Dangerous Redistricting

The year after the decadal census is always an interesting political one with many opportunities for mischief. The growth and redistribution of population necessitates the redrawing of Congressional districts. The party that controls a state legislature has an important chance to cleverly redraw Congressional districts for its own political advantage. By concentrating areas that strongly vote for the opposition party into a relatively few districts where the opposition party can win by large margins, a party can create a larger number of districts where they can win with more modest margins. The party in control of the state legislature can thus increase the likelihood of gaining seats for itself in their Congressional delegation.

Of course, the courts constrain the shape of the Congressional districts from getting too ridiculously far out of control. Nonetheless, Republicans have gained control of more state legislatures and stand to gain a few seats in Congress simply by virtue of redistricting. Some analysts have suggested that Republicans could add 10-15 seats this year.

However, in a less well-known way, Democrats and Republicans have conspired to draw districts that create greater Republican, yes Republican, representation in Congress. The key to understanding how this is possible lies in appreciating the conviction by many African-Americans that the best way for black candidates to win is by creating districts where blacks constitute a majority. Since blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats and whites tend to be more divided, any majority-black districts will likely vote heavily for Democrats. African-American Democrats insist that the Democratic Party help them create such majority-black districts. Unfortunately, Republicans are all too happy to oblige.

The indirect consequence is to thin out Democratic votes from neighboring adjacent districts. This improves the chances for Republicans in the remaining districts. Despite the fact that Democrats used to exercise greater influence in district drawing, Republicans have a disproportionate number of seats.

The effect can be seen in the relative proportion of votes Republicans receive versus the proportion of Congressional seats won. In 1998, the last election I was able to conveniently find the statistics for, Republicans won 31,983,627 popular votes versus 31,255,470 for the Democratic candidates in Congressional elections. In other words, Republicans won 50.58% of the votes casts versus 49.42% for Democrats.

However, in 1998 Republicans won 225 versus 210 Congressional seats. If Congressional seats were won in proportion to the popular vote, Republicans would have five fewer seats. If you go through the numbers, this is far more deviation than could be explained by statistical fluctuation. The districts are drawn to both give Republicans and black Democrats more seats.

The concentration of Democratic voters in fewer districts is even more obvious in uncontested elections. There were 96 uncontested Congressional elections in 1998 and 60% of these were in Democratic districts. Democrats, in essence, squandered their votes in places were they did not really need to win by such large majorities. Florida represented a particularly egregious case. In 1998, 16 of 21 Congressional races were uncontested.

The other unintended consequence of this redistricting is that the parties become more polarized. When many Congressional districts are competitive, representatives are forced to be more moderate and to accommodate factions within their own district. When districts are either strongly Republican or strongly Democratic, extremes in both parties hold more sway. Moreover, this process insures black representatives will almost always be Democrats. This is unhealthy, unhealthy for both Republicans and African Americans.

Given Republican control of state legislatures and the continual insistence by Democrats on majority black districts, Republican chances to hold a very split Congress should improve. However, not everything that helps Republicans is a good thing.

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