Gerrymandering Abroad

I’ve posted numerous times about the  equally numerous ways in which American gerrymandering distorts elections. Although it hadn’t previously occurred to me, it turns out that  American politicians aren’t the only ones who’ve figured out how to draw lines to do an end run around democracy and ensure continued control by a political minority.

I was commiserating with one of my sons over the results of the election in Hungary. I had hoped that the opposition to Viktor Orban would prevail–the pre-election reporting suggested that there was significant support for that opposition. My son directed me to an analysis in the Economist showing how the Hungarian version of gerrymandering had packed opposition votes into small districts, and–given the Hungarian system–how that tactic guaranteed a victory for Fidesz, Orban’s Neo-fascist, pro-Putin party.

In an upcoming election a populist conservative party is poised for victory. It leads polls by mid-single digits. It is also aided by gerrymandered districts, drawn after it won an election in 2010, which should secure its majority today even if its opponents get more votes. The party is not America’s Republicans, who lead polls by just two points and whose advantage in gerrymandering has dwindled. Instead, it is one that some Republicans cite as a model: Fidesz in Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, which faces voters on April 3rd.

Hungary has a mixed-member parliament. Just over half of mps represent geographic districts; the rest come from party lists allocated in proportion to the national vote. Academics often praise this method. But Hungary’s version is warped.

First, rather than having independent experts draw districts, Fidesz drew them itself. Legislators in many American states do this, too. But in America, constituencies must have nearly equal numbers of people. In Hungary, by contrast, their populations can vary by up to 35%. This lets the party in power pack opposition voters into a few heavily populated districts, and spread out its own among lots of less-populous ones.

Here in the good old U.S. of A, we’ve seen how much game-playing can be accomplished by partisans even when districts must be numerically equal. The key would seem to be the line-drawing role of those partisans–the American rules that allow parties in control of  state legislative bodies to draw that state’s districts, and the Hungarian rules that allow the Fidesz party to do so in Hungary.

In both countries, the goal is the same: to use the line-drawing power to pack opposition voters into as few districts as possible, and to spread out its own voters among a greater number of districts where they maintain a majority, albeit a thinner one. In Hungary, where districts can vary in population, it’s easier to do–but the approach is the same.

Fidesz has deployed this tactic deftly. When it took power in 2010, it fared similarly in the least- and most-populous districts. At the next election in 2014, after it re-drew the borders, its vote share was six percentage points higher in districts with fewer than 70,000 eligible voters than in those with at least 80,000. As a result, Fidesz won 91% of constituency seats and a two-thirds supermajority overall, despite getting just 45% of the vote. In 2018 it won 67% of seats again, with 49% of the vote.

The Economist calculated that– thanks to gerrymandering–Hungary’s opposition would need 54% of votes to control parliament.(Members of parliament vote for the President.) It also calculated that Fidesz could hold on to power with just 43%. “By contrast, at the peak of American Republicans’ gerrymandering in 2012, they needed 48% to win the House of Representatives.

Some political scientists argue that gerrymandering isn’t really a major contributor to  America’s less-than-democratic outcomes–that the urban/rural divide has produced the “packing and cracking” that gives us minority rule. But early results from states that have enacted  redistricting reforms suggest otherwise.

Academic researchers have found–somewhat to their surprise– that redistricting reform moderates the partisanship of Representatives. Studies have also confirmed that the use of neutral institutions such as commissions produces fairer and more competitive elections.

Gerrymandering has been shown to depress turnout– after all, why vote when redistricting has evidently neutered you? In a 2008 study, a researcher calculated that truly competitive House districts could generate up to eleven million additional votes, and that those votes would come disproportionately from states with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices, like Indiana.

The Economist analysis of Hungary’s system suggests that illiberal politicians everywhere will use gerrymandering to retain control and thwart majoritarian choices. (Of course, in Hungary, there’s the depressing reality that Orban remains popular, which makes it easier.)

Here in the U.S., absent solid Democratic control of Congress and/or passage of the election and voting reforms currently stymied by Joe Manchin, our system will continue to discount the clear desires of the American majority.


