Gerrymandering

If Republicans Are Doomed in 2018, It's Not Because Some Gerrymandered Districts Got Redrawn

If Republicans get crushed in November, it will be because they tied themselves to an unpopular president and abandoned promises to cut spending.

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Source: Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Gerrymandering—the process of drawing congressional districts within a given state to deliberately advantage one party or another—distorts the will of the voters and has significant consequences for policy making. It helps entrench incumbents, makes life more difficult for third parties, and often gives an edge to candidates at the extremes of the political spectrum.

Libertarians, and others outside the red-blue binary, should want to reduce gerrymandering as much as possible, in the interest of creating a somewhat level playing field for future elections. As I write in this month's print edition of Reason, it's probably not possible to fully remove partisan influence from congressional map-making, but mapping technology and district-drawing algorithms can help limit some of the worst abuses on both sides. To the extent that those solutions can be implemented at the state level, they should be welcomed and encouraged.

But we should be careful, I think, about overstating the extent that gerrymandering is responsible for macro-level outcomes like control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Gerrymandering can have significant influence on the outcome of individual congressional races—and for that reason alone deserves attention—but gerrymandered districts (or the lack thereof) did not singlehandedly swing Republicans into power during the 2010s. And if the GOP is bounced from control of the House this November, gerrymandering will not be the reason why.

That's not what partisans on either side want you to think. No one less significant than former President Barack Obama has blamed Democratic losses during his admininstration on "sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican." Eric Holder, Obama's attorney general, is now heading a campaign organization aimed at helping Democrats retake state legislative seats before the 2021 reapportionment happens.

On the right, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Penn.) announced this week that he would not run for reelection, a decision that has been widely attributed to the fact that his district—one of the most highly gerrymandered in the state, until it was recently redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—now tilts towards Democrats.

Summing all this up, The Week's Damon Linker, a former conservative, says Republicans "decided to embrace flagrant cheating" in the last redistricting cycle to ensure a House majority via gerrymandering. Take Pennsylvania, he writes, where Republicans lost the statewide cumulative vote in the 2016 House elections but ended up winning 13 of the 18 districts. Remove that unfair advantage, Linker concludes, and Republicans would rightfully become a minority party.

It's certainly true that gerrymandering helped to shore up Republican majorities in Congress during the Obama years, but un-gerrymandering is not going to be the thing that costs the GOP it's control of the House. To understand why, look at this analysis from The Cook Political Report. It compares the Republican-drawn districts used in Pennsylvania for the 2012, 2014, and 2016 cycles with the new districts drawn by the state Supreme Court for the 2018 cycle.

I've recreated the The Cook Political Report's chart below, to better illustrate the point:

Cook Political Report

Most observers agree that the new map tilts towards Democrats in subtle ways (more on that here), but overall it's a more fair product than the map it replaced.

You'll notice that Republicans are still favored to win 11 of the 18 districts, based on registration alone. That's despite the fact that Pennsylvania has about 900,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. The reason? Pennsylvania, like America as a whole, is a natural Republican gerrymander—by which I mean that Democrats tend to be clustered closely together and Republicans spread out over larger areas. The GOP has a natural advantage, given the current ideological and geographical bent of the two major parties, even without any creative district-drawing.

What does this mean for November? In a year with no generic advantage for one party or the other—like in 2016, when the GOP lost the statewide cumulative vote by a narrow margin—Pennsylvania's new congressional map might cost Republicans one or two seats, depending on how the votes were distributed. Going from a 13–5 edge (which the GOP had before the special election in the 18th district earlier this month) to a 11–7 edge would be a disappointment for Republicans, but hardly enough to doom the GOP's chance of controlling Congress, as Linker predicts.

What would doom Republicans, though, would be an election cycle where Democrats had an overall five-point advantage. On the new map, that would be enough to give Democrats 10 of the state's 18 seats. A result like the one in the special election earlier this month, where Connor Lamb overcame an R+11 registration edge to win in the old 18th district, would be catastrophic for the Pennsylvania GOP.

