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The mailbag

January 4th, 2012, 9:13am by Sam Wang

Gerrymandering makes for interesting mail! Here are some excerpts.

Journalist P.H.R. writes:

I still don’t grasp how your methodology is supposed to identify non-geographic partisan gerrymandering as a distinct phenomenon. If it did, that would be super. But I just don’t follow… doesn’t bother me — at this stage, anyway — to ignore other concerns, such as minority representation. I just want to understand the logic dividing geographic impacts on redisctricting from all the rest. Lumping all the rest under “potentially partisan” makes perfect sense to me.

My answer:

The general idea is that the US is diverse in many ways: population density, partisan preference, and ethnicity/interest groups. Given that diversity, we can get a sense for what these factors could do to the partisan makeup of a Congressional delegation, by sampling districts around the country to see how they would add up to State X’s vote totals.

My approach is built on the idea that one can account for the general relationship between all this diversity and seat counts. It includes all the factors above. What is left is factors that are peculiar to a state. Since all large states have cities within them, that is not a factor that can account for a particular state’s outcome being different.

Probably the right way to resolve this is to do the same calculation using 2002-2010 House election results. If there’s a big jump in the index I have designed from 2010 to 2012, that would indicate that something happened in 2011. Which brings us back to redistricting.

Finally, several people described some close-up views of redistricting.

Brent Benson, who writes the blog Mass. Numbers, reports:

I had a first-hand look at the redistricting process in Massachusetts as my wife participated in the process as a State Representative. In my opinion, the Democratic supermajority in the Massachusetts state legislature bent over backwards to not gerrymander, going along with your proposition that U.S. gerrymandering is not symmetrical. I actually didn’t see much emphasis on incumbent protection in MA at the Congressional level, to the point that Barney Frank retired rather than face running in a district in which he didn’t feel comfortable and John Tierney came within a a few votes of losing his seat. That being said, all of the Congressional Dems won in MA.

Before anyone makes light of that last sentence…in six races where Massachusetts candidates had opponents, the vote share was 66% D, 34% R (and across all districts, it was 75% D, 25% R). Based on these numbers, a 9-0 split is well within expectations.

S.A. gave a view from Ohio.

Here in Ohio, they tried to institute an “anti-gerrymandering” issue using a citizen’s commission to replace the legislature-drawn districts. It failed miserably because it was unfunded and it was confusing.

As a numbers guy, I thought, “why not solve the gerrymandering problem numerically?” In other words, make some simple, numerical rules, easy-to-measure, easy enough to program, and let the legislature do its gerrymander thing with tight handcuffs on? No “split-line” confusion or anything, use existing precincts, etc.

Eric McGhee from PPIC and The Monkey Cage had many useful comments, focusing in part on incumbency. An excerpt:

First, I think your analysis is more similar to Nicholas Goedert’s Monkey Cage post than you might think…both you and Nick get a total redistricting effect of about 12 seats for Republicans under a counterfactual where every state uses an independent commission. Second, I don’t think you can add this first effect to the 6 or 7 seats that you and I found for the 2011 redistricting. The 2011 effect is (presumably) due to increased Republican control….

[Finally], I hate to climb on my old hobbyhorse, but none of this analysis incorporates incumbency. It’s easy to discount the incumbency advantage because party is so important these days (indeed, the district presidential vote is a much, much better predictor than it used to be). Nonetheless, independent of district partisanship, there’s about a 10 point difference between a seat with a Democratic incumbent and one with a Republican incumbent….

One final thought: I’ve never argued that partisan gerrymanders don’t exist. Certainly, parties often *try* to gerrymander. Instead, I’ve argued (based on a lot of good poli sci evidence) that the intended results often don’t materialize, that there are many constraints that frustrate a party’s attempts at rigging the lines in the first place, that incumbency is often a big part of the story and further complicates efforts at lasting effects, and that any sort of national impact is usually difficult to find.

The first two points are good. Incumbency…this is connected to the question of building competitive districts, a priority for many redistricters.

But “Many constraints that frustrate a party’s attempts”? Hmmm, I would beg to differ. Based on Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, where a 50.6D-49.4R split led to a 43R-18D seat split, it is evidently possible for clever people to find a way around those constraints.

Finally, I thank Corey Kane (soon to be Washington correspondent for the Houston Chronicle) for conversations on this subject some time back. He has a recent piece on gerrymandering here.

Tags: 2012 Election · House · Site News

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