  1. It’s why those administration officials, or partisan hacks, on television claiming US democracy this or that, are just spewing propaganda. If the media had a backbone, which it is given, but not used, they would ask those officials about why we rank so low as a “democracy” and why they don’t support amendments to fix it.

    Pointing at a Joe Manchin is only convenient because all of the media outlets (both “right” and “left” should be asking their guests why they don’t believe in democratic forms of government.

    You see, it’s the whole truth-seeking pathway. Politicians would stop appearing on TV if the hosts asked them reasonable questions about democracy and why they shouldn’t take bribes, or why they shouldn’t gerrymander districts, or…

    Until that happens across the board, turn off your TVs. They are just bullshit applicators.

  2. “Here in the good old U.S. of A, we’ve seen how much game-playing can be accomplished by partisans even when districts must be numerically equal.”

    The numbers become meaningless when entire groups of people are gerrymandered in or out of a district; gerrymandering where they cross county lines to find the required numbers needed for a representative is only one of the problems. Lines drawn through neighborhoods designating districts divided by which side of the street you live on is another example.

    Here in the “good old U.S. of A” the states are no longer United and within state level political parties, candidates are not united which results in a shaky – or no – party foundation. Nowhere is this more dangerous than in the Democratic slim, somedays none, majority base at the federal level. States are being given too much power to pass laws which go against the Constitution of the United States and their own State Constitution; resulting in citizens losing civil and voting rights.

  3. It’s easy for we Americans to obsess over our own troubles with far-right extremism and its racist, xenophobic and pro-authoritarian movement but, as President Biden said in a recent and memorable speech, the movement is not at all unique to us. It simply cuts a large swath through out country.

    The article at the link below is a couple years old now but I still find it shocking and unnerving just how much of a hold on power the fascists have around the globe. In my view the only way out is through citizen mobilization and voter turnout. MORE people have to get involved in getting others registered to vote, show up to vote, be informed about the true STAKES of these elections, and and which candidates truly stand for the promises made in our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and ALL its Amendments.

    Europe and right-wing nationalism: A country-by-country guide

  4. We need to spend a lot more time and money to convince non-voters to finally come out and play a little politics.

  5. My comment is related to, but not exactly about today’s blog post. Late last evening I was reading the Washington Post online and came across an April 6th OpEd by Mitch Daniels. The title caught my eye, rather than the author, because I would have otherwise had no interest in reading anything written by Mitch Daniels.

    The title is “Let in every last Ukranian who wants to come here”. The article weaves in the political life of Mr. Janos Horvath, a Hungarian man that eventually became a professor of economics at Butler University who had advised Richard Lugar when he was a Senate candidate. After three decades he returned to Hungary in 1989 to once again become a member of their Parliament and served until 2014. He was supposedly pro democracy.

    Upon googling Janos Horvath I found various articles about him, but one article from Hungary Today was about a letter that Victor Orban wrote to Horvath’s family after his death in 2019. Orban praised Horvath and his work as a member of the Fidesz party. Mr. Horvath was a man well respected by Mitch Daniels, was a Butler U economics professor, served President Reagan in some capacity, and then became one of the leaders of the same Hungarian political party that Victor Orban has been leading for many years.

    Was this former Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. really someone who believed in democracy or was his vision of democracy more like an Oligarchy or Neo-fascism?

  6. Patrick – You are so correct about more people needing to get involved in getting others registered to vote. However, in rural areas of Indiana that is much easier said than done. We rural democrats are SO outnumbered and the few of us that are actively trying cannot do it all. The oligarchy owned far right media has accomplished their mission of taking control of this country with propaganda. They recognized that the vast majority of citizens would not be interested in making an effort to question the lies they are continuously fed.

  7. I was FaceBook friend w/ State Senator Leising. I would often post asking for an Independent Redistricting Commission. Her final reply to my posts was “not going to happen” then she unfriended me. lol

  8. Liberal democracy was designed to be and has performed as drawn up to be freedom’s best weapon against authoritarianism. On the other hand, it is not foolproof. Authoritarians have found workarounds. Their motivation is that authoritarianism is necessary for minorities to resist spreading liberal democracy.

