Redistricting season is upon us again. Politicians and interest groups are pouring over proposed and finalized maps, and pundits are trying to keep score. How many seats will the Democrats pick up in California? How many will they lose in Missouri?
More important than score-keeping, however, is whether the composition of the legislature reflects the partisanship of the electorate. Will a party that wins 50 percent of the votes get 50 percent of the seats? In most states the answer is no. Republicans can expect a sizable advantage, and not because of gerrymandering.
Consider the recently adopted districting plans in two of the states most hotly contested in the 2008 presidential election: Indiana and Missouri. In Indiana, if we overlay the new plan on precinct-level election returns, we find that Obama would have obtained a majority in only two of nine congressional districts (representing Indianapolis and Gary), in spite of winning the statewide vote. In Missouri, Obama would have won only two of eight districts (representing St. Louis and Kansas City) with almost half of the statewide vote.
In many large industrial states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where presidential and statewide elections are extremely close, a similar pattern emerges. Despite being home to roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, Republicans hold comfortable majorities in Congressional delegations and state legislatures.
Why? To frustrated Democrats, the answer seems obvious: Republicans drew favorable maps that packed Democrats into a few urban districts. GOP Congressional gains are a product of timely victories in state legislatures prior to redistricting. Moreover, Republican efforts to “pack” Democrats into homogeneous districts are enhanced by the efforts of minority-representation advocates who often join forces with Republican cartographers.
For many Democratic activists, the solution, too, seems obvious: take redistricting power away from legislators and give it to independent agencies required to draw natural districts that do not favor any party or racial group.
But Republican cartographers and minority advocates are only a small part of the problem in many states. The larger problem is the enduring legacy of American industrial development, which distributes Democratic voters in a way that is highly inefficient for Democratic candidates.