TUESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2022
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.
Our discourse runs on the smoke-belching fuel known as the novelized tale. More on that point all week.