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November 09, 2005

In Defense of Political Gerrymandering

Everyone seems to be in favor of ending the terrible practice of political gerrymandering, except for actual voters, who soundly defeated initiatives to end the technique in Ohio and California. So, let me defy the pundit class and argue in favor of the voters:

1. There Is No Such Thing As A Non-Political Gerrymander. Arnold's "solution" in California was to take the power of drawing electoral maps out of the hands of "politicians" and put it into the hands of "non-political" retired judges.

Non-political? Judges? Retired or not, judges are political. Not only are judges in many states elected through expressly partisan contests, but even in states where judges are appointed, they're appointed by a political actor (usually a governor, or a panel selected by the governor). Let's just say you have a much better chance of being appointed to be a judge, and promoted thereafter, if your politics agree with the dominant politics of your state.

Further, who would have appointed this panel of judges? Presumably the Governor, or a commission with members appointed by him. Call me crazy, but a Republican governor would tend to appoint Republican-leaning judges to this panel (or appoint Republican-leaning officials to the commission which would then pick which judges would draw the electoral map).

This isn't taking politics out of the process. It's simply making the politics slightly more labrythine but almost as predictable.

2. If the Sentiment of a State Is Strongly In Favor Of One Party Or the Other, Why Shouldn't That Party Get to Draw the Electoral Map?

In both California and Ohio, the voters didn't like the supposed anti-gerrymandering initiatives partly because Californians, being strongly Democratic, wanted to preserve the advantage the Democrats had in their state, and Ohioans, being less strongly Republican but still Republican-leaning, wanted to preserve the Republicans' advantage there.

It's not just "politicians conspiring to protect incumbents." It's the voters "conspiring" to protect incumbents. And when a Democratic state has Democrats drawing its electoral map, it elects more Democrats to Congress-- precisely what the voters want. Same for Republican states.

Get this-- very-blue-state California likes putting Republicans at a political disadvantage, and likes electing as many liberal Democrats to Congress as is mathematically feasible. That's what the voters want. Why shouldn't they have that?

3. Gerrymandering Actually Results In Non-Homogenous Pools of Voters Voting In One District... For At Least Most Districts.

Isn't this what the good-government types want? "Diverse" populations in the same electoral district?

It's a myth that, for example, gerrymandering results in nothing but monolithic districts, where 90% or more of voters share the same basic politics and therefore can be expected to reliably elect the most ideological of partisans year after year. They may do the latter, but not because the district itself is a 90% ideologically-pure monolithic block.

Why? Because to do so -- to pack a district with 90% of like-minded voters -- would be to waste 39% of those votes.

The purpose of gerrymandering isn't to create districts of 90% Republicans or 90% Democrats. If you did that, you'd actually have less reliable Congressional districts than you would from even say a purely random gerrymander. What you want when you gerrymander is to create districts which have a comfortable partisan advantage -- say 55-60% or so -- and not a single additional partisan voter in that district. Because those "excess" partisan voters can be used in another district, to try to make that district one in which a comfortable 55-60% margin of voters will reliably elect your guy.

Actually, when you think about it, the more natural way to draw electoral lines is to make districts of overwhelmingly liberal sentiment, overwhelmingly conservative sentiment, and overwhelmingly moderate sentiment. Shouldn't like-minded people be grouped together to elect their own? In such a regime, one could be pretty sure that any elected official from such a district was truly representing around 90% of his constituents -- because they almost all basically share his views, as well the views of their fellow voters.

Gerrymandering eschews this "natural" method of grouping like with like and instead attempts to use a comfortable majority of, say, liberal voters to beat-down an uncomfortable minority of conservative voters. Gerrymandered districts are mixed districts -- because it makes partisan sense to do it that way.

Now, here's the caveat-- that's what you do when you're seeking to maximize the number of districts in which you have a comfortable-but-not-overwhelming majority (which will lead, in most years, to winning the maximum number of possible Congressional seats).

You deploy your own troops -- your own reliable voters -- strategically, trying to maximize the number of districts in which they'll form a comfortable majority.

But for the other guy's troops -- well, in many cases, yes, gerrymandering does result in districts that are nearly 100% partisan. Because with regard to the other guy's voters, you want to have all those "wasted" votes. Let some districs vote 99% to 1% for a Republican -- they're still only winning a single seat out of all those votes. All those votes above the 51% mark are essentially useless.

