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May 15, 2014 12:50 PM Meandering ‘Manders, a GOP Specialty

By Ed Kilgore

At Wonkblog today, Christopher Ingraham has a nice, succinct discussion of congressional gerrymandering and its role in reducing Democratic representation in the House. Here’s the crucial point:

Gerrymandering is at least partly to blame for the lopsided Republican representation in the House. According to an analysis I did last year, the Democrats are under-represented by about 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share in the 2012 election. The way Republicans pulled that off was to draw some really, really funky-looking Congressional districts.
Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn’t to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it’s to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably.

Technically, what Ingraham is describing is state-of-the-art, smart political gerrymandering. Some strange, non-compact districts are drawn at the behest of courts (and until the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department) to protect minority voting influence. And in the past, both parties have occasionally been guilty of over- or under-shooting ideal gerrymanders by focusing too much on protecting incumbents or creating too many competitive districts.

But thanks to ever-more-sophisticated mapdrawing software and accumulated experience in demographic analysis of voting patterns, political gerrymandering is more than ever a science, and one that greatly benefits parties who control state legislatures and governorships. Right now that disproportionately means the GOP, largely thanks to its 2010 landslide.

While some people will read Ingraham’s piece and benefit from his analysis, I bet most will be attracted to his maps of the ten craziest-looking districts (eight drawn by Republicans). Thanks to our primitive version of Movable Type, I won’t reduplicate them here, but you can get a sense of the weirdness from the names some have been given, like Maryland’s “Preying Mantis” and Texas’ “Upside-Down Elephant,” and my favorite, Pennsylvania’s “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.” You may recall that the very term “Gerrymander” came from a cartoonist’s depiction in 1812 of a salamander-shaped Massachusetts district set up under the stewardship of Democratic-Republican Gov. Elbridge Gerry to screw over the Federalist Party. That beast has nothing on today’s districts.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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