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Representative Government and Line Drawing

most-gerrymandered-districts

In “Skewed Majorities are Bad for Democracy” and “A Weak Defense of Extreme Gerrymandering,” my colleague Steven Taylor, a nationally recognized expert on electoral politics, persuasively argues that the American voting system is inherently unrepresentative and that this has been exacerbated by the increasing sophistication of politicians drawing electoral boundaries to skew outcomes for partisan advantage. On both counts, I wholeheartedly agree.

He begins the first post thusly:

The following should be obvious:  in a representative democracy the goal is to populate government in a way that is, as the name suggests, representative of the citizenry.

On that, too, I agree. He follows that with a rather significant caveat:

This is more complicated than it sounds, and there are various impediments for optimal representativeness (and arguments, both practical and philosophical over what that even means).

The rest of the post illustrates that but elides a rather important controversy: who and what are being represented?

 

Unequal representation is baked into our system at the national level. For reasons practical and philosophical (mostly the former), the Framers gave each state the same representation in the Senate despite the fact that, at the time of the so-called Great Compromise, the most populous state, Virginia, had 691,937 citizens and the least populous, Delaware, had only 59,096–a difference of nearly 12 to 1. They compounded this by having the president selected by an Electoral College with each state having a voting strength determined by adding its number of Representatives and Senators. Those living in small states have an outsized representation, in some cases tremendously so.

Until the 1960s, this was the norm within states, too. Baker vs. Carr, heard in 1961 and decided the following year, ruled that Tennessee’s state legislature violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because of the great disparity in the population of districts owing to the lines not having been redrawn in decades. Because the U.S. Constitution granted plenary power to the state legislatures to govern such matters, the very jurisdiction of the federal courts to even rule on the issue was controversial. The Justices were deeply divided, with three concurrences and two dissents in addition to Justice John Brennan’s majority decision.

This precedent spurred a series of follow-on cases, most notably Gray vs. Sanders (1963), which announced the famous “one person, one vote” principle, and  Reynolds vs. Simms (1964), which held that, ”The right of suffrage is denied by debasement or dilution of a citizen’s vote in a state or federal election.”

In the latter case, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s majority opinion rejected Alabama’s contention that, since the U.S. Senate was based on geography, it was perfectly reasonable for state legislatures to operate in a similar fashion:

It is one conceived out of compromise and concession indispensable to the establishment of our federal republic. [Footnote 55] Arising from unique historical circumstances, it is based on the consideration that, in establishing our type of federalism a group of formerly independent States bound themselves together under one national government. Admittedly, the original 13 States surrendered some of their sovereignty in agreeing to join together “to form a more perfect Union.” But at the heart of our constitutional system remains the concept of separate and distinct governmental entities which have delegated some, but not all, of their formerly held powers to the single national government. The fact that almost three-fourths of our present States were never, in fact, independently sovereign does not detract from our view that the so-called federal analogy is inapplicable as a sustaining precedent for state legislative apportionments. The developing history and growth of our republic cannot cloud the fact that, at the time of the inception of the system of representation in the Federal Congress, a compromise between the larger and smaller States on this matter averted a deadlock in the Constitutional Convention which had threatened to abort the birth of our Nation.

Earlier in the decision, he famously observed,

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests. As long as ours is a representative form of government, and our legislatures are those instruments of government elected directly by and directly representative of the people, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system. It could hardly be gainsaid that a constitutional claim had been asserted by an allegation that certain otherwise qualified voters had been entirely prohibited from voting for members of their state legislature. And, if a State should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the State should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted. It would appear extraordinary to suggest that a State could be constitutionally permitted to enact a law providing that certain of the State’s voters could vote two, five, or 10 times for their legislative representatives, while voters living elsewhere could vote only once.

I find that argument extremely persuasive. Indeed, Steven and I are both on the record as being against the unrepresentativeness of both the United States Senate and the Electoral College, seeing the United States as a single nation of coequal citizens rather than a confederation of fifty states with sovereign interests. But it’s nonetheless fair to acknowledge that this is by no means a universal view; indeed, it may well be a minority opinion.

While he was on the losing side, Justice John Marshall Harlan II made an argument consistent with the American understanding of things in one of his final dissents, in aforementioned Baker vs. Carr:

It is surely beyond argument that those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account. The existence of the United States Senate is proof enough of that.  […] I would hardly think it unconstitutional if a state legislature’s expressed reason for establishing or maintaining an electoral imbalance between its rural and urban population were to protect the State’s agricultural interests from the sheer weight of numbers of those residing in its cities.

Americans seem not all that troubled by the fact that two of our last three presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, were elected to the highest office in the land despite their opponent getting the most votes. Aside from the fact that the disparities of the Electoral College are simply organic to the system, many are persuaded that it makes sense to ensure that those who live in rural areas aren’t overwhelmed by those who live in the more populous urban centers. While it seems weird to me, that Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes that Trump is countered with “yeah, but only if we count California.”

