The logic of gerrymander, Part 2!


The role of those "wasted votes:" Last Friday, we offered a lesson in the logic of gerrymander. 

For better or worse, the logic of this hoary practice is often counterintuitive. Today, we offer Lesson 2. We'll take our reading from a new column by Michael Li in the Washington Post

Li says the current wave of gerrymandering is "deeply pernicious." That may be perfectly accurate. 

That said, consider this passage from his column. After that, consider one part of the relevant logic:

LI (1/10/22): To be sure, new maps might not significantly increase seats in the near term for Republicans (who already enjoy a large advantage as a result of aggressive gerrymanders of the 2010 maps). But the maps remain deeply pernicious gerrymanders—and, in many ways, are even worse than before. By shoring up last decade’s gerrymanders, line drawers have breathed new life into distorted maps and ensured that elections in 2022 and beyond will be skewed, uncompetitive and deeply biased against voters of color.

With a showdown on the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act coming this month, it has never been more urgent that Congress act. Just ask voters in North Carolina and Texas. Under the congressional map passed by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, Republicans could win 71 percent of the state’s congressional seats with only 48 percent of the statewide vote...

As he continues, Li describes a similar possibility based on the structure of the new congressional map in Texas. For today, let's consider that possible outcome in North Carolina—and as we do, let's consider the logic of gerrymander.

On its face, Li seems to be describing a state of affairs which makes no apparent sense. If Republicans win less than half of the statewide vote, how could they end up with 71 percent of North Carolina's House seats? (That is, with ten of the state's fourteen seats.)

As a basic point of fairness, that probably shouldn't happen. But let's consider the (very real) phenomenon of concentrated populations and attendant "wasted votes."

Imagine a very unusual state with ten congressional districts. In this very unusual state, there's no sign of any "gerrymandering." The ten districts are all compact, and they tend to be drawn along obvious geographical and jurisdictional lines.

No one has created any "gerrymandered" districts! But in this very unusual state, the electorate in four districts is 100% Democratic. In the other six districts, the electorate is 60% Republican.

Statewide, this means that the electorate would be 64% Democratic. But due to their concentration in those four districts, Dems would only end up with 40% of the seats—and that's before anything like "gerrymandering" has occurred!

There will never be so strange a state, but the point this illustrates is simple. Populations are rarely distributed in an even way across a state's various regions. And where certain areas—large urban centers, let's say—have especially heavy concentrations of voters from one party, "wasted votes" will occur, producing an unbalanced form of congressional representation.

At present, the nation's big cities tend to be heavily Democratic. This produces a lot of "wasted votes" in congressional races—and that's before anyone comes along and conducts any gerrymandering.

As in our previous lesson, the takeaway is this:

There's nothing in our congressional frameworks which guarantees a distribution of House seats that will, on the surface, be "fair." Gerrymandering can make a bad situation worse—but heavily Democratic populations in big cities are already tipping the scales against proportional representation between the two major parties.

In North Carolina, could Republicans win ten of 14 House seats while garnering just 48% of the statewide vote? In theory, of course they could! There's nothing in our congressional practices designed to stop such things from happening! 

Of course, the GOP would lose both Senate seats in North Carolina with 48% of the vote. Since Senate elections are conducted statewide, Senate seats aren't subject to gerrymander.

But could a party win more than its "fair share" of House seats, even without gerrymandering? As a matter of fact, yes it could—and nothing in our congressional system is designed to keep that from happening.

Fuller disclosure: Given the way our discourse works, these basic points, no matter how obvious, could basically never play a role in our public discussions.

Our discourse runs on the smoke-belching fuel known as the novelized tale. More on that point all week.


  1. Why waste so many pixels, dear Bob, to state the obvious: the natural habitat of liberal zombies, and especially the lumpenproletariat they patronize, tends to be large cities, where they dwell packed like sardines.

    Naturally, in a political system with electoral districts they are at a disadvantage.

    1. You can tell that American citizens crave "San Francisco values" by how much they are willing to spend on housing that is much cheaper in places where people with shitty values live.

    2. Why yes, liberals are dumb, that goes without saying. for the lumpenproletariat they patronize, those folks enjoy public housing.

    3. Everything Mao writes goes without saying.
      It's the height of bipartisanship to tell Mao to shut the fuck up.

  2. "liberals are dumb, that goes without saying."

    Meh. You say that about all the people who think black peoples votes should count in an election.

  3. In Mao's defense, the Establishment pays him big bucks to be an asshole on the internet.

  4. I get Bob's point, I don't quite understand why he made it. Basically, you can draw the lines as fair as you want, you still have to go out and challenge seats if you want more power.

    The math stuff is kind of hard for me overall, but if you describe creatively drawn districts my brain has something to attach the numbers to. So I am glad the Post included some of the history and an explanation of how gerrymandering is done. The Texas example was good.

  5. "The role of those "wasted votes:""

    I really dislike this phrase, which Somerby has also used to describe the Hillary and Biden voters, above and beyond the bare minimum needed to win the popular vote.

    No one in our democracy is a "wasted vote" because all votes are needed if someone is to win. If you start telling people their votes are "wasted," you might as well tell them to stay home and not bother to cast a vote, because there is no way to tell exactly whose vote was the necessary one to put the count over the top, and every voter will wonder whether it was worth the effort to be superfluous.

    So, I see Somerby's repetition of this phrase as a minor form of voter suppression, because (1) he is aiming it at liberals, and (2) its only impact can be to make some voters feel unnecessary, which will decrease their motivation to get out and vote.

    Who wants to suppress liberal votes (even the few of folks reading this blog)? Hint: not liberals.

