In Defense of Gerrymandering

I will readily admit that Kelli Lundgren is better informed about the re-districting process carried out by the state legislature after the 2010 census than I am. She could hardly be less, since I paid it no attention whatever. I’m also willing to agree that the legislature practiced “gerrymandering,” because, as I tell my students, gerrymandering is what your political opponents do (and what you would do if you were in power).

So let’s assume arguendo, that the districts in the state of Utah (and in every other state, including the ones that re-district by commission) are gerrymandered. The question is whether or not this is a bad thing. I’m going to make the case that it is not.

The function of representatives is to represent. And despite the fact that voters tell pollsters that they want a representative who will put special interests aside, and vote for the good of the country, their voting behavior makes it clear that they really want a representative who votes to advance their personal interest, one who votes consistently for the policy positions they favor. That result is much easier to attain with gerrymandering.

Let me illustrate.

Let us suppose a unicameral legislature of 100 representatives. Let us suppose an electorate consisting of 51% Rightists and 49% Leftists, in both cases so committed that they vote 100% of the time.

The best (and only sure) way to avoid any taint of gerrymandering is to elect representatives at large. That is, our 100 legislators would submit themselves to the entire body politic, with each voter getting 100 votes.

What would be the result? Obviously, the result would be a legislature made up of 100 Rightists and no Leftists. (One might remark that that’s pretty much what happens in Utah anyway, and who am I to disagree?)

The result would also be very happy Rightists, and very unhappy Leftists.

So lets now gerrymander the hell out of this legislature, and see what we get.

There are two basic methods of gerrymandering: “cracking” and “packing.” In cracking, the minority faction of the electorate will be spread out among the districts in such a way as to remain a minority in every district. In packing, the minority will be crowded into as few districts as possible, making them safe “majority-minority” districts, while the majority will capture all the “majority-majority” districts, of which there will be more, by definition, than majority-minority districts.

We needn’t spend any time on cracking, because the ultimate “cracked” districting is the at-large system. Any less extreme cracking can only approach this ideal to a greater or lesser extent.

But by “packing,” we could gerrymander all the 51% of the Rightists into districts that are 100% Rightist, and crowd the 49% Leftists into solidly Leftist districts. That would give us a legislature made up of 51 Rightists who always vote in line with their constituents, and 49 Leftists who always vote in line with their constituents.

In which legislature will the voters be more satisfied with their representation?

The real world is messier than our example, of course, and we could never achieve a perfect separation of Left and Right, but in terms of voter contentment, it should be clear that gerrymandered districts can be quite satisfactory to the voters. At least they could be if we didn’t have Goo-Goos constantly telling us how corrupt the system is. (Actually, there is little evidence that the electorate at large gives a red rat’s rufous rump about what the Goo-Goos say, about this or any other subject.)

Is there some evidence that the more gerrymandered districts of today are more satisfactory to voters than the more competitive districts of the past? Maybe there is.

There is a very strong correlation between re-election rates to the U.S. House of representatives and the increased gerrymandering made possible by computer modeling and enhanced demographics. Re-election rates depend on numerous factors, of course, but most of those have remained constant, while computer modeling has improved. Re-election rates in the House are now consistently over 95%. (Re-election rates in the Senate remain lower – tho still high – perhaps because it is impossible to gerrymander when candidates run state-wide.)

So. As between highly competitive districts and districts that closely mirror the ideological predilections of their voters, which should we choose? Is it better to have a system that regularly produces elected representatives who actually represent the views of the voters, or should we insist that there be a bloody battle in every district every time?

One other note: in that messy real world, quite often we see committed partisans on one side, and committed partisans on the other, with a minority of “centrists” controlling the outcome. In those cases, a majority of the voters will be unhappy in virtually every election, as candidates ooze toward the “mushy middle,” depriving the partisans of the champion they so earnestly desire.

Eliminating gerrymandering in the real world will only exacerbate this tendency. Is that what we want?

In the words of my favorite New York cabbie, “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.”

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