Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

Reince’s plan, Carrico’s folly

January 25th, 2013, 8:59am by Sam Wang


Here’s an article by Steve Coll on gerrymandering in the New Yorker. The subject is not dying away – quite the opposite.

Some of you thought that the effect I have detected – antidemocratic outcomes in PA, OH, MI, NC, VA, FL, and IN in 2012…

…was somehow peculiar to their population patterns. I’ve been doing analysis showing that the effect wasn’t there in 2010, just two years earlier. I could polish that up to show later.

However, now it’s unnecessary. Republicans have basically owned up in a strategy memo:

As the 2010 Census approached, the RSLC began planning for the subsequent election cycle, formulating a strategy to keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting as a result of reapportionment. That effort, the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP), focused critical resources on legislative chambers in states projected to gain or lose congressional seats in 2011 based on Census data.

Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn. Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.

To fund the initiative, the RSLC raised more than $30 million in 2009-2010, and invested $18 million after Labor Day 2010 alone. Specifically, the RSLC…

Spent nearly $1 million in Pennsylvania House races, targeting and winning three of the toughest races in the state.
Spent nearly $1 million in Ohio House races, targeting six seats, five of which were won by Republicans. Notably, President Obama carried five of these six legislative districts in 2008.
Spent $1 million in Michigan working with the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee and Michigan Republican Party to pick up 20 seats.
Spent $1.1 million in Wisconsin to take control of the Senate and Assembly.

So there you have it. Read the whole thing – it’s illuminating.

This week there’s a new layer: Virgnia state Senator Charles Carrico is sponsoring a plan to allocate his state’s electoral votes by district. This would lead to a mismatch between the statewide popular vote and EV outcomes – just as it has for their Congressional delegation. For instance, the popular vote there was Obama 51%, Romney 48%. But under the new plan, the electoral outcome would be Romney 9 EV, Obama 4 EV.

What’s interesting about this scheme is that it basically pits the interests of the national Republican party against the interests of Virginia voters. Virginia is both a large state and a swing state, and was therefore of great interest to the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Last year, individual voters in Virginia had a lot of influence in the national election. Look in The Power Of Your Vote in the right sidebar. You will see that they were more influential than voters in all but a handful of states.

Such a mechanism is not inherently antidemocratic: in our current system, overall national opinion is measured by Electoral College rules that are largely uniform – and end up mostly in line with the popular vote.

However, Carrico’s rule change would have two effects. One is the outcome desired by RNC chair Reince Priebus: control over electoral vote allocation by the redistricting process. In this scenario, the flaws of the Electoral College are magnified, not reduced.

This leads to the second effect: only one or two districts in Virginia would be up for grabs. Virginia’s power would therefore be reduced to that of South Dakota. No offense to South Dakota, but I don’t think Virginia voters will like that. However annoying it is to live in a swing state in an election year, it’s better than being ignored.

One analysis of this type of rules change misses the point entirely, pointing out that changing all states to Nebraska/Maine allocation rules (1 EV for each district, plus 2 EV for the state’s vote winner) would have produced a Romney win in the last election, 273-265. However, note that the push for change is only occurring in swing states – the same ones where gerrymandering has succeeded to such new extremes. In this respect, a theme has emerged that dates back to Bush v. Gore in 2000, and has continued with voter-ID laws: the goal is to win near-tied situations. It’s an impressive long-term strategy.

Tags: 2012 Election · Politics

34 Comments so far ↓

  • Steve McCluskey

    No doubt the Virginia plan – if passed – will bring Gerrymandering to the courts. Your research will be valuable; stick with it.

  • Froggy

    I don’t think that the Huffington Post piece “misses the point entirely.” First of all, if Romney would have won even if all states had followed Nebraska/Maine rules, then he would have had an even bigger win if only certain select Obama states had had such rules.

    In addition, the analysis shows that the outcome can be flipped without resorting to selectively applying the Nebraska/Maine rules. This is so (I would guess) because of gerrymandering, which is my biggest objection to the Nebraska/Maine approach. Allocate EVs by Congressional district and you increase the incentive to gerrymander the districts.

    • Sam Wang

      Fair enough, but practically speaking the NE/ME approach will not be applied across the board. It will be applied selectively in close states. There’s no way this would be pursued other than in swing states in the news: PA, OH, FL, VA… Generally, gerrymandering is most effective when states are strongly partisan in either direction. So swing states are where this kind of thing makes the largest difference. That’s why we are seeing the pattern we are seeing in the news.

    • Matt McIrvin

      I’d think you’d see a push to apply it in states where one party gets the Presidential electoral votes and the other party controls the state government to some degree. These may or may not be close states. I seem to recall an attempt to do this in California before the one in Pennsylvania, though it died faster.