While the original thirteen states had some primordial claim to sovereignty, both because they were independent entities before joining together to form the United States and because they were equals under the Articles of Confederation, there’s no similar logical claim for most of the other thirty-seven states. Yet most accept unequal representation.

It’s not completely crazy, then, that we’d do the same at lower levels of representation. While I’m personally persuaded by Warren’s logic, it overturned the norms of the American experience. As Harlan noted, it seemed perfectly reasonable that farm interests should be balanced against manufacturing interests and that various economically and socially distinct regions of a given state be represented as units regardless of the will of the larger majority.

While I see no good argument for extreme gerrymandering on partisan grounds, I’m sympathetic to the notion that it might be reasonable on other grounds.

I would be opposed, for example, to governing Virginia with, say, 50 or 100 representatives chosen at-large. While that might theoretically be the fairest way to represent the people of Virginia, it would quite probably mean that the interests of those of us living in urban and suburban centers would completely dominate the agenda. True representation has to take into account local variation of interests.

Similarly, while I ultimately think it a bad idea, I’m not unsympathetic to the “majority majority” district concept. Absent intentional concentration of “minority” voters into districts, it’s quite probable that “majority” ethnicity representatives will win a disproportionate share of the seats.  Absent racial gerrymandering, a state with a third African-American voters and two-thirds white voters will likely have nothing but white representatives.  That’s not inherently a good outcome.

In his 1996 classic A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos defended the much-lampooned voting proposals of failed Bill Clinton civil rights division nominee Lani Guinier:

“Imagine,” he suggests, “that representatives to the national assembly of the new country of Perplexistan split along ethnic lines–45 percent, 44 percent, 7 percent, and 4 percent, respectively. Any two of the first three ethnic groups may form a majority coalition, but the smallest party is a dummy (one with no power). Thus, despite the fact that the third group’s representation is much smaller than that of the first two groups and only slightly larger than that of the fourth group, the first three groups have equal power and the last group has none.

“The Banzhaf power index of a group, party, or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party, or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa.”

Guinier’s proposal, he continues, “would grant to each voter a number of votes equal to the number of contested seats in the district. Under this so-called cumulative voting procedure, the voter could distribute his or her votes among the candidates, spreading them about or casting them all for a single representative. Although animated by a desire to strengthen the Voting Rights Act and facilitate the election of minority representatives, this proposal need make no essential reference to race and would help any marginal group to organize, form coalitions and attain some power.”

Paulos goes on to point out that such tinkering with election procedures is not unheard of, and then he shows that any system to apportion power will have “undesirable consequences and fault lines.” “Not whether but how we should be democratic is the difficult question,” he writes, “and an open experimental approach to it is entirely consistent with an unwavering commitment to democracy.”

So, while Steven and I are very much in agreement on the current controversy—partisan gerrymandering is bad for our democracy and simply unrepresentative—it’s worth remembering that there are many ways in which representation may take place. While I’m a believer in the general principle of “one person, one vote,” I’m also sympathetic to the need to ensure that subgroups and regions, not simply the universal majority, get representation. And I acknowledge that these two views are at odds with one another. That is, the more we ensure that minorities (whether of the racial, partisan, regional, religious, cultural, etc.) are taken into the account, the less representative the system is of the wishes of the whole.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. So, while Steven and I are very much in agreement on the current controversy—partisan gerrymandering is bad for our democracy and simply unrepresentative—it’s worth remembering that there are many ways in which representation may take place. While I’m a believer in the general principle of “one person, one vote,” I’m also sympathetic to the need to ensure that subgroups and regions, not simply the universal majority, get representation.

    I wholly concur that representation is complex. I do think that a more PR-oriented system would address issues such as subgroups and regions (far better than anything we currently do).

    As a general response to the prevailing views in the US about how representative our system is (including the EC): I honestly think most people, often including well educated ones, don’t really grasp how poor a job our system does of presenting competitive elections that produce broadly representative outcomes.

    We tend to be locked into the notion that we really do democracy well. But the reality is: we have a ton of deficiencies.

    As time permits, I will be writing more on this, I suspect.

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  2. Turgid Jacobian says:

    Fair concerns, James, but:

    “As Harlan noted, it seemed perfectly reasonable that farm interests should be balanced against manufacturing interests and that various economically and socially distinct regions of a given state be represented as units regardless of the will of the larger majority…”

    Is not the situation that obtains with the crazymandering that we have going on these days–as you are probably aware, partisan-generated district lines these days are drawn explicitly to break up *some* communities, regions, or social units.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I do think that a more PR-oriented system would address issues such as subgroups and regions (far better than anything we currently do).

    I think that’s right. And, I should note, that while I think there are legitimate arguments for ensuring regional and subgroup representation, I think they’re mostly used to justify systems that are unrepresentative for completely unrelated reasons—like partisan interest or repression of minority rights.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Turgid Jacobian: I posted the above reply to Steven as you were posting your comment. But absolutely. Even the “genius” of the Framers in the Senate and Electoral College was 98% political expediency and 2% political philosophy.

