In the past decade, a consistent chorus in discussions about politics that has been partisan gerrymandering – drawing congressional district lines to favor one party disproportionately over the other – is unfair and upsets the balance of power in Congress.
Democrats in particular have complained that the process benefits Republicans. Republicans are quick to blame the Democrats for the same in states such as Maryland.
But in the end, the parties’ attempts to gain a seat advantage in the most recent redistribution round ended largely in a to wash – and the razor-thin 2022 by-election results reflected this.
If a political scientist who studies congress, elections, and political representation, I know that redistricting is both more complex and less nefarious partisan than many commentators claim. The truth is that gerrymandering has always been overrated as an explanation for election results in Congress.
Let’s go through some of the reasons.
Does gerrymandering distort election results?
The Constitution requires that every 10 years, after the 10-year census, states redraw the geographic boundaries of congressional districts. The goal is largely to ensure that the districts are as equal as possible based on population.
Most states rely on their state legislatures to draw these lines. Critics of this process argue that in many cases it results in gerrymandering: the drawing of districts specifically to maximize the number of seats for the party that controls the legislature.
In many individual states, partisan majorities in state legislatures have drawn boundaries that result in congressional delegations that do not reflect statewide voting. In 2021, for example Republicans in South Carolina drew districts that gave their party six of the delegation’s seven seats in Congress, despite the party’s win only 56% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats in Illinois, meanwhile, won 59% of the presidential election in 2020; but after the 2022 midterm elections they occupy 82% of the state’s congressional delegation, or 14 of the 17 seats, thanks to the redistribution of the highly democratic state legislature.
The fact that both sides excel at gerrymandering meant that their efforts ahead of the 2022 midterms essentially cancel each other out. As a result, the distribution of seats in the new Congress largely reflects the national political climate in the interim. In 2022, Republicans won 51% of seats in the house, and 51% of the nationwide vote for the congress.
These numbers pose a problem for gerrymandering critics, especially those blaming it for the current minority status of the Democrats in Congress. If gerrymandering significantly favored one side or the other, these numbers would not match.
But this alignment between seats and votes is not a new trend. In the three most recent congresses, the balance of congressional seats between the two parties is nearly identical to the percentage of votes each party received in congressional races nationwide. For example, in the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats won 54% of the congressional vote nationwideand ended with 54% of the seats in the House.
Data I’ve collected for other cycles shows a discrepancy between seats and votes during the Obama years, and it’s likely true that the pre-2012 redistricting process cost Democrats a few seats in that decade.
But gerrymandering has not always favored Republicans: Democrats enjoyed a greater and more lasting advantage of their district boundaries in the 1970s and 1980s. And if gerrymandering was ever the main cause of Democrats’ seat deficit in the House, it isn’t today.
Geography is important, just not in the way you think
Democrats and their allies have been particularly outspoken in their disdain for gerrymandering, in some cases using the same fatalistic language about elections as former President Donald Trump.
For example, an argument during the Obama years was that gerrymandering had won.impossiblefor Democrats to win the House. Sometimes it language mirrored that of Trump — which had gerrymandering “manipulatedCongressional elections in favor of Republicans.
Aside from the well-established hazards of questioning the country’s electoral systems, the evidence simply does not support this doomsday perspective. Democrats have big problems with geography, but they go much deeper than wrongly drawn lines.
Over the past 30 years, US counties becoming less and less competitive between parties in presidential elections.
In 1992, the vast majority of provinces were won by narrow margins and thus by both sides winning. Only 1 in 3 provinces was won by either side by more than 10 percentage points.
But today the story is the opposite. Nearly 4 of 5 counties in 2020 were decisively won — by 10 points or more — by Joe Biden or Donald Trump.
The problem for the Democrats is that these emerging landslide counties vote almost exclusively for Republicans. The thing about counties, though, is that their boundaries don’t change. This means that the huge geographical advantage Republicans enjoy cannot be attributed solely to gerrymandering.
The real explanation is the geographical sorting of the two parties in the past 30 years or more. Democrats have declined as a presence in rural counties, particularly in the South and Midwest, while increasing in numbers in counties with large cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.
These latter areas have such large populations that decisively winning them will allow Democrats to remain competitive nationally, despite the more even geographic spread of Republican support across the country.
The data largely indicates that this phenomenon, not gerrymandering, is responsible for the Democrats’ underperformance. The clustering of Democratic votes in major cities makes it more difficult for any entity — including courts and nonpartisan committees — to draw district lines that ensure Democrats get the most possible seats in Congress. Because Democrats live in denser, more tightly packed cities, they can’t distribute their votes as efficiently across geographic districts in a state.
Meanwhile, because Republican support is more evenly distributed geographically, there are more and better options for them to win many districts rather than just many votes. Simply put, because of where they usually live, Republicans squander less of their votes than Democrats.
Gerrymandering is still a problem
None of this means that partisan gerrymandering doesn’t happen, or that no effort should be made to resolve it.
If both sides gerrymander so effectively that they wipe out each other’s gains, this has major implications for political institutions and culture, even if they are not reflected in the national balance of power.
Gerrymandering has been increasingly the subject of it judicial challengesthereby further adding politics to the supposedly non-political justice system of the US.
It also has tangible effects on ordinary Americans. My own research shows that changing district lines can disorient voters and reduce turnout. It can also reduce voters’ sense that their vote makes a difference.
South Carolina Democrats and Illinois Republicans, I think, would feel better represented if they could see delegations that more accurately reflected their state’s electorate.
In addition, partisan gerrymandering often means ignoring important local city and county boundaries, as well as local cultures, neighborhoods and industries – what political scientists call “communities of interest” – which have little to do with partisanship, but mean a lot to ordinary people.