  • Wheelers cat

    It was a long term strategy a decade ago. Now it’s just tactics. Romney got 59% of the white vote. And it wasn’t enough. Whites are at 72% of the electorate. In 2016 they will be at 70%.
    All gerrymandering can do is preserve a slim house majority in 2014.
    Meanwhile in Texas the reinvented OFA never sleeps.
    Expect us. :)

    • Eli in MI

      Got a couple goosebumps reading this and remembering GOTV in Toledo, where I met a couple folks from Texas talking big things, and I’ve been organizing long enough to know you all are dead serious. :)

      Castro/Castro 2016?

  • DavidT

    It looks like the plan is dead in Virginia–both the governor and some GOP state senators have come out against it.

    My theory of why Republicans would have second thoughts about it: It would lead Democrats to target not the state but potentially winnable congressional districts within the state. And that could lead to the defeat of the GOP congressmen who currently represent many of these seats. In Pennsylvania, it was suburban GOP congressmen from purplish districts who persuaded the legislature not to try a stunt like this for the 2012 election.

    As I wrote elsewhere, “I don’t think Congressmen Wittman, Rigell, Forbes, Hurt, and Wolf are going to like the plan at all. All of them were held to under 60 percent (that sounds like a comfortable margin but Congressmen worry easily) and all come from districts where the presidential race was reasonably close. It’s hard for me to think their concerns won’t be enough to persuade at least one Virginia GOP state senator–which is all it takes to defeat the plan.”

    Let’s hope that similar considerations (and Wisconsin Republicans’ hope to carry their state if Ryan is the presidential candidate in 2016)
    help to defeat the plan in other states. It also helps that in Michigan the GOP governor has already seen his popularity dip after he signed the right-to-work bill, and doesn’t need to be associated with more unpopular legislation when he seeks re-election in 2014.

  • Dave Kliman

    republicans are so disturbing in so many ways. not only do they have really bad economy-crashing policies, but they have to also be so focused on power that they end up having it much more than they should.

    Aaron Swartz was one guy who might have helped us stop them, and now he’s gone. I’m very sad about that.

  • Some Body

    Sam, do publish your analysis! I would strongly disagree with your “it’s now unnecessary” statement. Politicians say what they think their hearers want to hear, and the admission by Priebus you cite here will be vigorously denied elsewhere (plus, there’s a difference between the success they merely claim and the level of success they can be demonstrated to have had).

    • Sam Wang

      You’re right. I was mostly kidding. I vacillate between feeling vindicated and feeling scooped. Who ever wants to know how an episode of Law and Order will end?

      Also, I did notice some errors in their release, for example getting wrong when the minority vote-getter ended up in control. So yes, one must take claims with a grain of salt.

      Will be showing some key calculations later. I think comparison with 2010 (efficacy of redistricting) and comparison of random draws from urbanized and less-urbanized states should do it. Let me know of other weaknesses – I am writing a newspaper piece and want to plug all the logical holes. No peer review, so all I have is you guys.

  • Olav Grinde

    So here is the question:
    What is the Democratic counter-strategy?

    And where can I read about those efforts…?

    I don’t recall hearing about a unified effort to prevent these changes.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Both gerrymandering and the VA rule change are just the latest items in a long history of attempts to reduce the effect of rule by direct popular vote.

    Voter ID, literacy tests, poll taxes, the three-fifths rule, not to mention outright denial of the franchise to certain citizens by race or gender, all have been used to blunt the popular will in favor of the class in power.

    As WCat says, the counter-strategy is daylight.

  • Hans

    While I agree with the general point, Dr. Wang, I feel the need to point out that by at least one standard of fairness, the new plan in Virginia is fairer than the old.

    If the result is 51% Obama, 48% Romney…

    “Perfect System”: Obama 7 EV
    Current System: Obama 13 EV (Abs diff from “perfect” = 6)
    Proposed System: Obama 4 EV (Abs diff from “perfect” = 3)

    I know that the proposed system violates one possible definition of fairness, that is, the popular vote winner gets the majority of the EVs, but the overall EV system already has this potential, so it seems that ship has sailed.

    I’m not arguing that the Legislature is proposing this system because they are searching for fairness. I’m just suggesting that, as a system, in principle, I don’t think it is that much better or worse than the current system.

    Sorry, no haiku from me.

    • Amitabh Lath

      These post-hoc calculations of how the election would have turned out if the rules were different are just finger exercises.

      If the rules had been as the VA house has proposed (or any other system) both the Obama and Romney campaigns would have played to those. There have been countless articles on the Obama GOTV effort,
      and micro-targeting of specific media markets.

    • DavidT

      “I know that the proposed system violates one possible definition of fairness, that is, the popular vote winner gets the majority of the EVs, but the overall EV system already has this potential, so it seems that ship has sailed.”

      Since 1888, 2000 has been the only case where the winner of the popular plurality has not won in the Electoral College. (Though whether JFK won a popular plurality in 1960 depends on how you count the vote in Alabam for a mixed slate of JFK and anti-JFK Democratic electors.) Moroever, since 1876 there has been no case where the winner of a popular *majority* (i.e., over 50 percent) has lost in the Electoral College.

