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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.



  1. Nance wrote:

    Oh, it’s appalling to look at Ohio, my state, after its recent gerrymandering. Here, take a look:

    Not a single Democrat has a chance, yet we all know Ohio’s electoral votes put Obama back into the White House. But the huge, nonsensical, snaking districts created by the republicans are breathtakingly obvious power grabs.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  2. Arthanyel wrote:

    Only in America have we politically weaponized the tools of the voting process. Drawing districts, establishing precincts, handling voting, all done by politicians with a political agenda.

    Campaign finance reform is also a fundamental problem, and we saw that in stark relief this election as billionaires tried to buy the election – and nearly succeeded.

    Maybe we need a national referendum system to put some of these things to a direct vote, or we need to take our individual states and make these changes locally. Either way, NOW is he time to start pushing thee through, while we have 2 years before the next general elections.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    Britain has a similar “winner takes all” parliamentary membership system, which amplifies swings in electoral sentiment. It benefits the larger parties so there is no support to reform it.

    The constituencies are generally quite real. And voters ofter elect members to the house based on their representation of the constituency.

    Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is pure artefact, and hence the worst of both worlds. Neither do the districts make sense nor does the outcome reflect (not just amplify, _reflect_) the popular vote, state-wide or nation-wide.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  4. Michael wrote:

    Check out the Illinois 4th District map:

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  5. jonah wrote:

    What is the solution to this problem? Are the republicans destined to be in control of the house for the rest of my lifetime or is there a way to make things fairer?

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Iron Knee wrote:

    Michael, did you not see that exact map in the original post?

    Jonah, did you not read the solution in the original post? Either automate the redistricting process, or (preferably) make it non-partisan, like they did in California (and other states). It doesn’t need to be this way.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael wrote:

    Oops. Hahahaha. I feel silly now. Actually, what happened was this: I saw the post/picture yesterday morning, along with a couple of articles (one was the WaPo article you linked to). I came back yesterday evening and just read the comments. I thought I saw the picture of IL-4 on one of the other articles. Apparently your work is so much more powerful than the others that it completely took over my psyche.

    Sigh… Thanksgiving break can’t arrive soon enough. We faculty need it more than our students do…

    Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink
  8. jonah wrote:

    Iron knee, if there are already two solutions why haven’t the democrats pursued them?

    Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Dan wrote:

    Iowa doesn’t have that problem. The Supreme Court has already ruled (in 2003- Texas) that redistricting doesn’t have to wait until after a census. So if Democrats take back state governments, who’s to say they can’t do the same thing Repubs did in 2011? Doesn’t make it right, but it would get both sides to think. (yeah, right, LOL)

    Friday, November 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink