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Skewed Majorities are Bad for Democracy

gerrymanderThe 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.  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).  In truth, the system used to elect most legislative bodies in the US, single seat districts with plurality winners, is not the best way to maximize representativeness (and primaries as a nomination tool in this context further complicates the situation).  That system is even more problematic when districts are gerrymandered, especially when partisan advantage is used in the drawing of the lines to amplify one party’s position.

This issue that was argued in the Supreme Court this week, as focused on the case of the State Assembly in Wisconsin.  Here are some key numbers via The Economist (The Supreme Court ponders whether gerrymandering has gone too far):

Armed with census data, Republican lawmakers drew districts to maximise their political advantage. In the 2012 elections, Republicans won 48.6% of the vote but took 60 of the state assembly’s 99 seats. In 2014 and 2016, their 52% of the vote got them 63 and 64 seats.

In other words, 48.6% of the vote provided the GOP 60.6% of the seats in 2012, 52% of the vote later garnered them 63.6% in 2014, and 64.6% in 2016.  On its face that should be an unconscionable outcome if one believes in representative democracy.  And one’s concern over this outcome should be increased if it was deliberately manufactured by the party who gained the advantage, regardless of which party did it.

And it is not just Wisconsin:

In Pennsylvania five years ago, Republicans won 13 of 18 House seats with just 49% of the statewide vote. North Carolina’s map gives Republicans ten seats and Democrats three, despite close statewide votes. When asked why, a Republican lawmaker who headed the redistricting process said, “Because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” And in Maryland, Republicans claim the state’s Democratic legislature gerrymandered their rights away in the rural sixth congressional district. Voters in all three states have challenged the maps in court.

Emphasis mine–and it illustrates something that should not be a surprise:  partisan actors, when given the opportunity, will seek to increase their political power.  As such, on one level, this is just pure power politics and it is also why it may take court intervention to rectify what is a very serious deficit of democracy.  Still, this should be an obvious problem:  a closely divided state, party vote-wise, should not result in one party winning 76.9% of the seats.

By the way, as appealing as it may be to simply look to things like shape and compactness, even those notions miss the mark in terms of addressing the foundation issue (especially given the problem of geographical sorting).  The standard should be appropriate representation of the sentiments of the governed.  After all, that is the whole purpose of representative government.  If, as the basic mythology of America tells us, the basis for rebellion against Great Britain was “no taxation without representation” then it strikes me that Americans should understand that we should expect a government that is adequately and appropriately representative of the interests of citizens.  Indeed, the founding mythology aside, it is axiomatic that the system should have some reasonable relationship between the views of the population and the make-up of the legislature.  Any system that fails to do this is wanting, by definition.  And any process that games the system in favor of a specific unrepresentative outcome undermines the very notion of representative government.

Having said all of that, I do recognize that crafting an appropriate test by the court is a difficult task and part of the problem is the single seat district system itself.  It is also the case that any system that allows partisan political actors to draw districts is going to lead to those actors trying to game that system (i.e., to gerrymander).  As such, if the US going to stick with single seats districts, it would be preferable to shift to non-partisan boards to draw the lines, as such commissions tend to draw more competitive districts. Beyond that, it would be positive for US democracy if we had a broader conversation about how poorly a job our institutions do at creating representative outcomes, as there are other, far more representative ways to elect legislatures.

Back to the court as a solution (imperfect though it may be):  there can be no reliance on elections to fix these problems since extreme gerrymandering leads, as noted above, to unfair advantages to the party in power, which it can then perpetuate.  Yes, it is possible that shifting public opinion or that changing demographics could ameliorate the pernicious effects of extreme gerrymandering, but that is unlikely in the short term (especially in an era of highly polarized parties and significant geographical sorting).

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with everything you wrote in this post, Steven. The only thing I would add is that the problem goes beyond partisan politics. Gerrymanders allow those who control the legislatures to concentrate some populations and dilute others, granting minorities power they would not otherwise have or taking away power they should have.

