The popularity of statisticians and other wonk during the election means that people are noticing — and reporting on — interesting facts. Everyone knows that the Democrats held the presidency and the Senate, but still are a minority in the House. But the numbers tell an interesting story: Democratic candidates for the House received slightly more votes than Republicans, and yet the Republicans managed to elect around 40 more Congresscritters than the Democrats. How did this happen?
The answer is unequivocally “gerrymandering“, that quaint practice of state governments redrawing congressional districts to favor one party over the other. Believe it or not, the image to the right is a single Congressional district (with two parts connected by a narrow strip along a freeway). Both parties do it, of course. But the 2010 elections gave the Republicans a big advantage in redistricting, which happened soon after the election. It only happens in the House, because the Senate and the Presidency are voted on state-wide (except in Nebraska and Maine, which vote on the President by district, but neither of them were battleground states this time around).
Does it work? Barack Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 5%, and yet Democrats only won five of the state’s 18 congressional seats.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Several states, including California, have a non-partisan commission determine the congressional districts, but you won’t see the political party in power ever pass a law to do this. In California it took a voter referendum. Why? Because gerrymandering doesn’t just give an advantage to the majority party, it gives a huge advantage to incumbents (i.e., the politicians in power who do not want to lose their jobs).
There are also computer algorithms that can do the job of redistricting fairly and efficiently. But humans can do a reasonable job if they aren’t motivated by politics to do an unfair job.
If we could convince every state to do redistricting fairly and evenly, then it is likely that we would now have a Democratic House of Representatives, and wouldn’t have to play brinkmanship with the upcoming fiscal cliff and further damage our economy.
UPDATE: The Washington Post does the numbers and says that even without the redistricting advantage, Democrats probably didn’t have enough votes to win a majority in the House. The problem is that Democratic votes tend to be concentrated together in urban areas, while Republican votes are more spread out across rural and suburban areas. This is essentially a demographic-based form of gerrymandering that is inherent in our winner-take-all system.
For example, consider a state that has three congressional districts, but one of those districts is around a large city that is 80% Democratic, while the remaining two districts are rural and are 60% Republican. Since each district has roughly the same number of voters, there are more Democratic voters overall but the Republicans will win two of the three districts.
So I take back my claim that without deliberate gerrymandering we would “likely” have a Democratic House of Representatives. We probably wouldn’t. But that still doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to pass laws that eliminate deliberate gerrymandering.