Why GOP Backs Gerrymander
Once leaders both parties' leaders opposed it. Why did Republicans change?
It is only natural that politicians of any political persuasion are tempted to rig the electoral process to create safe seats for their political party. The term gerrymander is almost as old as the American Republic. In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to favor his Democratic-Republican Party at the expense of the opposition Federalists. Gerry was immortalized when a Federalist newspaper printed a cartoon (shown below) showing one senate district as a salamander.
But if the instinct to gerrymander is bipartisan, so has been the opposition. Historically, Republicans, Democrats, and independents have all opposed the rigging of districts to favor one party or the other, as a threat to good government and democracy. That seems to have changed in the last decade.
The chart below shows the number of states in each decade with extreme gerrymandering, as measured by their efficiency gaps. To review, the efficiency gap measures the percent of wasted votes or the relative ease with which each party can translate votes into winning districts.
In the case of the US House, an extreme gerrymander is defined as one in which a party gets an extra two or more seats compared to a plan that does not favor either party. The solid red line shows the number of states with such gaps favoring Republican. Those favoring Democrats are shown with the solid blue line.
In the case of state houses, an efficiency gap over 8% in either direction was used as the cutoff. The dotted lines—red for Republicans and blue for Democrats—show the number of states with biased district maps using this measure.
It should be noted that this tabulation underestimates the number of states whose district plans were designed to favor one party or the other. The cutoffs were designed to identify only the most egregious violators of symmetry. For example, Wisconsin’s Act 43 was designed to give Republicans 5 out of 8 congressional seats, even in elections where Democrats won a majority of votes.
But the graph makes clear something has drastically changed: Historically, from 1970 through 2000 both parties were about equally guilty of gerrymandering. But following the 2010 census, gerrymandering by Republicans has dramatically increased.
Why? There are likely several factors behind this:
- Opportunity. 2010 was a very bad year for Democrats, driven by the Tea Party bubble, panic about Obamacare, and disappointment with the slow pace of economic recovery. It was also a very bad election for Democrats to lose since it determined who would control the redistricting process in most states. In his brief for the Wisconsin legislature, Paul Clement calls this a “minor miracle.”
- The “Republic is dying” syndrome. A view seems to have taken hold on much of the right, exemplified by an article published during the 2016 presidential campaign, titled the Flight 98 Election: If the republic is truly dying under Democratic administrations almost any action to stop them could be justified. Michael Anton, the then-anonymous author now turned Trump security adviser, argued:
… most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. … This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.
- Redefining nonpartisan issues as partisan. Opposition to gerrymandering is making the journey from nonpartisan to partisan. Other values that enjoyed bipartisan support in the past but are now dismissed as “liberal” include encouraging everyone to vote, protecting the environment, heading off global warming, and discouraging wealthy interests from buying elections. Even the studiously nonpartisan League of Women Voters is now attacked as “liberal.”
- Geographic advantage justifies all. In his original argument to the federal district court, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel appeared to blame Act 43’s partisan bias on the clustering of Democrats in cities. While Schimel drops the geographic advantage argument from his most recent brief, Paul Clement, in representing the state legislature, turns the meaning of “biased” on its head.
By instead measuring from a baseline of 0%, the court skewed the analysis in a way that inherently disadvantages Republicans. … Yet if Democrats controlled the state legislature, they could draw the most pro-Democratic plan possible—e.g., the demonstration plan the plaintiffs’ expert submitted in this case—without running afoul of the “efficiency gap” theory. If there really is a workable standard for partisan gerrymandering claims, surely it is not one that would allow only one political party to engage in the “lawful and common practice” of drawing district lines to secure party advantage. Indeed, the minimum threshold for any viable test for identifying partisan gerrymandering is that it should be equally opposed by partisan legislative majorities of both parties and equally welcomed by California Republicans and Utah Democrats. The fact that the district court had to resort to a theory with a built-in partisan bias is a sure sign that if a justiciable test for partisan gerrymandering is out there, it is not that one.
In essence, Clement’s murky language appears to dismiss a “demonstration plan,” designed to show that a redistricting plan that doesn’t favor either party could be designed without violating the traditional standards, as biased because it does not favor Republicans.
That support for gerrymandering has become part of the Republican agenda is evident from the sponsors of the amici briefs opposing the district court decision. All are affiliated with Republicans, either officially or in practice.
The Republican National Committee and the Republican Congressional Committee argue that geography should naturally favor their candidates. “Social science research confirms that the geographic distribution of Republican and Democratic voters results in more republican seats irrespective of partisan gerrymandering.” Ironically the research they reference is mainly from an author who has demonstrated that it is easy to generate plans that both do a better job of satisfying the traditional requirements and are less biased than is Act 43.
Another amici brief comes from 12 Republican states. Several of these are among the most gerrymandered.
In the past, both Republicans and Democrats mostly agreed that partisan gerrymandering was a bad thing. Its persistence despite this reflected each party’s reluctance to unilaterally disarm, yet it occurred at a moderate level. Since 2010 it has markedly increased, mostly by Republicans, and judging from the briefs in the Wisconsin case, they now enthusiastically endorse the gerrymander.
- 8 More Counties Plan Referendum on Gerrymandering - Matt Rothschild - Jun 29th, 2020
- Op Ed: Jensen Tries to Pre-Rig Redistricting - Matt Rothschild - Jun 9th, 2020
- WILL Wants WI Supreme Court to Take Redistricting Cases First - Shawn Johnson - Jun 4th, 2020
- Back in the News: Scott Walker Loses Again - Bruce Murphy - Apr 29th, 2020
- 51 of 72 Counties Now Back Fair Maps - Matt Rothschild - Apr 15th, 2020
- 23 Advisory Votes on Gerrymandering - Matt Rothschild - Mar 25th, 2020
- City Hall: Ballots Won’t Have Duplicate Gerrymandering Questions - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 27th, 2020
- Did Gerrymandering Kill Medicaid Expansion? - Erik Gunn - Feb 25th, 2020
- Data Wonk: The Republicans’ Gerrymander Scheme - Bruce Thompson - Feb 5th, 2020
- The State of Politics: Redistricting Fight Is One Year Away - Steven Walters - Feb 3rd, 2020
Read more about Gerrymandering of Legislative Districts here