On Gerrymandering

This past Saturday, Dr. Samuel Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, published an op-ed piece that captured the attention of many Beltway insiders. In the article, Wang argued at length that the Republican Party doesn’t truly deserve to control the House of Representatives–and not simply because of incompetence.

Dr. Wang notes that Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans still managed to keep control of the House. That’s a counterintuitive result, and it almost makes a mockery of our democracy. Moreover, it casts doubt on some scholars’ and intellectuals’ argument that today’s political gridlock as something desired by the American people. In November, we spoke as an entire nation, and we asked for a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic Presidency. Yet we got stuck with both an intransigent Republican House whose Speaker can’t maintain control and an overused filibuster that has paralyzed the Senate.

How did this current state of democracy come to pass? Wang believes he has “strong evidence that this historic aberration arises from partisan disenfranchisement.” In other words, the culprit is gerrymandering, the process whereby one party creatively redraws geographic and electoral boundaries in order to create partisan political advantages.

Republicans in 2010, under the leadership of the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent tens of millions of dollars electing conservative Republicans to state offices in order to give themselves “greater control of the congressional redistricting process after the 2010 Census.”

It’s a plausible story with a typical plotline: noble but naive Democrats, slimy Republicans, and the trumping of policy by politics. To put the icing on the cake, there’s even a great quote by political strategist quasi-Dark-Lord Karl Rove: “Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats.”

Dr. Wang adds weight to his explanation by mentioning some egregious examples of our democracy (not) at work: “In North Carolina, where the two-party House vote was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican, the average simulated delegation was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The actual outcome? Four Democrats, nine Republicans—a split that occurred in less than 1 percent of simulations.”


Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were all states where Democrats in 2012 won more than half the popular vote yet less than half of the congressional seats. Wang argues that while Democrats do also gerrymander–Illinois is a prime example–Republicans seem to do it more often. Wang notes that California, a state where 62% of the voters swing Democrat, is a remarkable exception precisely because its Congressional delegation matches its general constituency: the state sent 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans to DC.

Explaining away 2012 losses as the result of excessive gerrymandering is a tempting argument, as well as an alluring and logical one for Democrats still reeling from their November disappointment. Angry Democrats and other disaffected voters can complain about gerrymandering all they want; they can yell that gerrymandering is an insult to voters and an insult to democracy. At the end of the day, however, gerrymandering remains a fundamental aspect of our political system. Statehouse work may not be as glamorous as beltway politics, but Democrats would do well to remember state-level politics remain essential to running the national business.

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