    1. The scare quotes are in the original post. No need to clown so hard.

    2. You were perhaps not here when Somerby complained about all of Hillary's wasted votes, considering them to be non-people because they couldn't change the electoral college. Somerby means something specific with his "scare quotes" and it probably isn't what you think he means.

      Remember when Trump complained about all of Hillary's extra votes? He thought they were all the undocumented immigrants and Californians voting twice. Somerby doesn't think the strongly blue states are important (e.g., California and New York) since their votes go to waste. Never mind that actual people live there. Trump, of course, did as much as he could while president to punish those in the blue states.

    3. I get it. You're mad at Trump and you're taking it out on Bob. He was traumatizing to me too. But c'mon. Unpeople? Pick your battles dude.

    4. Somerby has been working hard to help Trump, even after he lost the election. He works hard to support other conservatives too. Look at his essay about Rittenhouse today. Somerby makes himself a target to the extent that he serves Trump's goals while pretending to be liberal. That makes him a fraud.

  6. Barney Frank once made a joke that, since he was usually running unopposed, the only votes he didn't get were the ones he lost through his own words and actions. It was a pleasure to go out into the Massachusetts snow and cast a vote for Barney.

  7. "There will never be so strange a state, but the point this illustrates is simple. "

    That is what the maps shown last week are about. Both Missouri and Maryland look like the hypothetical states Somerby describes. Missouri has only 3 blue districts, the ones containing the cities of Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis. All the rest contain small towns and rural areas and are red.

  8. "But could a party win more than its "fair share" of House seats, even without gerrymandering? As a matter of fact, yes it could—and nothing in our congressional system is designed to keep that from happening."

    That doesn't make it right, and it further doesn't mean that the more extreme gerrymandering is acceptable (since there is some unfairness already in the system). And why is there no discussion? Perhaps there is discussion of this and similar voting unfairness, in congress where it belongs, among those considering legislation like the voting rights bills that Somerby has still not talked about.

    Demographics are changing in our nation. As they change, the red states and red districts will no longer be able to play these games without tipping the scales even more in their favor. That is happening now and it will get worse. When it does, Democrats will be able to fight back against this kind of rigging the system. Meanwhile, Somerby wants to persuade us that this is just the way the system works, so why complain, why change it, why do anything about it at all, except shrug and accept that most Democratic votes are "wasted" because Democrats just don't count in our country.

    If Somerby we to think about votes as people, he might understand why his approach is wrong. Instead of accusing Democrats of not understanding that the Senate is 50/50 but Democrats still don't have a majority (even with Kamala). Somerby is today arguing that Republican minority rule is the natural order of things. That isn't how Democrats see it.

  9. "Given the way our discourse works, these basic points, no matter how obvious, could basically never play a role in our public discussions."

    People having discussions about an important topic do not typically spend a lot of time focusing on the obvious.

  10. This is the same argument Somerby clings to whenever someone wants to discuss desegregating the schools.

  11. I hate the basis of the whole argument which divides people into red and blue, like they are robots. Admittedly I have been mostly a yellow dog Democrat for years, but look at the facts. Is Missouri a solid red state? Then how did Claire McCaskill get elected twice? Why did Obama only lose by about 5,000 votes in 2008?

    When it comes to President, South Dakota almost always votes Republican. And yet, without any Gerrymandering George McGovern won 3 times and so did Thomas Daschle and Stephanie Herseth.

    Districts or states where one party has an advantage, even a large advantage CAN still be won.

    1. Thank you for this, I agree!

    2. McGovern won pre- CPAC.
      Right wing fever swamps despised the R candidates McCain and Romney so they stayed home. How did MO do when they had a real racist sonofabitch nasty muther to vote for, DJT? Oh baby, they turned out.

  12. I think Somerby could profitably read the book on misogyny by Kate Manne: "Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny." Manne is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University.

    In it, she talks about entitled men and the shame they feel when their expectations are not met. First she talks about Trump's desire to wall off immigrants in order to be free of their shaming gaze. "One no longer has to feel ashamed of turning away from those in need...There is equally if not more so a yen to stave off the shaming gaze of the elite liberal insider, who espouses antiracism, feminism, and forms of that most hated of credos, political can see something of what may have been incensing Trump's supporters, once ignited. Our acts are acts of political correction...

    "Whatever the case, those whose racism and misogyny we take it on ourselves to denounce can hardly be counted on to thank us for a moral epiphany that never arrives..."

    "I've heard the same theory now from several different journalists about the moment Trump decided to run for president. It was when President Obama humiliated him at the White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, by responding to Trump's laughably transparent as well as offensive demand that Obama produce his birth certificate...Obama magnanimously said in his speech he'd go one better: he'd release his birth video. He rolled a clip from the Lion King. The guests erupted in laughter. Except one guest apparently. He jutted out his chin, pursed his lips, and turned a deeper shade of orange...I wondered, is that really the face of shame?...But then I realized that Trump's was the face of shame turned inside out -- its exterior wall, as it were -- shame refused, with fury substituted, since he and his ilk are accustomed to being treated with the greatest respect on all occasions...

    Just as shame motivates Donald Trump, I believe it motivates Somerby as well. His reactions to Rachel Maddow and other female journalists, to anyone he considers inferior to himself but who is enjoying success Somerby has not attained, seem to cause ugly attacks here based on very little concretely wrong. Somerby calls for those he dislikes to be removed from their jobs (erased from his sight, to lessen his own shame, to prevent them from reminding him of his own inadequacies). He particularly dislikes those he feels are less entitled to the jobs they hold: gay men, women, young people with less experience. He has a nasty side that he exposes occasionally, often enough to wonder who he is speaking for when he warns liberals to stop being so moralistic, elitist, antiracist. Or what?


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