Gerrymandering

When we assess the outcomes of the 2018 midterm elections, we should be clear about one thing: Democrats should have taken back both the Senate and the House — and they should have done so with enormous, record-breaking margins.

In any reasonable version of the U.S. congressional district map, this would have been the case; however, after years of Republican-led gerrymandering, the Democratic party has to contend not only against the powerful conservative populism of the Trump era, but also against a map that was explicitly designed to make them lose. This purposeful manipulation of electoral boundaries in favor of the Republican party has had an astounding effect on election outcomes. Even as far back as 2008, when Obama won the national popular vote by a whopping 7.3 percentage points, “Democrats won the median House seat by 4.4 points — a pro-GOP bias of 2.9 points.”

That pro-GOP bias of 2.9 points only grew after 2008, and it was responsible for Republicans winning both the presidency in 2016 and the Senate in 2018.

The exact results of the 2018 midterms remain unclear, as districts in California finish counting votes and recounting efforts continue in hotly-contested elections — several with margins of less than 1 percent. At current count, Democrats have taken at least 37 new House seats and may still win several more. It’s estimated that they won the national popular vote by about 7 percentage points. In the Senate, Democrats lost only a few seats after the surprising win of Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona and despite the fact that 74 percent of the 35 Senate seats up for election in 2018 were held by Democrats.

But what do those numbers really mean?

David Wasserman, an expert on congressional redistricting who writes for the nonpartisan FiveThirtyEight.com, calls this gap between the national popular vote and congressional outcomes a “truly historic geographic disadvantage” for Democrats. Wasserman puts the Democratic election disadvantage into context by considering the overall popular vote needed to win a certain number of congressional seats in past elections, compared to now:

“In 2016, Trump lost the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, but Republicans won the median House seat by 3.4 points and the median Senate seat by 3.6 points — that’s the widest Senate gap in at least a century and tied with 2012 for the widest House disparity in the last half-century.”

Regardless of how well Democrats had run their campaigns in the midterms, it was near impossible for them to have taken control of the Senate given the current electoral advantage for Republicans. After all, as Wasserman points out, “the Senate hasn’t had such a strong pro-GOP bias since the ratification of direct Senate elections in 1913.”

Another analysis of the 2016 election conducted by the AP found that there are “four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or Assembly districts than Democratic ones. Among the two dozen most populated states that determine the vast majority of Congress, there were nearly three times as many with Republican-tilted U.S. House districts.” As a result, in 2016, “Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected based on the average vote share in congressional districts across the country.”

If you aren’t convinced yet, here’s another potential outcome of gerrymandering that should strike fear in your heart: three professors of political science who write for USAPP believe that if courts allow partisan gerrymandering to continue unchecked, Trump could lose the national popular vote by as many as 6 percentage points in 2020 and still take the presidency.

While they managed to beat the odds and take the House in 2018, Democrats are deeply aware of the reality that, without meaningful redistricting, they will continue to lose elections regardless of their ability to win the popular vote. This is, of course, why President Barack Obama has taken up gerrymandering as a signature issue for his post-presidency political activism.

The open, unabashed willingness of the Republican Party to continue stealing elections through purposeful miscounting and misrepresentation of voters should be an offense to all American citizens, regardless of political affiliation. The issue is even more important now given the fast-approaching U.S. Census of 2020. Some believe that the Trump administration is already sabotaging the process, hoping to skew electoral representation and allocation of budgets for the next decade.

Allowing elected officials to pick their own voters is a laughable misapplication of so-called representative democracy. If we don’t start scourging the plague of gerrymandering, the disease will spread until it consumes our democracy entirely.

Stamping out the festering infection of bad faith politics starts with ensuring that voters choose their representatives — not the other way around.

 

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.


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