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  5. @James Joyner:

    I think they’re mostly used to justify systems that are unrepresentative for completely unrelated reasons—like partisan interest or repression of minority rights.

    I concur.

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    As I noted yesterday here in Illinois all but one of our 18 Congressional districts are gerrymandered, some severely so. The effect of this gerrymandering is to create “safe” districts by concentrating or diffusing minority power, as required. These minorities may be partisan minorities, ethnic/racial minorities, or ideological ones.

    I think there has been a tacit assumption in the posts that electing a member of a minority to the Congress via gerrymandering is benign because it renders representation more proportional. I’d like to see empirical evidence of that. I think it’s possible that the reverse is the case.

    Here in Illinois absent gerrymandering I believe there would be more competitive districts, Republican or Democratic, one fewer district with a Hispanic Congressman, and in all likelihood more districts with black Congressional representatives. Is our present layout more or less just than the one that would arise without gerrymandering?

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  7. @James Joyner:

    Even the “genius” of the Framers in the Senate and Electoral College was 98% political expediency and 2% political philosophy.

    I think this is key and feeds into what I meant above (“We tend to be locked into the notion that we really do democracy well”). But most people don’t understand that both of those institutions were mainly expedient political compromises, not design choices for the ages. But, since you have to talk most people down from “genius” before a conversation can even start, the conversation usually stalls.

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  8. @Dave Schuler:

    I think there has been a tacit assumption in the posts that electing a member of a minority to the Congress via gerrymandering is benign because it renders representation more proportional

    I, personally, made no comment on this, nor was trying to address it. I will say that I find the racial gerrymander less pernicious than the extreme partisan gerrymanders in WI. That is not to say I think that they are efficacious or a good idea. I certainly don’t think they create more proportional outcomes–after all, we are still talking about single seat districts and FPTP.

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  9. Hal_10000 says:

    The system we have is going to produce some imbalance in favor of Republicans because Democratic voters are geographically concentrated. The only way to address that imbalance and make the system “more efficient” is to carve cities up like pie slices, like Maryland did when they got ride of all but one Republican in their delegation.

    A few things I think could help: open primaries so that people in overwhelmingly Dem/GOP districts have a voice, forcing some moderation (my mom lived in Cynthia McKinney’s district for years and her only voice was voting for her primary opponent); ranked-choice voting to prevent extreme candidates from winning based on a plurality (*cough* Trump *cough*). And I’m open to ideas about proportional representation.

    Ultimately, however, I think this curing a symptom. The system hasn’t changed on a fundamental level but has gone of the rails in recent years. That’s cultural — a political culture that demonizes the opposition and sees the best trait of any candidate as how much he tees off the other side. I don’t know how you fix that.

    One question for both James and Steven: do you think we should increase the number of representatives? We’ve have the same number for over a hundred years. I realize we don’t have the real estate for 1000 reps, but maybe more representative and smaller districts would help?

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  10. @Hal_10000:

    open primaries so that people in overwhelmingly Dem/GOP districts have a voice

    This helps less than you might think–and primaries are actually part of the problem.

    One question for both James and Steven: do you think we should increase the number of representatives?

    The House is too small and this exacerbates some of the other issues we are discussing. It probably should be around 630 seats, IIRC.

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  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I will say that I find the racial gerrymander less pernicious than the extreme partisan gerrymanders in WI. That is not to say I think that they are efficacious or a good idea. I certainly don’t think they create more proportional outcomes–after all, we are still talking about single seat districts and FPTP.

    Okay, fair enough. Then I’m missing something. Why are racial gerrymanders better than partisan gerrymanders? If it’s not because they result in more proportional representation I’m at a loss.

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  12. CET says:

    “would help any marginal group to organize, form coalitions and attain some power”

    I have mixed opinions about this…I spent a fair amount of my youth railing against ‘two flavors of the same’ elections, and how there was no real chance of a new party having any national presence. Now I’m thinking the a relatively high barrier for the entrance of new groups/ideas/etc may not be the worst thing ever. The political inertia in this country can be maddening, but it may also reduce the chance of rapid changes in our politics.

    For example, after Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, I’m wondering whether the two party system is a bug or a feature. We might be better off with a system where a new movement has to win over one of the two major existing parties – having Trump et al take power as a new, but more unified, party might have been whole lot worse.

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  13. @Dave Schuler:

    If it’s not because they result in more proportional representation I’m at a loss.

    It may be the way we are each using the term. In electoral studies, “proportional representation” tends to refer to party representation in the legislature as a function of vote share.

    I think you are referring to sectoral representation (in this case, more racial diversity).

    So, yes, majority-minority districts increase the chances of a black, hispanic, etc. member of congress but it probably doesn’t do much in terms of party share–and it probably does it in a way that creates a district that is also partisan gerrymandered and therefore probably skews the vote shares (and carves up districts that were probably already Democratic).

