The Causes and Consequences of Gerrymandering

By Stephanopoulos, Nicholas O. | William and Mary Law Review, April 2018 | Go to article overview

The Causes and Consequences of Gerrymandering


Stephanopoulos, Nicholas O., William and Mary Law Review


TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION                       2117   I. HYPOTHESES                    2120  II. DATA AND METHODS              2128 III. RESULTS                       2131      A. Main Analysis              2131      B. Nearest-Neighbor Matching  2134      C. Interactive Analysis       2136      D. Representational Analysis  2140  IV. IMPLICATIONS                  2143 CONCLUSION                         2148 APPENDIX                           2150 

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, some of the most important questions about partisan gerrymandering have been answered. How should we measure the extent to which a district plan benefits (or disadvantages) a party? Scholars have introduced metrics, like the efficiency gap (1) and partisan bias, (2) that are easy to calculate and so intuitive that courts have begun relying on them. (3) What does the distribution of plans' partisan fairness look like? Based on historical data spanning several decades, the distribution is centered on zero (or no edge for either party) and normal in shape. (4) And how have plans' partisan skews changed over time? In earlier periods, maps tended to assist Democrats, while over the last couple decades, they have tilted ever further in a Republican direction. (5)

Despite this progress, there is still much that we do not know, especially about the causes and consequences of partisan gerrymandering. By causes I mean all of the factors that may affect a district plan's partisan fairness. One set of these factors relates to the institution responsible for redistricting. We might hypothesize (in the absence of reliable evidence) that when a party has full control of the line-drawing process, the resulting map is usually skewed in its favor. Conversely, we might expect that when control of the state government is divided--or when a commission or court crafts the boundaries--the ensuing plan is comparatively neutral.

A second set of factors involves minority representation. A common argument is that Republicans profit as more districts are drawn in which minority voters are able to elect their preferred candidates. The logic is that these districts tend to elect Democratic candidates by overwhelming margins. The districts therefore waste large numbers of Democratic votes, enabling Republican candidates to win more of a plan's remaining seats.

A final concept that is often linked to partisan fairness is political geography. Here the typical claim is that Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in urban areas while Republican voters are more efficiently distributed in suburban, exurban, and rural regions. Accordingly, Democrats are "naturally" packed in a small number of districts, allowing Republicans to win more seats (by slimmer margins) thanks to their superior spatial allocation.

Turning to the consequences of partisan gerrymandering, the most salient is how legislators represent their constituents. The voting records of Democratic and Republican legislators, of course, are almost always different. Most Democrats take more liberal positions while most Republicans adopt more conservative stances. (6) A reasonable hypothesis, then, is that as a district plan skews further in a Democratic (Republican) direction, the ideological midpoint of the legislature becomes more liberal (conservative)--even keeping constant the preferences of the electorate. Electing more of a party's members for the same share of the statewide vote may be expected to yield ideological dividends.

These causes and consequences, it is worth emphasizing, are of more than academic interest. If contemporary maps tend to benefit Republicans, for instance, but this edge is due to compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) or the country's political geography, then there may be little that can or should be done about the imbalance. On the other hand, if Republicans owe much of their advantage to control of the mapmaking process, then the case for intervention, judicial or political, becomes stronger. …

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