But if that happens, it won't be because new lines were drawn. A D+11 wave would have swamped the GOP even under the old map.

If Republicans get crushed in November in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere), it won't be because of redistricting. It will be because they tied themselves to an unpopular president, because Republicans are less likely to vote for a party that abandoned promises to downsize government, and because Democrats are increasingly energized to vote the GOP out. And it will be because voters of all stripes are still angry at the status quo—and for now at least, Republicans are the status quo.

Whatever its effects, redistricting reform is a worthwhile project for both parties to pursue before the next round of map-making occurs in 2021.

If and when Democrats "breach the barriers erected by the GOP in Congress and key states," Linker writes, "liberals and progressives can begin to dismantle these institutional obstacles to majority rule." He believes Democrats will be "unlikely to enact in-kind countermajoritarian hurdles against Republicans," and will be happy to have merely "a fair chance to compete."

I'm skeptical about that too. Democrats—given the chance—would likely attempt to enact favorable gerrymanders in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, just as they've already done in places like Maryland and Illinois. I hope Linker is right, but in the event that he's wrong, citizens should push politicians of both parties to mutually disarm the congressional gerrymandering threat.

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  1. You’re not wrong that Republicans are in trouble because they’ve tied themselves to an unpopular president and backed away from all of their pledges once they were in power, but give the Democratic talking point about gerrymandering a rest. Gerrymandering was going on way before Republicans won state houses and not a single article was written here about Illinois or Maryland’s gerrymandered districts. You guys really need to read something outside of the NYT and Vox.

    1. Maybe that was an unfair point, because you are pushing back against Linker’s contentions, but this sudden obsession with gerrymandering is about as transparent as the NYT suddenly becoming hawkish against Russia.

      1. The issue truly is bi-partisan.

        Always has been. After all, the father of gerrymandering, Elbridge Gerry, was a Democrat-Republican.

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      2. As I asked elsewhere here…how do they think the Democrats held the House for over 40 years?

  2. Phony baloney Dow Jones and unemployment numbers are not going carry the day for the Republicans come November.

    1. We know donkeys love high unemployment and losing stock markets so their free shit agenda gets traction.


  3. Libertarians, and others outside the red-blue binary, should want to reduce gerrymandering as much as possible, in the interest of creating a somewhat level playing field for future elections.

    Why would equality of outcomes be a libertarian concern?

    1. Serious question: Does it cause you physical pain to read a phrase like “level playing field” but react to it as though you read a completely different phrase like “equal outcomes”? I’m just asking because I’m not sure I could endure that level of intentional cognitive dissonance.

      1. In one article they rail against duopoly, and in other’s they enshrine it, so the phrase ‘level playing field’ in terms of Reason writers isn’t necessarily a given.

        But no, let us continue to pretend that voters exist only as a blue or red down-ticket vote and apportion them accordingly. After all, primaries and 3rd parties don’t exist right?


        As I write in this month’s print edition of Reason, it’s probably not possible to fully remove partisan influence from congressional map-making, but mapping technology and district-drawing algorithms can help limit some of the worst abuses on both sides.

        So, remove the power from elected representatives and hand it off to a third party that’s completely unaccountable. I’m sure that will be a better system, but not necessarily from a libertarian point of view. From a technocratic or utilitarian perspective, maybe.

        1. Boehm’s claim that you originally quoted is that libertarians and independent voters should want a level playing field, which means a system of clear, fairly enforced rules that aren’t being gamed by either or both of the two major players. Your response was about equality of outcomes, which is a completely different concept.

          So the question is whether you’re intentionally engaging in intellectual dishonesty or you’re merely being stupid. Your generous deployment of fallacies in hopes of distracting me doesn’t really clarify that question.

          1. Specifically, the explicit rules were broken in order to enforce this so-called ‘level playing field’ by judicial diktat that is not, strictly speaking, a level playing field at all.

            So I’m curious what your point is here.