    Beyond all of that, and the issue of perniciousness: the goal of a racially gerrymandered districts is to increase racial/ethnic diversity in Congress. This, in the abstract, I applaud. I am not a fan, however, of the gerrymandered part. However, I get less concerned about since in most cases the districts in question would likely have been Democratic anyway, so the manipulation issue is lessened, in my mind, in terms of ultimate outcomes. Granted, there may be cases for which this is not true.

    All of this, however, is created by having single seat districts–which are problematic if we really want parties that represent various interests and that are competitive.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hal_10000:

    do you think we should increase the number of representatives?

    I was going top ask this question myself as I think it would at the very least help.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: majority-minority districts can end up packing Democratic votes into a smaller number of districts.

    It also means that you don’t have a competitive district with a significant minority presence, so Republicans don’t feel the need to compete for minority votes. If the Republicans had to compete for minority votes, even occaisionally, we might not have such a screwed up Republican Party.

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  16. Dave Schuler says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, that’s what I meant and I thank you for the explanation.

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  17. Franklin says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I do think that a more PR-oriented system …

    I can think of several PR acronyms, but the one you are using seems to escape me here.

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  18. @Gustopher: Like I said: plenty of problems.

    @Dave Schuler: No problem.

    @Franklin: “Proportional representation” (not Puerto Rico 😉

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  19. Franklin says:

    @Franklin: Nevermind. Must be Proportional Representation.

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  20. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Like I said: plenty of problems.

    Personally, I think the only way out of our current political dysfunction as a country is a fairly profound overhaul of our system for elections. But to be truly effective toward solving for our dysfunction, the solution would need to be holistic. Not just a recalibration of district maps for more proportional representation, but instant run-off voting to encourage additional parties and significant campaign finance reform. The hugely unpopular and ineffective government we have in the US is directly the result of the perverse incentives we have baked into our system.

    Sadly, I know of no way to get this change that doesn’t rely exclusively on our current set of elected officials acting against their individual and collective interests. That’s a level of altruism like we have never seen. It would seem we are doomed.

    Steven and James – as students of this stuff, do you know of any actions we as citizens could take to even start this review of our system? Is there any precedent for a country reworking their system that we might model?

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  21. gVOR08 says:

    If I found an organization that was pushing a credible plan to convert the US to a parliamentary system, I’d join.

    Failing that, I’d say we should draw districts so that urban and rural interests are equally represented. Also Protestants, Catholics, non-believers, Muslims, Buddhists, Bahia, etc.; also Evengelicals and traditional Protestants; Blacks, whites, Hispanics, native Americans, Asians, etc.; property owners and renters; capital and labor; rich and poor; male and female; etc, etc, etc..

    The fact is there’s no way to slice the pie that isn’t unfair from other points of view. How about a mathematical algorithm that starts in one corner of the state and divides the state into a number of equal population areas equal to the number of Reps?

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  22. @Scott F.:

    Is there any precedent for a country reworking their system that we might model?

    The best example would be New Zealand, which went from a system essentially like ours (single seat districts with first past the post winner) to MMP, which is a PR system that uses both districts and a national vote. I will try and find the time to write about MMP and maybe about the NZ reform.

    Electoral reform is difficult and usually requires a crisis and, at a minimum, some understanding in the broader public that there are different options.

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  23. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Electoral reform is difficult and usually requires a crisis and, at a minimum, some understanding in the broader public that there are different options.

    And half the population not thinking “European-style” is an insult would be helpful…

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  24. @Mikey:

    And half the population not thinking “European-style” is an insult would be helpful…

    If not more than half. And yup.

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  25. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The system we have is going to produce some imbalance in favor of Republicans because Democratic voters are geographically concentrated.

    Everybody says that, but it’s not really true. Simply use a population cartogram map for drawing district lines. These are the maps used as an antidote to the usual electoral maps that show nearly the whole country red. If the map is rescaled so equal areas represent equal populations it shows approximately equal red and blue areas.

    My home district, OH-2, along with OH-1, have been carefully drawn to split Democratic Cincinnati in half and dilute each half with enough suburban and exurban areas to create two reliably Republican districts. My OH-2 includes some of the higher income, higher education parts of Cincinnati and all or parts of several counties classified as Appalachian. My Rep, Brad Wenstrup, is a Tea Partier and Trumpskyite who certainly represents the Appalachian counties far more than he represents me. OH-1 bears a fair resemblance to the Gov. Gerry gerrymander map Dr. Taylor has been using.

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  26. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Electoral reform is difficult and usually requires a crisis and, at a minimum, some understanding in the broader public that there are different options.

    I think we both thought, pre-2000, that a repeat of the 19th Century issue of losing candidates prevailing in the Electoral College would constitute such a crisis. It happened twice in sixteen years, both times benefitting the Republican Party, and there was hardly a ripple.