But those sorts of arrangements can't be contrived very often. Where possible, the disfavored party will have as many of its voters crammed into as few districts as possible, giving them guaranteed victories in those few districts, and not a chace in hell of winning anywhere else. But geography and mathematics dictate that such super-crammed districts will be fairly rare. More common will be disctricts of a safe majority of 55% for the favored party and 45% for the disfavored party, doomed to perpetually lose by 8-10 points.

4. Highly-Gerrymandered Districts Do Result In Predictable Majorities... Until Catastrophe Hits.

Suppose you build a city whose codes require buildings to be resistant to earthquakes measuring 6 or less on the Richter scale. You can expect that your city will suffer fairly minor damage for any earthquake of magnitude 6 or less.

At magnitude 7, you'll lose about half of your buildings.

But at magnitude 8 or more, you'll lose much of your city.

Gerrymandering is very similar. You try to make districts that will be safe for your own candidates-- under normal circumstances. You attempt to build in a safe 55% advantage for such candidates in as many districts as possible, for that will maximixe the number of districts you carry -- again, under normal circumstances.

You don't try to make districts in which your candidate can expect 80% of the votes, because those excess votes are "wasted" and could be better used to pad the advantage in another district. You simply don't need such a huge partisan advantage to carry that district -- once again, under normal circumstances.

But what happens when public sentiment shifts sharply, and 55% is no longer enough? What happens when a party has so alienated the country that 5% of its leaning-voters -- voters it was counting on to make that crucial 5% margin of victory -- suddenly shift in sentiment and vote the other way out of disgust or in protest?

What happens, in other words, when a political earthquake of magnitude 8 or more on the Richter scale strikes? Then the carefully-constructed bastions, built to resist earthquakes of magnitude 6 or less and not an order of magnitude more, suddenly begin to wobble and then fall like dominoes.

That's what happened in 1994, pretty much. Gerrymandering wasn't quite as advanced then as it is now -- now we have powerful computers and sophisticated demographic software to aid in the drawing of political lines for maximum electoral gain -- but it was still pretty advanced, the art being 200 plus years old. But when the perfect political storm hit -- Jim Wright, the Post Office scandal, kited checks, gays in the military, Hillarycare, the Contract with America -- the sturdy-but-not-invulnerable electoral city of Democratic Congressional dominance came crashing down.

Less gerrymandered districts can be expected to have some amount of turnover year by year. More gerrymandered districts will have less turnover, and occasionally zero turnover. But in a political earthquake, a highly gerrymandered map will result in catastrophe for the disfavored party.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Congress will tend to remain in the same party's hands for a period of time, with few seats changing hands, until suddenly, a lot of seats change hands -- 20, 30, 40 or even 60 seats being captured by the other party, almost always resulting in a change of power. And sending an unmistakable signal to politicans that change is now officially demanded. Remember how President Clinton had to assert he was still "relevant" after 1994, and some began to speak of a return to late 1800's governance, when the Speaker of the House held the real power?

That was all hot air, of course, but the 1994 elections unmistakably changed politics in the next decade.

What sends more of a signal-- a fairly routine changing of the guard in minor ways every two years, or an enormous shift in power every ten or fifteen years or so?

And, on that point, I have to say: Republicans should not be quite as confident as they seem to be about how nicely they've managed to gerrymander districts in a majority of the states. If the party should come into as great disfavor as the Democrats did in 1994, they'll find that they're losing most of the carefully-drawn 55% majority districts they drew up in 2000 and 2001, and thereby losing the House as well.

A more sophisticated gerrymander is a gerrymander that will produce more victories under normal circumstances and many more losses under abnormal circumstances. Because the margins-of-error are smaller, by design. The expected margin of victory is designed to be smaller -- not quite razor-thin, but pretty thin -- so as to create another small expected margin of victory in another district.

If old-school gerrymanders resisted earthquakes of magnitude 6, or new, computer-assisted ones can only resist earthquakes of 5.5. And there may be tremors indicating such a strike is on the horizon.

Likely to happen? I don't think so. But it's not as unlikely as many Republicans seem to think. There is a potential perfect storm brewing -- high gas prices, dissatisfaction about the war in Iraq, citizens who still don't grasp that this country is growing at a healthy 3.8-4.0% clip, and out-of-control runaway spending -- that might make a lot of Repubican-leaning voters pull the lever for Democrats, and make a lot of strong Republicans simply sit the 2006 midterms out.

A lot of these factors are out of Bush's and the Congressional Republicans' control, but one -- the budget -- most decidedly is not. I would strongly suggest they take care of the one problem they have the most control over.

As for the rest-- well, there's always is the power of prayer.

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posted by Ace at 01:14 PM

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