    • Sam Wang

      No, that’s is not the right way to think about it. You are cherrypicking, and wrong. I think it is perfectly noncontroversial to point out that a rule that gives the majority of EV to the candidate getting a minority of votes is antidemocratic.

      Various systems have been analyzed in some detail by Andrew Gelman and colleagues. Of a variety of possibilities, the next-fairest system after a pure popular vote is…the current one. Here is one paper by him: http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/published/ecollege.pdf

    • Hans

      “No, that’s is not the right way to think about it. You are cherrypicking, and wrong. I think it is perfectly noncontroversial to point out that a rule that gives the majority of EV to the candidate getting a minority of votes is antidemocratic.”

      I didn’t think you were being controversial Dr. Wang. I generally agree with your sentiments that this is an overall antidemocratic move. I also think it is telling that the legislature is NOT proposing what seems like the obviously most fair proposition, that is, splitting the EV’s by the popular vote. Also, the paper you provided shows that the overall result on a national basis of every state adopting this policy would be a net increase in the partisan bias.

      I guess all I was doing was pointing out that under this system, the absolute difference between the popular vote EV total calculated on a state by state basis would actually be lower than under the current system of winner take all. This may be an uninteresting point, but it seemed worth stating to me.

    • Craigo

      That’s the best kind of argument – one that is technically correct and substantively meaningless.

      The point is not to have the popular and electoral votes match up as precisely possible. The point is to ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes also wins the most electoral votes. There is absolutely no standard of fairness under which this scheme is an improvement.

  • Wheelers cat

    I’m not kiddin. Daylight is the remedy for gerrymandering. They can’t do it if people are paying attention.
    Surprise! The demographic timer is not the greatest threat to the GOP.
    The democratization of information is the greatest threat.

  • Amitabh Lath

    In the Thomas, Gelman, King, Katz (TGKK) paper, they introduce a fairness metric. This metric defines fairness as vote percentage (V) equaling seat percentage (S).

    In proportional representational system, this is what happens. But any system that is quantized (like our electoral-vote system) can be quite unfair if the distribution of the two parties is not even (say, 55%-45%) but the country is evenly distributed (think Reagan vs. Mondale).

    So the EV system is “fair” (by the TGKK metric) in a 50-50 country. Once the distribution gets lopsided, the only way to be fair is for the minority to segregate itself.

    • Sam Wang

      That is true, but I think the 50-50 criterion is most important of all. The lack of linearity away from that is a problem, but mainly where there are three or more parties.

      Or to put it more accurately, winner-take-all elections lead naturally to two-party systems. Proportional representation would lead to the possibility multiparty arrangements. I rather like that idea — but it’s just not the boat we got on circa 1800.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Well, in the case of EV counting the non-linear behavior away from parity does not matter, either you are >270 or you are not.

      In the case of house seats, fairness seems to depend critically on how homogenous the distribution is. Of course, gerrymandering takes advantage of just this tendency of democrats to concentrate, and exacerbates the already slightly unfair situation.

      Can we define a clumping metric? I’m guessing the deviation from fairness is going to depend on that.

    • Craigo

      True proportionality would greatly increase the likelihood of a contingent election in the House and Senate, which would be an absolute disaster. One state = one vote in that scenario.

      If I could pass an constitutional amendment tomorrow, the states would convert to true proportionality – but the contingent election would be abolished, the electors would actually meet as a body, and they’d vote until someone reaches a majority, like an old-fasioned convention. (Presumably to winnow the field.)

    • Sam Wang

      True proportionality is a pipe dream.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Two party systems tend to stay close to parity. A party that suffers large losses recalibrates.

      Republicans seem to be doing that now: note all the articles on retreats where they get scolded by people like Bobby Jindal and learn how to talk properly to women and hispanics.

      I think I prefer this to a proportional system that creates a stable point with multiple small parties.
      If I lived in the UK I would probably be a melancholy Lib Dem supporter.

    • wheeler's cat

      amit, a presidential system forces parity of sorts, because it forces a two party system.

  • Amitabh Lath

    One of the authors of the TGKK paper (Gelman) has a post at The Monkey Cage blog.

    Basic idea is that the Electoral College does introduce a bias, but a small one. Romney would have needed 50.5% of the national two-party vote to have had an even chance of winning the Electoral College.

    He adds that “In contrast, the bias that would ensue if the electoral vote were conducted via congressional districts—-that would be huge.”

    http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2013/02/01/if-youre-havin-electoral-problems-i-feel-bad-for-you-son-i-got-538-problems-but-partisan-bias-aint-one/

  • Amitabh Lath

    Sam’s Op-Ed on gerrymandering is up on the nytimes website.

  • A New Jersey Farmer

    Great piece in the Times for tomorrow Dr. Wang. Your conclusion shocks me not.

    On another subject, I recently met with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf about teacher evaluation. The post is on my blog, which you can get to by clicking on my name.

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