  9. Nancy:
    rural NoDak isnt any better.I talk about the ignorance,by focusing how the local use personal slants against a person,over the facts. facts be damn here, few if any will engage.but those who do,at times,will agree. but the hopeful attitude is displaced by how do we change it? their all corrupt. vote,like before they changed your mind. the farm bills passed is a good place to start,then move on to how local media AM radio,farm shows had a new slant near 1990. then the propaganda hit a new high. demos supported farm country more entirly than the so called conservitives,(though they want you to believe it)but nobody argued about food demands. that was before corp enities were allowed to start buying up all the ag indisutries and competion dwindled. focus on how they are now,and i use this word,”required”to buy from focus on how the politicians in any party to prop this up. and explain, you voted for it…
    being in a rural enviroment tests ones knowlege,and background. but lay it on em,tell them that is how they yell you,how to think.. my Biden sticker in my jacked up 4X4 ford, at the recent gas pump price purchase,got me a “Biden needs to be taken out back for a few good ones”,from a local, my words, its not Bidens fault,its proffiteering,buy the corps, and you voted for it..left em with their jaw hangin, but,thats sometimes how its done.maybe he will do his homework and look up the word,proffiteering…best wishes..

    were not gerrymandered here in NoDak,were told how to think..

  10. It’s all about entrenching one’s own party, one’s own power base, for no other reason than the control it gives, and with no concern for the larger society.

  11. You can spend time registering as many folks as you wish. Unless you give them a reason to vote it’s moot.

    It’s always the fault of the electorate amongst the apparatchiks. Hey,how about giving the electorate better candidates? If you can’t do that, your party deserves to wither and die.

  12. Isn’t it wonderful?

    You gotta love America!

    We gave the world Eugenics, we gave the world Gerrymandering, we gave the world Manifest Destiny, we gave the world Slavery on steroids, we showed the world how Jim Crow functions, and effectively I might add! This Experiment, or so-called experiment, Masqueraded/Masquerades as a Democracy but promotes Minority Rule!

    We gave the world the United Nations which is just as inept as the League of Nations before it!

    The child takes after the parent, so the United Nations is just as useless as the League of Nations sibling before it. Just as their parent the United States of America, the United Nations/League of Nations are/were long on Rhetoric and short on action.

    It’s a building full of Peacocks, Grandiose Ligatory, (strangling or breathtaking speech) Narcissistic Grandstanding and Self-Aggrandizing Oratory all to see whose feathers are the most Fetching! All bark no bite? All hat and no cattle? That Bark sounds impressive, that Hat looks impressive, but it’s all for show.

    Just to reiterate, the Nazi German Liebenshrum (room to grow) was based on American Manifest Destiny!

    Why would anyone think voting will change anything? It hasn’t changed anything in all the millennia mankind has had its governments. The French revolution seemed to bring about great change, but in essence, nothing really changed! Those who acquired a taste of power, went down the same path as those who they sent to the Guillotine.

    When the powerful are done eating all of the small fry, they turn on their own! Make people miserable enough, they turn to religion! Except the powerful realized that very thing. So, they control religion! A very useful tool indeed, that way, they can control the minds of those adherents to follow their ‘Not So Subliminal’ Messaging! Human governments have tried both eliminating religion and embracing religion, really to accomplish their political objectives. And, wouldn’t you think that over the many millennia of governments, they could have figured out a just way of governance? It is not in mankind’s heart to be just!

  13. “We gave the world the United Nations which is just as inept as the League of Nations before it!”

    John Sorg; you appear to agree with President Zelensky and me about the uselessness of the UN in Putin’s war against Ukraine. The same can be said for NATO, EU, US and all of our allies who are providing lip service and based on controlling Russia’s economy; ignore that Putin has already started WWIII and has the freedom to continue by all organizations who are supposed to protect and preserve democracy and peace to maintain a free world. When ballet dancers are trained and armed by the military to protect their homeland because the peaceful nations allow a dictatorship to destroy their cities and towns and murder their women and children in the streets; there is something basically wrong with those organizations who talk loud and carry no stick. We are no freer from Putin and Russia’s military than Ukraine or Crimea.

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