Many liberals reacted with dismay to the ruling in the Rucho v. Common Cause case, concerning gerrymandering against Democrats in North Carolina. But are Democrats really the victims of gerrymandering as much as the media is saying? To determine this, I analyzed all House election results since 2000, and looked at case studies in a tale of two states: Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Shoe’s on the Other Foot Beyond the Tar Heel State
At a political science conference in Mobile, Alabama a year ago, our keynote speaker from a North Carolina university spoke about gerrymandering, how it’s done, and how bad it is, especially for the Democratic Party.
I asked the following question: “There’s a state with more than 10 congressional districts where the last Democrat to win an election to the House of Representatives occurred in 1994. Over the last two decades, the state has elected several Democrats to the governor’s mansion, and even a Senate election. Would you say this is an example of gerrymandering?”
Of course, many of the conference-goers agreed with this statement. Then I raised my hand for a follow-up statement to the audience. “Actually, I meant to say no Republican had won a congressional election in this state since 1994, and the state itself is Massachusetts.”
Yes, I can be like that. I’m kind of like that valedictorian who claimed to quote Trump to his conservative audience, followed by a revelation that Obama really said that quote that the spectators had just cheered. But there’s a reason why Maryland was brought up in the context of the court case, as the state has had a Republican governor for the last two terms but is dominated by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Analysis of the House of Representatives
If Democrats are correct in their arguments that their votes are being taken away in House elections, it should be reflected in the national vote. In other words, they should be getting more votes across the country, only to have them unfairly portioned out in various districts in various states, so that the Republicans get a majority, right?
Democrats often suggest switching to a continental European system that’s based on party lists or proportional representation systems. (Britain still maintains the single-member district system, and Germany has a hybrid.) Your vote percentage tends to equal your seat percentage with this option, with tiny parties not crossing a threshold being eliminated and those parties getting more votes than the minimum dividing up the rest. What would happen if we had something like this gerrymander-killing electoral rule?
To do this, I looked at all 10 House elections from 2000 to 2018. I examined each party’s share of the vote, which party gained seats, and which party “won” in terms of control of the lower branch of Congress itself. And here’s what I found.
As you can see, the difference between Democrats and Republicans is not as great as one thinks in these elections. In three cases, Democrats have won 50 percent or more of the nationwide vote three times, while Republicans have won 50 percent or more of the vote across the country three times as well.
In fact, Republicans have actually finished first in vote percentage six of the last 10 House of Representative elections. Yet Democrats have gained seats in six of the last 10 elections in these gerrymandered districts. It’s a little harder to argue that gerrymandering inherently hurts the Democratic Party. Of course, Republicans have retained control of the House in seven of these 10 cases, but that’s to be expected given that they finished first in six of them, and over the 50 percent mark more than Democrats. They’ve also won 49 percent or more two additional times, and the Democrats have not.
Does Gerrymandering Really Work?
I’m not arguing that gerrymandering doesn’t exist. We’ve had the I-85 district in North Carolina and the “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” district in Pennsylvania (and yes, it really does look like Disney mayhem), as well as my own district in West Georgia in 2002, where district lines crossed several roads at tangents in our county that confused the heck out of residents, and even the candidates in both parties, who were unsure where to campaign. A representative who came to campaign at our college later learned that his district was actually across the street. I told him that the fraternity houses across the street were his constituents, so that was at least something.
But it’s a game both parties play. And sometimes, parties get too greedy in their district drawing zeal. After the 2000 U.S. Census, the Republican Party tried to draw districts to squeeze out Democrats in the House in Pennsylvania and wound up losing seats, including a powerful member or two. The same thing happened in Georgia after the 2000 Census, though it was the Democrats who tried to stick it to the GOP in the Peach State, and it cost them several winnable elections.
The GOP tried to grab even more districts with their 2010 redraw. Now U.S. Representative Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat, is sitting in Republican Tom Price’s old seat, and GOP Rep. Rob Woodall is retiring after nearly getting ousted in 2018. Democratic incumbents don’t look as vulnerable in the House as they used to, and now they are controlling more seats in the Georgia General Assembly, thanks to redraws around the outskirts of Atlanta, a fact that has the Georgia GOP worried as the party continues to pander to conservative rural districts, moving away from the moderate suburbanites.
Gerrymandering might work for an election or two, but what looks good right after the U.S. Census Bureau’s work is done won’t factor in demographic shifts, people moving, things not considered over a trend that may incorporate data almost two decades old. I can tell you that the Kennesaw area where Newt Gingrich once won looks very different today, not only in how it’s grown but also who lives there now. Plus, parties can’t help themselves, greedily trying to add a pair of districts here and there, spreading themselves too far too thin, only to lose several in the state delegation down the road.
The only solution is what voters have done in several states’ referendums, which involves the selection of a board of nonpartisan politicians to draw districts, which could be a better deal for America. With a mandate of a plan that splits as few counties as possible, we can finally see a welcome change in district drawing in the future.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.