            1. Oh, nevermind I see what your point was:

              …fairly enforced rules that aren’t being gamed by either or both of the two major players.

              In essence, your point was ‘unaccountable partisan programmers are better than semi-accountable partisan politicians’ which is notably what I already figured given that rules will always be gamed.

              The fact remains that an actual and honest ‘level playing field’ isn’t what’s being discussed since that wasn’t the end result of this unconstitutional power grab. One could argue it’s closer to that, but if it still isn’t that it makes one wonder if the Democrat controlled courts didn’t just decide that they wanted to tilt the table without having won the requisite elections per the explicit rules.

              You talk about ‘fair rules’ but there already are rules that aren’t being honored so in reality you care about the ‘fair’ portion. What is ‘fair’ in your view? An equal chance at winning is my assumption given that Republicans already won fairly.

      2. The Democrat’s complaint about in Pennsylvania came quite literally to objecting that they were not being elected equivalent to the population percentage despite their voters being heavily concentrated in compact geographical areas.

        1. And as the constitution sayeth, people from Bumfuck counties deserve more representation, even if it means the state delegation directly contradicts the will of the state’s people. Because Republicans are just extra right about stuff. Amen.

          1. You lying little weasel. Commit suicide.

          2. The Democrats were looking for equality of outcome, despite that they need gerrymandering due to their tendency to clump together.

          3. And as the constitution sayeth, people from Bumfuck counties deserve more representation, even if it means the state delegation directly contradicts the will of the state’s people.

            Perhaps dipshit Progs shouldn’t only live in tiny enclaves.

            Apparently, Tony doesn’t like “gerrymandering” unless it gives cities control over huge swaths of land.

            1. So this is like apparently a serious talking point among you ratfucking cheaters? To live densely is to more likely be progressive. That means they’ll always be on the ass-end of democracy. So if anything we should not have the system cheat for the other team. Right?

              1. So this is like apparently a serious talking point among you ratfucking cheaters?

                Rat fucking?

                Man, and your mom spoke highly of you.

                To live densely is to more likely be progressive.

                Yes, to live in extremely close proximity to others is the height of progressivism. Easier to control plebes in a small area. We get it.

                That means they’ll always be on the ass-end of democracy.

                My heart bleeds for you. Really, it does.

                So if anything we should not have the system cheat for the other team. Right?

                Dems cheated for DECADES. Forgive me if I find their distaste now a bit amusing.

  4. liberals and progressives can begin to dismantle these institutional obstacles to majority rule

    Translation: hand over your wallet and bend over.

  5. Eric, it’s not ‘fair’ because the Democrats, and the Democrats controlled PSC are violating Pennsylvania law to do it.

    Redistricting is done by the legislature, not the courts. Period. The Dems thought it was fine when THEY were the ones creating districts that cut out Republicans.

    The GOP won. Elections have consequences.

    The Dems are literally, and very publically, doing something illegal to steal the election and they’re being applauded.

    Why do things always become ‘unfair’ and illegal when the GOP uses them to their advantage? (and become absolutely fine again AFTER GOP people have been jailed for them?)

    But you go ahead and rely on Hillary’s pollsters. It worked so well for you last time.

  6. Some people say that the Democratic Party is not running any exciting candidates for Congress this year–they’re all vanilla and boring.

    But those people must not be aware of Hans Keirstead.

    Hans Keirstead is:

    – World-famous medical scientist

    – World-famous high-tech pioneer

    – Professor of neurology and neurosurgery, U. California Irvine

    – Hugely successful tech-innovative entrepreneur, serial founder of successful startups, creator of high-wage, high-skill, skill-improving jobs

    – Self-made high-eight-digit or maybe nine-digit net worth, starting from near-zero, got his wealth the old-fashioned way, by earning and creating it

    – Black belt (Taekwondo)–how many congressmen could beat the shtt out of their own security-men (if for some reason they wanted to)?

    – Currently attempting to kick the oversized backside of the odious Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th district. The race is considered a toss-up.