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  27. @James Joyner: Yep. I used to say to my students back in the 1990s that if we either had a pop vote/electoral vote inversion or if the House got to pick the pres that we would see an amendment to the constitution. But barely a blip.

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  28. Rob Richie says:

    Great to have James, Steven and others grappling with how best to reform congressional elections. In that spirit, I wanted to make sure everyone is aware of the Fair Representation Act (HR 3057), which is arguably the most comprehensive reform proposal of Houses elections every introduced in the House of Representatives. It would create an American form of proportional representation combining ranked choice voting with larger, multi-winner districts drawn by independent commissions in the half states with more than five seats. It’s gotten some good coverage and analysis — see http://www.fairrepresentation.com

    Among outcomes: every state with at least three winners would create access for both major parties to elect someone in all parts of the state; partisan skews would largely vanish; and there would be natural means created for fair representation of our diversity.

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  29. CET says:

    @gVOR08:

    I think your point about the many, many different interest groups that could claim lack of representation is well made.

    I’m curious about the parliamentary democracy thing though – I’ve heard people whose opinions I take seriously voice that sentiment before. Is there a good review or book folks can recommend that analyzes the extent to which a parliamentary is easier (or harder) for a fringe movement to take control of, relative to a presidential system? I am not an expert in this area, but the old Tom Wolfe quote that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe” seems like a succinct summary of why we might be a little cautious before using Europe as a political exemplar…

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  30. Mikey says:

    @CET: A quick and recent example of the difficulty a fringe movement can have in a parliamentary system is the electoral gain of the far-right AfD party in Germany’s recent election.

    While the fact a far-right party has actually garnered enough votes to get seats in the Bundestag is unsettling, it will be relegated to essential powerlessness as their number of seats isn’t enough to have legislative influence and none of the other parties will want to include them in a coalition.

    That’s not to say they have no influence at all–their presence causes necessary shifts in other coalitions, and they will alter the tone–but they won’t be anywhere close to controlling anything.

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  31. JKB says:

    @James Joyner: I think we both thought, pre-2000, that a repeat of the 19th Century issue of losing candidates prevailing in the Electoral College would constitute such a crisis.

    Why would you think that? The Electoral College is a direct example of what would be needed to change the Constitution. It is a representation of the Constitutional majority that is geographically diverse, and even enduring in time. To overturn it would require the consent of the very Constitutional majority that prevailed in the Electoral College, and the legislatures of those states they reside in.

    Perhaps some large portion of the population in LA, Chicago and NYC would riot, but they might be many in numbers, but pretty irrelevant to the Constitutional majority, i.e. the majority that meets the rules as outline in the Constitution.

    Any system will have winners and losers, perversions and inequalities compared to another. You are expecting those prevailing in the current system to abandon it and risk their future success. Basically, you are hoping for saints, when politics is almost exclusively the realm of sinners.

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  32. @Steven L. Taylor: the majority-minority districts don’t bother me much, but I’ll note that we create the problem when we cap the House size.

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  33. Another reason we need a better system: the House passed the AHCA back in the Spring to replace Obamacare. It had a 17% approval rating! It’s obvious that the Republican representatives don’t fear for their jobs.

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  34. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think we both thought, pre-2000, that a repeat of the 19th Century issue of losing candidates prevailing in the Electoral College would constitute such a crisis. It happened twice in sixteen years, both times benefitting the Republican Party, and there was hardly a ripple.

    Another working “theory” in the past couple of decades is that if Republicans were to suffer the fate of an Al Gore (or Hillary Clinton), winning the popular vote while losing the presidency, it would be the death knell of the electoral college. Indeed, in 2012 there was a period of time when Romney appeared to be leading the national vote but trailing in the states he needed to win. I was hearing Republican acquaintances of mine complain about the EC, and even on Election Night, the EC was decried as a “disaster for democracy” by a certain public figure.

    Obama, of course, ended up winning both the popular and electoral vote by a decisive margin. But his electoral victory was stronger. For Romney to have won the election, he would have had to pick up at least one state that Obama won by more than 5 points, yet Obama’s national margin was only 3.9 points. Nate Silver calculated that if Romney had been leading the popular vote by 1.5 points he’d have been in serious danger of losing the EC, because his support was inefficiently distributed in the states in much the same way that Clinton’s was four years later.

    If the Dems had more of an EC advantage in 2012, it was probably a fluke. The larger picture revolves around the same factor that puts Dems at such a disadvantage in the House and Senate: namely, the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, and the GOP’s domination among rural voters. It’s related to that map Trump loves to tout showing the county-by-county breakdown of the 2016 vote, which makes the US look like a giant sea of red with blotches of blue here and there. Indeed, it’s striking that even in solid-blue states like New York and Maryland, the maps look more red than blue. It’s just that the blue counties have a lot more people in them. Just not as many “real Americans.”