    Perhaps this has already been done but a census of how frequently gerrymanders are constructed based on racial, ethnic, ideological, or partisan considerations would be very interesting. Here in Illinois, for example, all but one of Illinois’s 18 Congressional districts are gerrymandered. The degree to which they are gerrymandered varies but all but one are gerrymandered. The purpose of these monsters varies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. @Dave Schuler: I understand the problem that racial gerrymandering is trying to solve, but the reality is if we want better representation, we need to shift to some form of PR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. grumpy realist says:

    I thought about this a long time ago and the only solution I could come up with was the following: 1)Take the number of districts a state is defined to have by law.
    2) Figure out the population of the state.
    3) Divide population by the number of districts. Result: number of population per district.
    4) get a map of the state with detailed population counts.
    5) Flip coin. Heads? Start from left (west). Tails? Start from right (east).
    5b) flip coin again. Heads? Top (North). Tails? Bottom(South).
    6) start from geographical point most (NW/NE/SW/SE) in state. Draw square box starting from that point at one corner of box until population inside box equals that required per district.
    7) randomize in which direction next tile starts, making sure it starts from an edge of previous tile.
    8) continue…..when you start running out of room you can relax the requirement that the district be square–or simply not care if the outlines of your square box go beyond the edges of the state–the district will still be defined by the state edges.

    Heck, I could probably write it as a computer program.

    As population moves, you redraw the district boxes as soon as the imbalance in population gets beyond a set percentage.

    Everyone will yell, but this is the only logical and fair way I can see to do it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. CSK says:

    I have an abysmal head cold, so all my pistons aren’t firing, but I’m curious why you used a graphic from Massachusetts, Steven. Also from my neck o’ the woods, but that’s another matter. The Mass. congressional delegation is entirely Democratic, as are its two senators. The legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. I don’t think this is the result of gerrymandering.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  5. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: That’s the original graphic that produced the word “gerrymander” back in 1812.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering#Etymology

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Moosebreath says:

    @CSK:

    “I’m curious why you used a graphic from Massachusetts”

    It’s a political cartoon about the “original” gerrymander, when Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachusetts following the 1810 census.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. Gustopher says:

    Looking at our government, I have to say that the rampant gerrymandering fills me with hope. Imagine what a horrible country this would be if the majority actually voted for these Republicans.

    Hope might not be the right word. Less hopelessness.

    This is something that could be fixed — and probably will be, as minority rule by economically depressed cow fields is not a stable form of government. There’s not even a word for it. Podunkocracy?

    It is a situation that may have to get worse before it gets better though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  8. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:

    Ah, thank you!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Much appreciated.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. B. R. Bong says:

    non-partisan boards

    Lol. That’s funny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  11. @B. R. Bong: It is better than wholly partisan legislatures.

    As noted, I would prefer more radical reform, but taking the power out of legislatures is at least a partial step.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. MBunge says:

    I’m all for non-partisan drawing of Congressional Districts but we should remember that gerrymandering isn’t some form of sorcery that is immune to math. In other words, Republicans didn’t take a disproportionate number of seats in Pennsylvania because they could create 13 of 18 districts with 80% GOP voting populations. That’s mathematically impossible with 49% of the vote.

    The impact of GOP gerrymandering is being exaggerated because Democrats have been content to be non-competitive in, and in some cases have willfully abandoned, vast areas of the country and big chunks of the population.

    And to step back a bit, these kind of complaints always seem a little hollow to me.

    First, these systems, like the Electoral College or gerrymandering, have been around essentially forever and the country managed to govern itself relatively well. If there’s a problem, it’s not with the systems. It’s because something in the country has changed.

    Secondly, don’t tell me you are concerned with the “sentiments of the governed” if you are also content with either one or a handful of unelected lawyers overriding the will of the majority over and over and over again.

    Thirdly, the US is a huge society demographically, geographically, economically and culturally and that makes issues of representation a bit more complex. Take California out of the mix and Trump won the popular vote in the other 49 states. Any system that blindly lets one state override the majority in 49 other states would be fundamentally incapable of maintaining a 50 state union.