    1. What do you find particularly “odious” about Rep. Rohrabacher?

      1. Rohrabacher isn’t anti-Russian, according to polite society which totally doesn’t want war with Russia, but actually wants war with Russia because someone needs to be held accountable for Her Highness losing.

        Interesting note, Rohrabacher use to be closely aligned with Samuel Edward Konkin III and whatever the name of that old libertarian student organization use to be called

  7. by which I mean that Democrats tend to be clustered closely together and Republicans spread out over larger areas.

    That’s because Democrats live sustainably… in Townhouses and luxury high rises. Republicans are yokels who live out on the back 40.

  8. If and when Democrats “breach the barriers erected by the GOP in Congress and key states,” Linker writes, “liberals and progressives can begin to dismantle these institutional obstacles to majority rule.”

    Would this majority rule look different than the majority rule Democrats held prior to 1994 for forty years?

  9. The census thing is entirely about the fact that Republicans ran out of gerrymandering and needed to move onto another form of cheating to win. It’s about nothing else. Congress does not represent the will of the people, even if we look at the state level. The EC fucked the will of the people twice in my lifetime, and obviously there was no purpose or principle behind it.

    If Democrats were cheating to win this much you guys would all have opposite opinions on court intervention and the virtues of all these various means of cheating. And everyone knows it, most of all yourselves.

    Have any of you principled libertarian nonpartisans ever tried actually having a principle? As in, even if it hurts the Republican party?

    1. and obviously there was no purpose or principle behind it.

      Yes, there was. Reasonable people can debate that the EC may or may not have outlived its usefulness, or was a wrongheaded way to deal with the reason it was created. But it absolutely had a purpose and principle behind it.

      1. Paul, Tony isn’t reasonable, or a person. Creatures like Tony are exactly why we need the EC more than ever now. Without it, trash like him would dominate the country from a few large coastal cities and completely disenfranchise the rest of the country. Which is EXACTLY what the founders were trying to prevent.

        Monsters like Tony don’t care about representation. They care about power and domination.

        1. The people who favor our system’s structural amplification of yahoo voices tend to be half-educated, bigoted, backward, superstitious, right-wing, downscale, stale-thinking people who wound up on the wrong end of bright flight for generations.

          Carry on, clingers.

      2. Whatever it was, it didn’t work those times.

        1. Tony, Fuck off. You’re a lying disingenuous shot weasel. You don’t give a shot about darkness, decency, or freedom.

      3. Paul, that involves thought and we know Tony isn’t much for that type of thing.

    2. Or perhaps there’s another way. Maybe we should heed the well-thought advice of the New York Times Op Ed section and Cancel the Midterms.

      That could shake up democracy.

      1. I would much prefer to raid all the leftist media outlets and charge all of,them with sedition and perhaps some light treason.

        1. Sign me up.
          One of the worst is right down the street…

  10. As is the norm, Leftists only object to discrimination when it is discrimination that they do not approve of.

    In the case of majority minority districts, they will somehow bless this sort of bias — because it feels ‘fair’ to them.

    Leftists live and die by bias. If gerrymandering is to be eliminated, let it replaced by districts that are geographically compact and fuck the Leftist need to rationalize their own bias as acceptable. In documenting and drawing district boundaries of equal size, let every citizen be identified only as that, without any of the parameters that Leftists adore in order to pit one faction against another and determine on whose scale they will choose to put their thumb.

  11. Again, Trump is not to blame for the likely GOP loss.

    LYING to voters for years and years is.

    When you campaign for seven years that they will kill Obamacare and, when given an actual chance to do so, refused to do so, that isn’t on Trump.

    When you campaign on ending Obama’s illegal immigration policy and, when given a chance to do so, refuse to do so, that is not on Trump, either.

    When you promise to de-fund Planned Parenthood and, then, pass a budget that does the opposite…that is not on Trump.

    If the GOP loses, it is because the voters recognize the GOP has no principles.

