Neil Buchanan: Is Gerrymandering a Mirage?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Can anything be done to make congressional and state legislative races more competitive?

The Supreme Court has taken on a case from Wisconsin that could meaningfully limit partisan gerrymandering. Depending on Justice Kennedy's vote, that case could change the way districts are drawn, which in turn could radically alter the results of American elections.

I will surely have more to say about that case in future columns, especially the proposed formula for identifying impermissible partisanship that the plaintiffs would like the Supreme Court to endorse. Before going there, however, it is first worth asking whether gerrymandering is as important as people like me think it is.

After all, if Republicans' recent lock on the House of Representatives and state legislatures is not a result of gerrymandering (and voter suppression, which is obviously the key part of Republicans' strategy), an awful lot of effort on Democrats' part is going to be misdirected.

While it seems rather obvious that Republicans have used redistricting to their partisan advantage—indeed, they acknowledge it and brag about it—there is a body of work that claims that this is somehow a mirage, or at least that gerrymandering is not the big deal that some people think it is.

Indeed, when John Oliver did one of his deep dives into this issue a few months ago on his "Last Week Tonight " show on HBO, he deliberately undermined the piece toward the end by citing research showing that Democrats have done this to themselves.

GettyImages-155668818 A voter casts her ballot on November 6, 2012 in Mansfield, Texas. Tom Pennington/Getty

The idea is apparently that Democrats have packed themselves into cities, which has made it impossible for congressional and state legislative districts to be anything but Republican-leaning overall, because non-urban areas are now left to Republican dominance.

This "geographic clustering" idea has some logical appeal. For example, two RAND scholars recently wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post describing their research into the causes of increased political polarization. Drawing from the 2008 book The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, they wrote:

Bishop believed that beginning in the 1970s, Americans began clustering into communities with similar values and lifestyle preferences. He argued that this clustering had political consequences because individuals who share values and lifestyle preferences tend to share political preferences as well.

Bishop speculated that these changes might have contributed to growing polarization in Congress, with like-minded communities tending to elect like-minded representatives.

So far, so good. The op-ed, however, later goes on to announce:

One factor we were able to rule out is gerrymandering – the process of manipulating congressional district lines to benefit whichever party is in power. We found similar clustering at the county level, suggesting that the clustering in congressional districts was not due to the redrawing of district boundaries.

The idea, then, would apparently be that Republicans have not done anything to pack liberals into districts. We did it to ourselves.

But that is not actually what the research says— indeed, that is not even the question that this research is trying to answer. The issue of polarization is distinct from the issue of partisan gerrymandering, and this research simply asks how it is that politicians have become less willing to engage in bipartisan compromise. The answer is that their constituents are more like-minded than they used to be.

In other words, we are apparently supposed to picture districts that were drawn for nonpartisan reasons but that became ever more partisan because of people's decisions about where to live. The result of a non-gerrymandered system with clustering would be "safe seats" that allow politicians to be more partisan.

But the result of a gerrymandered system, with or without clustering, would be the same. You can, in any case, redraw districts for partisan reasons even while geographic clustering is also happening.

Here is one way to think about this issue: It would be a rather astonishing situation if political tacticians spent as much time and effort as they do on drawing district lines if doing so had no payoff.

That is not to say that politicians are fully rational or that groupthink cannot cause politicians to deny all evidence and logic. Thinking about the Republicans' debt ceiling insanity, or their response to the Sandy Hook massacre, or any of a number of other issues, quickly disproves the idea that politicians are incapable of making persistent errors. But it is, at the very least, difficult to understand why politicians would be systematically wrong about political tactics.

In any case, given that clustering is a relatively slow process, we should see these changes happening slowly. Yet what we have seen instead is that states with Republican legislatures— most prominently Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina— have in recent years successfully shifted the partisan composition of their congressional delegations in very short order.

In North Carolina, for example, the redistricting following the 2010 census was tested in the 2012 elections— hardly a big year for Republicans, even though Mitt Romney did win back the state after John McCain lost it in 2008. Due to that election, the state's congressional split changed from 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans to 4 Democrats and 9 Republicans, with Republicans knocking off another Democrat in the following election, leading to the current 3-10 split.

In fact, after North Carolina was recently found to have used impermissible racial factors in drawing two congressional districts (a ruling later affirmed by the Supreme Court), the Republicans in the state legislature announced a plan to redraw the state's districts. The problem?

But one thing would not change. According to voting statistics released for the proposed districts, three would strongly favor a Democrat, while the other 10 lean Republican. GOP lawmakers say they want to keep the existing 10-3 partisan split.

So in a state with a relatively even split of Democrats and Republicans, in which Republicans had successfully gerrymandered a shift of four out of 13 congressional seats, the state's Republicans responded to a required re-redistricting by openly reaffirming their commitment to partisan advantage.

But is the Democrats' insistence on living in cities nonetheless part of the problem?

To put it differently, does the liberal preference for city living make it impossible to unpack districts into something competitive, even if the districts were to be drawn by nonpartisans who wanted districts not to create partisan advantage?

It is hard to see how. Imagine a state with one large city filled with Democrats, while the rest of the state has nothing but Republicans. The overall partisan split among voters is 50-50, and the state has ten districts. Under what we could call Plan A, it is not difficult to see how to draw districts so that we would end up with five safe seats for each party.

But if one wanted to create competitive districts, all that would be necessary would be to go to Plan B, in which the city is sliced like a pie and its ten slices are joined with ten (geographically larger) non-urban slices of the state. This would create nothing but competitive districts.

If one draws the districts under Plan A, one creates highly polarized districts with safe seats. Plan B results in non-polarized districts with competitive seats.

Geographic clustering does not make Plan A inevitable, even with the (rather loose) requirements of contiguity and compactness. Plan B, after all, need not be achieved by drawing the infamous "ink-blot" districts. In a square state with the blue city in the middle, the district map would merely look like a squared pizza that had been cut into ten equally-sized slices.

Neither Plan A nor Plan B is necessarily more small-d democratic. And it is a separate question entirely whether a state in which one party has, say, a 60-40 advantage among voters "should" send six people to Congress from one party and four from the other.

The point is that congressional districts can easily be drawn to be competitive, even if Democrats are clustered into cities. Indeed, in the example that I described above, the voodoo of gerrymandering is required to get something other than a 5-5 partisan split (at least as a matter of probability, in the case of Plan B). With gerrymandering, in fact, a guaranteed 9-1 split is possible.

It is true that "grass-roots partisan mobilization can overcome gerrymandering," as Julian Zelizer recently reminded us. But that is very different from saying: "Gee, we really wanted not to have a Republican-friendly map, but Democrats' housing choices forced our hand!"

There are plenty of difficult questions in creating legislative districts, but this is not one of them.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University . He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.