On Gerrymandering and Its Effects
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.]
- California vs. the Gerrymander: Why Republicans Are Quaking (time.com)
- CA Supreme Court denies 2 redistricting challenges (sfgate.com)
- Ill. makes redistricting hall of fame (politico.com)
- California: Why Redistricting Is Worrying Republicans (time.com)
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