Tag Archives: gerrymandering

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.


A Problem? Or A Solution?

A columnist from Yahoo News has pinpointed what he describes as a “big problem” for Democrats. My reaction to the headline was along the lines of, “so what else is new”…every time I turn to an opinion page, someone is outlining yet another reason that Democrats are headed down the toilet, and taking the country with them.

When I read the essay, however, I was struck by the irony. Here’s the basic argument:

New Census data analyzed by the American Enterprise Institute shows that eight of the 10 states losing the most residents from April 2020 through June 2021 have Democratic leadership, while nine of the 10 states gaining the most new residents have Republican governors. The numbers measure net domestic migration, which is the net change in the number of people moving in or out of one state, from or to another. That isolates people choosing to move, whereas population growth alone would also include births and deaths….

This is a big problem, according to the author, because…

Population determines the size of each state’s delegation in the House of Representatives, and red states are gaining while blue states are losing. Following the 2020 Census, three seats moved from blue states that went for Biden in 2020, on net, to red states that voted for Trump. That shift might seem small, except Democrats have only a five-seat majority in the House now. The next reapportionment won’t take place until after the 2030 census, but it could bring an even bigger tilt in favor of Republicans.

Or not.

What if the people moving from blue to red states are mostly moderates or liberals? (Granted, there’s no way to estimate their politics). Isn’t it possible that an influx of more moderate and/or liberal folks will change the social dynamics of their new environments? I still remember an article urging Democrats to move to places where their votes might make a difference, rather than staying in deep-blue states like New York or California where they simply add to already massive Democratic majorities.)

One might also point out that the addition of a sufficient number of non-Rightwing voters to the electorate of a red state makes it harder for the Republicans of that state to gerrymander districts. We are seeing a related phenomenon in Indiana–where the emptying-out of rural areas has complicated GOP line-drawing–and the problem isn’t limited to the Hoosier state.

If you can believe some good news on the gerrymandering front, Greg Sargent recently delivered some via the Washington Post.

The long-awaited, long-feared Gerrymandering Apocalypse of 2021 has not materialized for Democrats after all.

Throughout last year, many analysts and panicked Democrats alike concluded that Republicans would win the House in 2022 because of their outsize control over the redrawing of district lines. Some suggested Republicans could take the House on the strength of extreme gerrymanders alone.

But that conventional wisdom just took a big hit with the release of a new analysis by the Cook Political Report. It concludes that the redistricting wars are shaping up as a wash and that the map may be somewhat better for Democrats than during the past decade.

The analysis confirms that Republicans will still retain a significant edge, thanks to their redistricting shenanigans, but that edge will be somewhat less than before.

Why is that? What restrained them? (Hint: it wasn’t a sudden attack of ethics.)

This time around, Republicans have had to shore up their safe seats, and the need to do so has limited their ability to gerrymander as aggressively as they otherwise would have done. (Also, to be fair, in Democratic states, the Democrats gerrymandered too.)

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report is quoted as explaining that there are several places where  demographic shifts benefit Democrats, particularly in suburban areas, forcing  Republicans to “play keepaway. A number of their own districts have become more vulnerable over the past 10 years. They’ve had no choice but to focus on shoring those districts up.”

Demographic shifts are the result of more moderate and liberal people moving in, as well as the changing voting patterns of sane people already living there. Those voters are steadily leaving the GOP, recoiling from the Republicans'”out-and-proud” racism, vaccine denial, and other cult-like behaviors.

The bad news, of course, is that when the GOP’s already-safe seats are “shored up,”  Republicans representing those deep-red districts have an increased incentive to go full MAGA. We aren’t likely to see fewer members of what has been dubbed “the lunatic caucus.”

Bottom line: It’s always more complicated than the pundits want to make it–but there are more rational Americans than MAGA crazies, so turnout is still the name of the game.



What’s Next?

I recently had a disquieting political discussion during an otherwise lovely lunch with my youngest son.

It probably won’t shock readers of this blog to learn that our children and grandchildren are pretty political…and I’m happy to report that they all have developed what I consider to be excellent values. The differences arise from our views of America’s probable future. One son has already moved to the Netherlands, a granddaughter lives in northern England, and this son–our youngest–expects that America’s descent into autocracy and White Supremacy will prompt his children to eventually relocate as well.