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  35. James Joyner says:

    @JKB:

    The Electoral College is a direct example of what would be needed to change the Constitution. It is a representation of the Constitutional majority that is geographically diverse, and even enduring in time. To overturn it would require the consent of the very Constitutional majority that prevailed in the Electoral College, and the legislatures of those states they reside in.

    That was my post hoc epiphany. I understood that amending the Constitution in such a case would be challenging but expected at least a major debate on doing so. Instead, we got some minor reforms to make the Florida recount fiasco slightly less likely. Even Al Gore (and later Hillary Clinton) didn’t really make a strong push for reforming the core principle that people who live in Utah deserve and outsized say compared to those who live in California.

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  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Funny how every body thinks the urban/ rural split is the problem but nobody thinks the rural/urban split is. In other words, every body seems to think farmers votes mean more than factory worker votes. (meaning “landowner votes” ’cause we all know those who who actually work on our land have no voting rights).

    Haysus Christos, will you listen to the words that are coming out of your mouths?

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  37. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    Even Al Gore (and later Hillary Clinton) didn’t really make a strong push for reforming the core principle that people who live in Utah deserve and outsized say compared to those who live in California.

    I think because the 2000 fiasco focused mainly on the controversy over the votes in Florida, in a way it distracted from the larger question of the fairness of the EC. In other words, most Dems didn’t suggest that Gore “really” won because he got more votes nationwide; they suggested he “really” won because he was denied a full recount in Florida.

    The 2016 election is a little different, because despite reported Russian targeting of voter rolls, the electoral results do not appear to be in doubt. So it really is a case in which the popular-vote winner lost due to inefficient distribution of votes in the states needed to win the election. (The only other time that happened in this country’s history was 1888, when Benjamin Harrison defeated popular-vote winner Grover Cleveland. In 1876, like 2000, the electoral results were extremely questionable. And 1824 was an altogether different situation, in which no candidate won an outright majority of electoral votes and so Congress decided the election.) That has led to increased attention on the EC itself–but because the Republicans who were the beneficiaries of this system are now in power, the chances of doing anything about it are slim to nonexistent.

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  38. Andy says:

    While the original thirteen states had some primordial claim to sovereignty, both because they were independent entities before joining together to form the United States and because they were equals under the Articles of Confederation, there’s no similar logical claim for most of the other thirty-seven states. Yet most accept unequal representation.

    To me this is a very strange argument but one that is ultimately irrelevant since states maintain a high degree of equality regardless of when they joined the union.

    Indeed, Steven and I are both on the record as being against the unrepresentativeness of both the United States Senate and the Electoral College, seeing the United States as a single nation of coequal citizens rather than a confederation of fifty states with sovereign interests. But it’s nonetheless fair to acknowledge that this is by no means a universal view; indeed, it may well be a minority opinion.

    I don’t understand this argument either, but recognize it as a common one that is honestly held. To me the sovereign interests of states are self evident – all you have to do is look at how different states deal with the same issue. The people of California have, as one example, different ideas of governance than the people of Texas. To think that those interests can or should be swept away under a uniform federal umbrella (along with the interests of all the other states) seems to ignore history and the contemporary and very real diverse interests of the various states. A diverse nation of 320+ million cannot be ruled as a single and uniform polity.

    Additionally, states retain a lot of sovereignty they choose not to exercise. States defer on many issues to the federal government, primarily in exchange for federal money. States could, in theory, refuse federal dollars and have more independence.

    Regardless, it’s an academic discussion because the creation of a “single nation of coequal citizens” would require the dismantlement of our present system to be rewritten by…who exactly?

    So, while Steven and I are very much in agreement on the current controversy—partisan gerrymandering is bad for our democracy and simply unrepresentative—it’s worth remembering that there are many ways in which representation may take place.

    I do agree completely with this. I don’t agree with Steven at all that the basis for fair representation should be drawn based along partisan lines – in my view that would be no better than the present condition (and in many ways it would be worse). I would much prefer either a geographic distribution or a system that ensures all elections are competitive when it comes to partisan interests.

    However, we still live under our Constitution and there is a limit to what courts can mandate within that framework. States will still have a primary role in determining their districts even if the courts strike down the extreme gerrymandering we see today. Another example of states having real and sovereign interests….

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  39. @Andy:

    To me the sovereign interests of states are self evident – all you have to do is look at how different states deal with the same issue. The people of California have, as one example, different ideas of governance than the people of Texas. To think that those interests can or should be swept away under a uniform federal umbrella (along with the interests of all the other states) seems to ignore history and the contemporary and very real diverse interests of the various states

    Well, a) the sovereignty of California and Texas is linked, as you note, to the people living in those places. I have no problem with state-level policy being handled, well, at the state level. That’s federalism. When it comes to electing a president, however, I see no reason why the citizens of different states should be valued differently.

