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Correcting the Economist: Partisan gerrymandering, still going strong

January 21st, 2019, 9:44pm by Sam Wang

The Economist ran a Graphic (January 5th) purporting to show that in the 2018 election, partisan gerrymandering was overcome by a wave of opinion. However, this is simply not true.

In the November Congressional election, Democrats took over the House despite about a dozen seats being safely Republican by nefarious means. I wrote them a letter explaining their error – which they printed in their January 19th issue. Go read it!

For those without access, the full text comes after the jump. Also, a scan is here.

Thanks to The Economist and G. Elliott Morris for giving us a hearing!

Postscript: G. Elliott Morris points out that their headline gave a wrong impression. Headline writers have the power to simplify – and to oversimplify.


To the editor:

Your Graphic (“The failure of gerrymandering,” January 5, 2019, page 65) gives a false impression about fairness in American elections. In fact, the bias in the U.S. House of Representatives is still strong.

In five states where gerrymandered lines were still in use (North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maryland), incumbent political parties only lost control of 2 out of 58 seats, or 3%. In contrast, in Pennsylvania, whose gerrymander was overturned in state court, 4 out of 18 seats flipped partisan control, or 22%. So where gerrymandering was still in effect, it nearly froze representation in place – even in the face of the biggest wave of voter sentiment in decades.

In a fair system of single-member districts, a majority party almost always wins a greater share of seats than it does votes. This is an old law of political science. For example, In 2014, Republicans won 53% of the two-party national vote and won 57% of seats. Yet in 2018, Democrats won over 54% of the two-party vote but only won 54% of seats. In short, Democrats underperformed fair expectations, thanks in large part to distorted district boundaries. This asymmetric performance by the two parties is clear evidence of a persistent tilt in the political playing field.

To achieve fair elections, it is important to understand the flaws in the American electoral system. Under current rules, Democrats in 2020 could all too easily repeat what happened in 2012: win the Presidency and popular vote, but fail to control the House. Mitigating this unfairness will require legal reforms to deny politicians a free hand in drawing their own district lines.

Sam Wang
Professor and Director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey USA

Tags: 2018 Election · Redistricting

One Comment so far ↓

  • LondonYoung

    Indeed, it is common practice in news organizations to have a separate team that writes just headlines. This existed in the old “print” days, but has become even more dominant in the modern days of “click”.

    Content writers frequently feel aggrieved and are often not even consulted about what headlines their articles get.

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