Our discussion wasn’t exactly an argument, but we had very different predictions about the likely political fallout when–not if, since we agreed it will happen– the Supreme Court eviscerates or overrules Roe v. Wade. I opined that their “victory” will lead to a reduction in the passion of the pro-fetal-life movement, and energize women who have previously felt protected by Roe. My son disagreed–he sees the anti-choice zealots taking their fervor to state legislatures and–thanks to gerrymandering–tightening their red state control.

I should mention that this son is a lawyer, and a very good one. He knows how to frame and present a convincing argument….Needless to say, I left lunch depressed.

A few days after that conversation, I was a guest on a podcast called Who Gets What–the brainchild of two longtime friends, Morton Marcus and John Guy. After the recording stopped, Morton and I were talking, and he made an observation that I found both fascinating and relevant to the consequences of a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Morton said he’d been looking for a truly objective, scholarly analysis of the multiple ways in which women’s “liberation”–the growth/emergence of women’s participation in all the “nooks and crannies” of society–has changed that society. As he noted, there’s been a lot written about the subject, but it’s mostly advocacy (pro and con), or focused on relatively small parts of the bigger picture. He’d found no analysis encompassing the truly monumental social changes triggered by the steady expansion of women’s participation in all parts of our society.

Morton’s observation is accurate, at least so far as I can tell–I’m unaware of any scholarship that addresses the entirety of the immense social changes that have occurred as a result of women’s emancipation from the confines of “barefoot and pregnant.”

However one defines the “women’s movement,” however, its power depends on reliable birth control.

Yes, we can look to history and find examples of powerful women; we can point to the suffrage movement and similar efforts to assert or enlarge women’s rights–but real change, I submit, came only with the ability of women to control our reproduction. Only then could we enter fully into workplaces (most of which no longer required brute strength), an entry that gave us another form of choice: the economic means to leave unsatisfactory marriages, or to renegotiate the terms of more agreeable ones.

There’s a reason the people who want to return the U.S. to the social structures of the 1950s are so focused on controlling women’s reproduction. (It isn’t just abortion; if you don’t believe birth control is next, I refer you to the Hobby Lobby case…)

The future of American democracy may well depend upon the extent to which American women understand the far broader implications of a loss of control over their reproductive lives. Yes, there are compelling medical, economic and psychological reasons to allow women to exercise the self-determination men take for granted. Yes, the arguments advanced by pro-fetal-life activists are inaccurate gaslighting. But if women lose control over their bodily integrity, they won’t just lose the momentum that has been building toward their full participation in American society, they’ll do a U turn.

Women’s equality will lose considerable–critical– ground.

I think that–deep down, if not consciously–activists on both sides of the issue understand that this fight is really between continuing inclusion of half the population in the life of the nation, or a return to some version of male social dominance. The question is whether the majority of non-activist women understand the actual nature of the debate, care about continuing their progress toward equal civic participation, and are sufficiently motivated to protect the hard-won improvements in women’s prospects and status.

What happens next–whether my son’s predictions or my own hopes prove accurate–ultimately depends on the answer to that question–and upon who wins those statehouses.

Electile Dysfunction

I have posted several times about the importance–the absolute necessity–of Congress passing the voting rights act. Among other important things this law would accomplish, it would do what the Supreme Court has shamefully refused to do–outlaw the gerrymandering that makes a mockery of democratic systems.

I am certainly not the only person advocating for passage of legislation that would  protect “one person, one vote.” Apparently, the message is less effective when delivered via textual arguments in columns or on blogs by people like yours truly–so when I saw this video, I knew I had to share it.

A favorite line: “passage may cause a Federal condition called accountability.”

Click through and enjoy, then pass it on!

Gerrymandering–One More Time

Can you stand one more diatribe about gerrymandering? I’m returning to the issue because states across the U.S. are busily engaged in the electoral “rigging” that Republicans claim to abhor…and because– unless the voting rights act passes– Congress will succeed in protecting the process into the future.

Talk about “voter fraud”–how about the process, beloved by the GOP, of defrauding literally millions of voters of meaningful participation in the selection of their representatives?

Here’s my last column for the Indiana Business Journal, where–for the umpteenth time–I tried to explain what is so very pernicious about the process, and why it is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.


With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.
Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced. (One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.