    I don’t agree with Steven at all that the basis for fair representation should be drawn based along partisan lines

    I am not sure at all what you mean here, I have not made that argument, at least in any way that I would understand that sentence to mean–especially since my underlying preference is some form of PR.

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  40. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am not sure at all what you mean here, I have not made that argument, at least in any way that I would understand that sentence to mean–especially since my underlying preference is some form of PR.

    From an earlier comment:

    In electoral studies, “proportional representation” tends to refer to party representation in the legislature as a function of vote share.

    Also in previous posts I got the impression that your main complaint was that Congressional representation did not mirror party affiliation. I suppose a lot hinges on the method to bring about proportional party representation. What I would oppose is a system that attempts to divine the party representation of the electorate in a state and then create districts to facilitate that outcome.

    Well, a) the sovereignty of California and Texas is linked, as you note, to the people living in those places. I have not problem with state-level policy being handled, well, at the state level. That’s federalism.

    Yes, as I noted, the people living in those states have different ideas and so their policy will naturally be different. As a believer in the principle of subsidiarity, I would not want to see all the interests of people in the various states paved over with unified federal policy. James questioned the idea of state sovereignty so that prompted my response.

    When it comes to electing a president, however, I see no reason why the citizens of different states should be valued differently.

    Are we talking Presidential elections or Congressional districts? I thought it was the latter in this thread.

    In regard to the former, if a constitutional amendment was introduced to base the Presidential election solely on the popular vote, I would support it. Given the stakes I would want a President to have a clear majority which would mean a run-off if no one got over 50%.

    But I don’t see that happening. For all the complaints about the EC it somewhat surprises me that no one (that I’m aware of) is trying to build a movement to make this happen. The depth of support for reforming the EC seems to begin and end on editorial pages, blog posts and social media.

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  41. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    For all the complaints about the EC it somewhat surprises me that no one (that I’m aware of) is trying to build a movement to make this happen.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact

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  42. @Andy:

    Also in previous posts I got the impression that your main complaint was that Congressional representation did not mirror party affiliation.

    My main complaint was drawing lines in a way that uses current majority status to inflate that status. Less than 50% of the vote should not lead to over 60% of the seats.

    If the choices are between drawing districts along partisan lines that are skewed and drawing them more fairly, I prefer more fairly.

    What is the defense of the first option?

    I suppose a lot hinges on the method to bring about proportional party representation.

    Aye. That’s the rub.

    Are we talking Presidential elections or Congressional districts?

    The paragraph you were referring to referenced the Electoral College and the Senate. I was responding to the EC issues–the Senate is its own thing, and the districts are pre-drawn.

    The Senate is problematic, however, but that is another conversation.

    I am not sure, however, how state sovereignty over state-level policy means that states can go what WI has done. Some principles, such as equal protection, supersede state level authority.

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  43. @Andy:

    But I don’t see that happening.

    BTW: I agree, as a matter of practical politics.

    Doesn’t mean I can’t try to change people’s minds. Or, at least, get them to understand what it is they are supporting and what they are opposing,.

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  44. The elephant in the room is that outside money is nationalizing EVERY election in the United States. The beauty of elections in the United States(What attracts attention from foreign observers) is precisely the fact that the system was always extremely local. Gabby Giffords was shot while she was talking to her constituents.

    Now you have a flood of national money in every election. Candidates can’t alienate national big donors, even if that means alienating their voters, and that’s in a system that was created to be local.

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  45. Andy says:

    @Kylopod:

    That is an interesting idea I’ve read about before but it seems to have plateaued – at least for now.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My main complaint was drawing lines in a way that uses current majority status to inflate that status. Less than 50% of the vote should not lead to over 60% of the seats.

    If the choices are between drawing districts along partisan lines that are skewed and drawing them more fairly, I prefer more fairly.

    While I expect partisans to press electoral advantage, I agree that what the GoP has recently done amounts to fixing the game in the future. That said, I don’t want to see the pursuit of fairness result in a different kind of self-reinforcing system based on supposed partisan preference. I would much prefer that partisanship be absent completely from the process.

    I am not sure, however, how state sovereignty over state-level policy means that states can go what WI has done. Some principles, such as equal protection, supersede state level authority.

    I agree and it will be interesting to see where and how the courts draw the line.

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  46. CET says:

    @Mikey:

    Yea – AfD (or the NF in France, etc) are kind of what I’m getting at. As much as I like to accuse the current administration of being the American Falange party, it’s become clear that the populist faction doesn’t really control the GOP (yet). So instead of a unified far-right populist party, we have a fractured right-wing party with a far-right populist faction, and it looks like this may have curbed Trump’s ability to actually do much of anything.

    My sense of 20th-21st century western history is that parliamentary systems make it easier for new parties to reach critical mass (in a sense, they seem to be faster to respond to changing public sentiment). I’m reluctant to speculate on whether or not that was a contributing factor to the rise of fascism in Europe, but it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what American politics in the 30s would have looked like if the American Bund could have been a viable party in an American parliament…

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  47. @Andy:

    I would much prefer that partisanship be absent completely from the process.

