What makes a “gerrymandered” district?

by w3woody

Evaluating partisan gains from Congressional gerrymandering: Using computer simulations to estimate the effect of gerrymandering in the U.S. House (PDF)

Abstract: What is the effect of gerrymandering on the partisan outcomes of United States Congressional elections? A major challenge to answering this question is in determining the outcomes that would have resulted in the absence of gerrymandering. Since we only observe Congressional elections where the districts have potentially been gerrymandered, we lack a non-gerrymandered counterfactual that would allow us to isolate its true effect. To overcome this challenge, we conduct computer simulations of the districting process to redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts without partisan intent. By estimating the outcomes of these non-gerrymandered districts, we are able to establish the non-gerrymandered counterfactual against which the actual outcomes can be compared. The analysis reveals that while Republican and Democratic gerrymandering affects the partisan outcomes of Congressional elections in some states, the net effect across the states is modest, creating no more than one new Republican seat in Congress. Therefore, the partisan composition of Congress can mostly be explained by non-partisan districting, suggesting that much of the electoral bias in Congressional elections is caused by factors other than partisan intent in the districting process.

(Emphasis mine)

I’ve always been suspicious of cries of gerrymandering, for a few reasons.

First, what makes a “gerrymandered” district?

A lack of geographic compactness?

There are plenty of areas where similar populations live in areas that are not geographically compact. The foothill communities along the southern part of the Verdugo Hills in Burbank and Glendale (where I used to live) is a thin strip of similar bungalo homes built between the 1930’s and 1960’s perhaps a half mile wide and tens of miles long, along the foothills below the Verdugo Hills. Go north and you’re in vacant land (and the occasional canyon road with scattered rural homes), go south and you’re in apartment complexes and downtown districts and the Burbank Airport.

The strip of communities along Highway 85 in North Carolina from Durham through Greensboro to Charlotte are smaller, exurban and rural towns with a very similar character dotting the freeway surrounded by farmland–a thin strip perhaps a mile wide and a few hundred miles long.

Or look at country shapes: Vietnam, Laos and the southern finger of Myanmar are all thin strips of land far less geographically compact than even the most supposedly gerrymandered districts in the U.S.

A lack of cultural cohesiveness?

One argument against gerrymandering is the idea that one particular group of people who should have representation find their votes scattered across multiple voting districts. But isn’t this an argument against the first point, where certain populations find themselves geographically scattered themselves?

After all, the supposedly 10th worst district in the above list on PJ Media ties together those similar communities along highway 85 in North Carolina. Make the district more compact and those voters may find themselves absorbed (and their voices lost) in larger voting pools from dissimilar cultural groups.

The biggest argument to me against the idea that gerrymandering substantially alters the voting landscape is simple: while in the short term redrawing districts can (and often does) swing votes, eventually because the “rules” of the game have been subtly altered, the players adjust their strategies to match.

Meaning if a gerrymandered district is allowed to stand for more than a few election cycles, the politicians who wish to represent these people alter their campaigns and their “get out the vote” strategies to match the districts they have.

The same argument can be made about the 2016 Presidential Election: of course Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But the popular vote is not how we select Presidents. Had the popular vote been the way we select Presidents, Clinton and Trump would have altered their strategies to match: now President Trump would have spent far more time in the San Joaquin Valley in California with a sympathetic rural (and conservative) population there, while ignoring states where populations totals simply do not move the needle in a popular vote. In a popular election for President, Republican candidates would spend a lot more time counting precincts in places like Selma and Tulare and ignoring places like Alaska and North Dakota: the Fresno MSA (population: 1 million) has more voters as Wyoming (population 585,000) and half of Alaska (total population 741,000). The Bakersfield MSA has as many people as South Dakota, and the Nashville MSA is as large as West Virginia.

In such a world, candidates would not be drawing from this list, but working their way up (or down) this list, generally with smaller areas being more conservative and larger areas more liberal.

And in such a campaign, campaign dollars would alter the fundamental landscape of many of these regions, whose importance suddenly becomes vital to the national landscape. California and New York would be pushed rightward (because far more dollars would be spent persuading citizens there), while smaller rural areas would go even more ignored than they are now on the national scene.

And the same can be said about gerrymandered districts: after the politicians have sorted out who the voters are, strategies change. Arguments change. Politicians–who tend to shape their campaign promises around the issues voters in their district care about–would alter their promises and their statements. (A hypothetical politician who doesn’t care one way or another about abortion rights, for example, would feel free to change his message depending on his voting base. And this isn’t really a hypothetical: the elder George Bush, when running against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries, ran as a pro-abortion rights candidate to differentiate himself; when he found himself on the Reagan/Bush ticket, he changed his tune to the disappointment of his supporters.)

In some way, the argument that politicians would alter their strategies may be the best argument for a computer algorithm, judged as completely impartial by both sides, to draw our districts, and to redraw them as populations change.

This way, we can stop the bullshit arguments which waste so much time and anger so many people and trigger so much distrust in government.