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May 21, 2014 1:26 PM For Congressional Districts, Shape Doesn’t Matter

By Jonathan Bernstein

Another Wonkblog post about House districting by Christopher Ingraham has driven me to bloggy cliché. After his epic fail on the same subject last week, Ingraham was thoroughly schooled by Seth Masket (and, indirectly, by John Sides), now he’s doubling down. You don’t want me to write like that, do you? But what else can I do when faced with disaster of this magnitude?:

But in many states, if not most of them, districts have become consistently less and less compact over time. And it doesn’t seem like these changes in compactness can be explained away by changes in population or overall seat allocation, which tells me that something else is happening in those states.
I have a hard time looking at the evolution of districts such as Maryland’s 3rd (above) or Pennsylvania’s 7th (below) and concluding that whatever’s happening in there is the result of a healthy democratic process.
What’s at stake, after all, is citizens’ representation in Congress. Partisan gerrymandering undermines the whole notion of a representative government. For proof, just look toward the lopsided seat distribution in the current Congress.

There is nothing important about pretty districts. We can measure compactness until the cows come home, and it’s not going to tell us anything we should care about. Compact districts aren’t fairer, or more representative. They certainly aren’t the baseline against which to measure districts. The shape of a district Just Doesn’t Matter.

Worse, the people involved in districting know exactly which party, and which constituencies, would be hurt or helped by pretty lines. So anyone who claims that straight lines and compact shapes are the correct measure of anything is either an operative or a dupe for operatives.

Gerrymandering is drawing district lines for political reasons, whether it’s to respect city, county or other community lines, or to keep geographical regions together, or to separate or bring together constituencies such as ethnic groups, or to help or hurt incumbents, or to help a political party, or, for that matter, to make pretty shapes.1

It is partisan gerrymandering that some people don’t like. But ugly districts are neither a measure of partisan gerrymandering nor even an indication that partisan gerrymandering is at work. Ugly districts only tell us is that districting is based on something other than compactness.

Partisan gerrymandering does happen, though not as much as people seem to believe. Nor are all disparities between the votes parties get and the seats they win the result of gerrymandered lines. Most of the discrepancy is driven by natural groupings of partisans. Indeed, the only way to achieve partisan “fairness” for a state in which Democrats lived mainly in compact urban and suburban areas, and where Republicans were more spread out in less populous areas, would be to draw very ugly lines.

Here is a classic example: Perhaps the most egregious partisan gerrymander was the division of the Dakotas into two states, which was done for the sole purpose of giving Republicans a couple more senators and Electoral College votes. And it was done with a straight line.

Funny-looking districts are amusing, and that’s the only reason to care about them. There’s no reason at all to use compactness as a measure of partisan gerrymandering.

1 Or, for that matter, equal population. Ingraham compares district shapes from the 1950s to current districts, but doesn’t take into account the fact that the districts of the 1950s may have been determined by huge population swings between areas. The Supreme Court didn’t mandate same-population districts (“one person, one vote”) until the early 1960s. That, too, is a kind of gerrymander that will, all things equal, cause less compact districts. But most of us think that rough population equality in districts is a higher priority than straight lines.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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