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Media Inaccuracy: Democratic Chances Hampered by Gerrymandering

by David Moon // Published November 7, 2006
Another unquestioned myth swirling around the punditry and media class right now is that Democratic chances of making large gains tonight are hampered by partisan gerrymandering by the GOP.

From the Associated Press:

So why the lack of competitive House races in a politically balanced state that ranks at or near the bottom in so many economic categories?

"The Republicans did a whale of a good gerrymandering job," says John R. Chamberlin, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The races in Michigan exemplify the power of political and racial gerrymandering, which can make some incumbents feel safe even in a campaign year soured by the Iraq war, corruption scandals and pockets of economic misery. The contests show how drawing congressional district lines to protect incumbents makes it harder for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need to capture control of the House.

But is this perspective actually borne out by the data? Not according to FairVote's research on congressional elections.

With rising rates of incumbent retention, lopsided elections and the visceral impact of the Texas re-redistricting in 2003 suggesting to Democrats that Republicans can steal elections through gerrymandering, redistricting processes have drawn increasing attention from reformers and editorial writers. But the bracing reality is that political gerrymandering in 2001-2 only had a minimal impact on overall lack of competition and is not the root cause of the bias toward Republicans that exists in congressional districts. Consider these points:

1. Our elections have been non-competitive for decades, starting well before modern tools of gerrymandering emerged and even before states regularly redistricted at the start of a decade. In 1956, for example, 96% of incumbents won and 95.4% of seats stayed in the same party"s hands; indeed at least 88% of incumbents won in every election since 1952, including 99% in 1968, 97% in 1976 and more than 98% in both 1986 and 1988 - years when more than 85% of all incumbents won by margins of more than 20%.

2. It is true that we are in the midst of the least competitive congressional elections in history, and certainly one can measure specific means by which certain incumbents were protected in 2001-2002. But the great majority of incumbents did not need nor receive any help in redistricting. As the chart in our full report shows, the great bulk of districts were changed by less than 2.5% in partisanship in post-2000 redistricting - 207 out of 326 that we analyzed. Another 77 districts had their partisanship shift by between 2.5% and 5.5%, but only 42 districts were changed by more than 5.5%, which is the only kind of change that alone could turn a competitive race into a landslide win. Yet even in these 42 districts, only 27 of the partisan shifts in redistricting helped the incumbent party.

3. The sharpest decline in competition occurred after the 1996 elections, when no redistricting was happening. The combination of the Cold War ending in 1989, Bill Clinton winning the presidency in 1992 and Republicans taking over the House in 1994 led to a hardening of partisan voting patterns in federal races that contributed to the Republican win in 1994 and a modest Democratic comeback in 1996. But by 1998, the field of play was generally set, with a sharp decline in incumbents representing the opposition party"s district. That year, one in which the impeachment of Bill Clinton only further polarized the country, only six House incumbents lost, and fewer than 10% of races were won by less than 10%. We have experienced single-digit incumbent defeat numbers ever since, and the number of races won by less than 10% have never dropped to fewer than nine in ten races. It is true that redistricting typically would have created an upward blip in competition in 2002, but even such a temporary increase in competitive races would have had a minor impact on the overall problem of lack of voter choice.

4. The same dramatic drop in competition has taken place in states in presidential contests decided by the Electoral College - moving from 24 states being in a swing state position in 1976, representing 345 electoral votes, to just 13 similarly defined swing states representing 159 electoral votes in 2004. State lines of course are not redrawn, and major party presidential candidates have great access to the media and to campaign dollars - but none of those factors have stopped the decline in competitive states. FairVote"s report Presidential Election Inequality, available in hard copy and on-line at www.fairvote.org/presidential, helps shows just how and why this has occurred.

5. Republicans have a definitive edge in the number of districts their presidential candidate carries in a nationally even year, but that edge has in fact declined since the 1970s. Their past advantage was obscured by the fact that so many House Democrats before 1994 were able to represent Republican-leaning districts, but a single-member district"s bias against the party whose support is more concentrated is nothing new.

To be sure, redistricting reform can tame these problems at the margins and reign in politically self-serving redistricting plans - but to achieve true public interest reform and accountability, much more sweeping reforms are necessary, such as proportional voting systems.

[Read the full report]