I don’t think Gerrymandering is the problem here, I think the problem is the voters themselves being uninformed and voting on something (propositions) they know little about or understand very well. It seems like when it comes to the people voting, too many people are looking at the immediate effects instead of the long term effects of voting something in or out.

  11. Mitchell
    November 3, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I don’t think gerrymandering is the cause for polarization of our parties or any of the other problems in California, but I do think its important that we have an independent commission. Incumbents shouldn’t be given more advantages on top of the ones that they already have.

  12. Emma Fonseca
    November 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Gerrymandering is necessary but obviously would cause some disruption between political parties. Anything in politics that involves numbers is going to be a competition to see which party will more political power overall. However, if gerrymandering was not happening at the state level, then the House and Senate would have the same amount of people which would be useless.

  13. Samuel Park
    November 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Gerrymandering is a way for political parties to get an advantage with a certain state. Its politics and Professor Smith mentioned that it would still probably be the same if it was random.

  14. November 11, 2011 at 6:40 am

    The political parties in California are pretty much Democrat only. Republicans are non existant. Being an independent, the citizens of the state need more diversity in choices.

  15. October 1, 2013 at 9:04 am

    The chart seems to indicate that polarization is mitigated by existential threat to both parties (like WWII). This is, I believe, a recognized sociological finding. Therefore perhaps the current polarization shows we have time on our hands to be ideologs. I am surprised. Gerrymandering seemed logical to me.

  16. jim5569@gmail.com
    November 5, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I agree gerrymandering will always exist because parties will compete for the edge. A solution that would resolve many of our concerns would be to have smaller districts. Currently, in California, there is 1 representative for every 424,135 citizens who can’t possibly represent his/her district effectively. By contrast, New Hampshire has over 400 representatives, each representing only 3, 096 citizens.

    Here is what I glean from the California/ New Hampshire comparison. Smaller districts produce legislators who listen, they have shorter terms in office, lower taxes and balanced budgets. Large legislative districts produce inattentive legislators, high incumbent re-elections, high taxes and out of control spending.

  1. October 11, 2013 at 9:59 am
  2. June 3, 2016 at 10:55 pm

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