    1. It’s worse than no principles. If they were totally lacking in principles, they’d do what they campaigned on just to keep their voters happy.

      But they’re not doing that, they’re undertaking actions which seriously piss off their own base. That’s principles, in operation, when you’re willing to do something no matter the personal cost.

      They’ve got principles, alright, They were just lying about what they were.

      1. True. A lot of these Senators voted for the numerous “Let’s kill Obamacare” bills when Obama was in office. The media is never asking them “Hey, why did you vote AGAINST it here?”.

        The party seems to think the party really isn’t very serious about stuff like illegal immigration and spending. That Democrats are happily spiking the ball on how great THEY did with the omnibus and I cannot find a single Republican saying the same is telling.

    2. On immigration, it’s clear that GOP voters are diametrically opposed to GOP donors. The voting block wants to get rid of immigrants in order to raise wages. Why the hell would any business owner take an action that raises wages?

    3. If the GOP loses, it is because the voters recognize the GOP has no principles.

      or maybe people prefer the libertarian positions on immigration, protectionism, abortion, the drug war, military belligerence and spending, and the like.

  12. “If Republicans get crushed in November, it will be because they tied themselves to an unpopular president and abandoned promises to cut spending.”

    Much more the latter than the former, actually. If you get past the gross popularity numbers, into the cross-tabs, you’ll find that Trump has a perfectly normal popularity level among Republicans and Republican leaning voters. His total popularity level is unusually low only because about 95% of Democrats hate him with the fury of a thousand exploding suns. You average that with being normally popular among Republicans, and you get about 40% support.

    The political implications of being hated by people who were never going to vote for your party to begin with are questionable.

    The real thing that’s killing the Republicans is that, whenever they end up in the majority, they make clear by their actions that they never meant anything they’d said when running for office, and their own base gets demoralized/pissed off about it.

    That Omnibus Pork bill is going to be a real millstone around their necks this fall, which is why they made sure to schedule the vote too late for challengers to enter the primaries. Trump signing it didn’t help him, but he’s got a couple years to recover from it. The House members are running in the middle of a firestorm they lit themselves.

  13. Gerrymandering is blatant gaming the system and should be eliminated. Nationwide it will be a devastating blow to Republicans, so bring it on.

    1. No, not really, because the Democrats do it, too. If you could eliminate it entirely, nation-wide, it would almost completely wash out.

      The Democrats are hoping for a devastating blow by only eliminating it where it benefits Republicans, while keeping Democratic gerrymanders in place.

      1. Yeah, those minority-majority districts would cease to exist without gerrymandering heavily.

  14. Well the Dems are doing a bang up job of killing their wave, what with their gun bans and amendment repeals.

    1. Yeah, two major parties, each worse than the other.

      For at least a generation now, gun control has been the hill Democrats go to die on, every few election cycles. Then they regroup, gradually forget the consequences, and try it again.

      They must really be dedicated to eventually disarming us; if they could just forget about gun control for 20 years straight, they’d own the country.

  15. Unpopular?!

    You’ve been reading mass media and not the polls. Not only are Trump’s current approval numbers similar to Obama’s at the same point in time, but his approval has actually been higher at least once in the last year.

    Yes, he is unpopular with Liberals and Never-Trumpers, but they didn’t elect him either.

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  17. “Democrats tend to be clustered closely together and Republicans spread out over larger areas.”

    This is how things are usually framed, but actually I would say the reverse is true?Democrats are more spread out across the country while Republicans are more concentrated. Democrats get at least 20-30% of the vote pretty much everywhere in the US, but there are some urban centers where Republicans regularly poll in the single digits.

    This framing has a lot of implications; for example, some people assume Democrats would do better if they were less dominated by big-city interests and traded some of their 90% center city voters for suburban swing voters, but actually the Democrats could achieve the same thing by trading their 20-30% of voters in deep Red rural areas for suburban swing voters. As politically balanced suburbs’ economic interests becoming increasingly tied to their core cities, I predict this is the path Democrats will take.

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