    Mike

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  13. DrDaveT says:

    If, as the basic mythology of America tells us, the basis for rebellion against Great Britain was “no taxation without representation” then it strikes me that Americans should understand that we should expect a government that is adequately and appropriately representative of the interests of citizens.

    The citizens in the District of Columbia, whose license plates have read “Taxation without representation” for many years now, are not holding their collective breath.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    if you are also content with either one or a handful of unelected lawyers overriding the will of the majority over and over and over again.

    U.S. Constitution – Article III Section 1
    The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

    You are welcome to organize a drive to amend the United States Constitution following the method detailed in Article V.
    I’m curious. Would you just restrict lawyers from serving on the courts? Would you approve of a handful of unelected radio talk show hosts to sit on the bench? Or maybe you want unelected Reality TV personalities in the Judicial branch.
    We already have that in the Excutive and it is not working out all that well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. CET says:

    @MBunge:

    The impact of GOP gerrymandering is being exaggerated because Democrats have been content to be non-competitive in, and in some cases have willfully abandoned, vast areas of the country and big chunks of the population…

    I can’t tell if this has sunk in with the Democrats yet. I know we had the obligatory naval gazing after the 2016 election in which everyone was required to pretend to have read Hillbilly Elegy, and we got a new platform (the ‘Better Deal’, meh.), but when I check in with Slate, The HuffPo, etc, it seems like the public voices of progressive culture are back to the same ‘woke urban hipster’ shtick they’ve been running for the last decade or so.

    It may be that Democrats can regain some ground just because of how abominable the current administration is, but I don’t really see the left making a serious play to win anyone in ‘Red’ territory.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  16. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @grumpy realist: An interesting concept. Can you imagine the complexity of trying to verify the fairness of district lines? Also, would this be hackable?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Tony W says:

    @MBunge:

    Take California out of the mix

    Do you have any idea what percentage of the U.S. population lives in California?

    You can’t just claim 12% of the US population has no legitimate views because they all happen to live within the borders of a single “state”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  18. @DrDaveT:

    The citizens in the District of Columbia, whose license plates have read “Taxation without representation” for many years now, are not holding their collective breath.

    Not to mention the citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin islands, American Samoa, etc.

    Despite our self-image as doing democracy better than anyone else, we have numerous shortcomings, shall we say.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  19. @MBunge:

    Take California out of the mix and Trump won the popular vote in the other 49 states.

    Yes, let’s make arguments based on arbitrarily taking out ~12% of the population. That makes sense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  20. @MBunge:

    don’t tell me you are concerned with the “sentiments of the governed” if you are also content with either one or a handful of unelected lawyers overriding the will of the majority over and over and over again.

    It is wholly necessary to have a mechanism to consider and enforce the overall principles of a democratic government. The rights of individuals to be treated fairly and equally in key ways is one of those areas. The Wisconsin map clearly violates basic principles.

    See, also, cases like Brown v. Board of Education in which it was clearly necessary for an unelected court to override majority preferences.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  21. @MBunge:

    these systems, like the Electoral College or gerrymandering, have been around essentially forever and the country managed to govern itself relatively well. If there’s a problem, it’s not with the systems. It’s because something in the country has changed.

    I think you will find that criticism, especially from people who study this stuff, has been around longer than you think is the case.

    Issues of gerrymandering have gotten worse of late for a number of reason:

    1) Increased geographic sorting.
    2) Increased partisan polarization.
    3) The ability to use computers and GIS tools to gerrymander in ways previously not possible (which is what happened in WI).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  22. Mikey says:

    @CET:

    It may be that Democrats can regain some ground just because of how abominable the current administration is, but I don’t really see the left making a serious play to win anyone in ‘Red’ territory.

    The other day I stumbled across a piece by Kurt Schlichter, who writes at popular conservative sites Townhall and The Federalist. It began “I don’t agree with liberals often, because I’m not an idiot and because I love America…”

    Now, tell me: what kind of “play” is going to “win” that guy or the people who read that and agree with him when he says liberals are idiots who hate America?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  23. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, let’s make arguments based on arbitrarily taking out ~12% of the population. That makes sense.