    As such, I would like to see line-drawing taken out of the hands of legislatures, which are inherently partisan.

    I say that knowing that a) it is impossible to totally take the partisanship out of politics, and b) there is no perfect way to draw these lines.

    Ultimately, we would be far better off if the politicians couldn’t pick their voters, as it is supposed to work the other way around.

    A lot of this is solved, without any partisan influence over outcomes, by shifting to PR.

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  48. @CET:

    My sense of 20th-21st century western history is that parliamentary systems make it easier for new parties to reach critical mass (in a sense, they seem to be faster to respond to changing public sentiment). I’m reluctant to speculate on whether or not that was a contributing factor to the rise of fascism in Europe, but it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what American politics in the 30s would have looked like if the American Bund could have been a viable party in an American parliament…

    Having a parliamentary system does not cause third parties–that is predominantly a function of the electoral rules. It is just that most parliamentary democracies, but not all (see the UK and Canada, e.g.) use some form of PR to elect their legislatures.

    Also: the ability of a fringe party to rise to real power still requires substantial public support.

    In regards to the AfD v. the GOP. Note that the GOP’s nationalist wing was able to elect the President, while the AfD, though larger than one might like, has no shot at electing the Chancellor. In some ways our system encourages the, and even allow (because of primaries), the more extreme elements of a party to have undue influence.

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  49. JohnMcC says:

    Seems to me (straw in mouth, scratching belly) that the only actual proposal that offers to improve the partisanship = control of districts issue is non-partisan appointed commissions. But in this rather long thread they don’t seem to be mentioned. Do any of our actual experts here have an opinion on their success or lack of it in those places where they’ve been tried?

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  50. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t personally think factory workers should have any less influence than farmers, to the extent either still exist. I just recognize that they have different interests and that simple majoritarianism can lead to problematic outcomes.

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  51. @JohnMcC: Nonpartisan commissions, while not a panacea, would be preferable to legislatures.

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  52. @James Joyner:

    I just recognize that they have different interests and that simple majoritarianism can lead to problematic outcomes.

    To further this notion, and indicate where I am coming from: I do not favor just simple majoritarianism in terms of overall policy-making–but then again most democratic governments, even parliamentary ones, are not pure majoritarianism.

    I do think that the House of Representatives ought to be a body that is reflective of the overall sentiment of the public (and really should be elected by PR).

    I think that the Senate has a role to play in our federal system, but I do think that the 2 seats per state skews that chamber too much (but am realistic about that changing).

    I think that the president should be elected via an absolute majority vote of the population.

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  53. MarkedMan says:

    I haven’t seen a mention of one particularly insidious result of gerrymandering: the fact that any individual Rep must cater more to the party bosses controlling the gerrymander than to the people in their districts. I’m certain this increases overall partisanship and, more importantly, destroys the coalitions built along interests rather than party. For example, it used to be that defense was championed by people in both parties who knew a tremendous amount about it. Same with trade. Now, at least in the Republican Party, there is no one elected in the last 15 years or more who knows anything about anything. Except how their district lines are drawn.

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  54. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I haven’t seen a mention of one particularly insidious result of gerrymandering: the fact that any individual Rep must cater more to the party bosses controlling the gerrymander than to the people in their districts. I’m certain this increases overall partisanship and, more importantly, destroys the coalitions built along interests rather than party. For example, it used to be that defense was championed by people in both parties who knew a tremendous amount about it. Same with trade. Now, at least in the Republican Party, there is no one elected in the last 15 years or more who knows anything about anything. Except how their district lines are drawn.

    Only very indirectly, I think. District lines are drawn by state legislatures or commissions, and I doubt US Representatives have all that much sway with them. But, because so few districts are competitive because of gerrymandering, Reps are likely more beholden to party bosses because it’s much less costly to back a primary challenger who will hew to the party line, making local issues less important than they once were.

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  55. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I hate to be that guy. but if the moderates really wanted to not have wing nut extremists to have “undue influence,” they could do something really radical… like maybe vote in the primaries instead of allowing other people to do the heavy lifting.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe that the GOP has actual moderates; it only has not openly outrageous extremist elements. Look at what Republicans (80% and counting) support right now.

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  56. @James Joyner:

    Reps are likely more beholden to party bosses

    Primaries actually mean that an individual member of Congress is not especially beholden to anyone save the primary voters. They certainly are not all that worried about party bosses.

    Even candidates who are “primaried” aren’t attacked by party elites, but by insurgents in the party.

    Party bosses in the US don’t do as much bossing as we tend to think they do.

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  57. @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: In some ways, that is the point I am making–but it would take a bit to unpack a full response.

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  58. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m confident that it was and that the unpacking would make a great read. As much as I claim not to like being that guy, i really don’t mind the role at all and I think it’s good to remind people that our actions and inaction both shape results, maybe even equally.

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