    Also seems to assume every voter in California voted Democrat, which of course isn’t the case. Our outmoded and anti-democratic electoral college system just nullified the votes of the Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. Mikey says:

    And to connect my previous two comments, the electoral college system really diminishes the value of the kind of outreach @CET talks about, and does so for both parties.

    Let’s take California and Texas, for example. Taken together they comprise about 20% of America’s population, over 64 million people. California always goes to the Democrat and Texas to the Republican.

    During the 2016 Presidential campaign, there were 399 campaign events held by the two major party candidates. California and Texas got one each.

    20% of the population. 0.005% of the attention from the candidates.

    Why would either party reach out to the voters of the other party in states the electoral college guarantees to their opponent? Doing so amounts to dumping money down the drain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. KM says:

    @Mikey:

    Now, tell me: what kind of “play” is going to “win” that guy or the people who read that and agree with him when he says liberals are idiots who hate America?

    None and that’s what all these concern trolls are refusing to admit. We talk a lot about how they disregard the “Other” but it’s a very serious, entrenched problem on their side.

    Look at what MBunge typed: “Take California out of the mix and Trump won the popular vote in the other 49 states.” This is an EXTREMELY popular sentiment among Republicans right now – that states like NY and CA “just don’t count” and they should be able to freely disregard massive chunks of the population in favor of the sparsely populated wilderness their people inhabit. They are perfectly OK with writing off huge segments of the American public while screaming people aren’t paying them enough credit, attention and respect.

    They are flat out saying millions don’t count as Real Americans based on their zip code. You can’t argue with stupid like that. I’m not even sure it’s worth trying to anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  26. @Mikey: @Mikey: Agreed all around,

    Gerrymandering has a similar effect: why put campaign resources into a district that is 60%+ R or D?

    A major problem with our politics in general is that our institutions undercut competition for power.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. CET says:

    @KM:

    None and that’s what all these concern trolls are refusing to admit. We talk a lot about how they disregard the “Other” but it’s a very serious, entrenched problem on their side.

    Let’s be clear – nothing the democrats do is going to win over right-wing trolls, or people who are disciples of right wing trolls. But, if you really think that everyone who is a registered republican reads and believes Infowars/Breitbart/etc, then you should be stocking up on food or buying land in New Zealand, because if that assumption is true, we’re heading towards civil war.

    My point is that while Democratic politicians seem to have a sense that they should probably try to be competitive outside major metropolitan areas, the cluster of media organizations that is sort of the public voice of the progressive left doesn’t seem to be taking that insight seriously. We should be having a no holds barred fight in this over agricultural policy, over corporate monopolies, over free trade vs. cost of living, and over how technology will be used in the coming decades. Instead, we get debates over whether Dr. Seuss books are racist, detailed infographics over how much money lawmakers get from the gun lobby (hint – it’s usually much less than they get from healthcare, agribusiness, wall street, etc), or whatever other shiny new cultural issue we’re all supposed to care about this week. The glaring exception to this is the ACA, where dems and progressive media actually focused on making fairly a unified and well thought-out case, which (not coincidentally) got them a win.

    Disclaimers:
    (1) I agree with MBunge that this makes gerrymandering easier/more effective. I think gerrymandering is still a problem, regardless.
    (2) I get called various forms of right-wing nutjob on this site (I think this is the first time I’ve been called a concern troll though). It’s worth pointing out that I vote democrat fairly often, so if you think I’m far right, you might need to read a wider spectrum of media.

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  28. John430 says:

    Gerrymandering by Republicans=Bad. Gerrymandering by Democrats=Good. Because, shut up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  29. @John430: And this was said by whom?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. @John430: @Steven L. Taylor: I would note, off the top of my head, that both Massachusetts and Maryland have House delegations that over-represent Democrats in the state, and I suspect that this is at least in part because of gerrymandering. This is problematic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m certain it is true of Maryland, and I agree it is problematic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. @John430: No one argued this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0